Craig Littlepage: Winning not important with UVA football

UVaHelmet_1UVA athletics director Craig Littlepage may lose the last few supporters he has with his perspective on the importance of wins and losses with his department’s signature program.

Unless, that is, he and football coach Mike London are willing to go along with a radical idea that could make their preferred focus on education and development of student-athletes at the expense of wins and losses on the football field make some sense.

More on that in a moment.

“Sometimes we look at the bottom line,” Littlepage told Daily Progress sports editor Jerry Ratcliffe for a story published today (Dec. 9). “This is college athletics, not the pros. Winning isn’t enough here at Virginia. That doesn’t make us better, it makes us maybe a little different in some regards. There is an importance that winning has its place, but all of these things have to be taken in a proper context.”

And that context would be? That’s a question that critics of the direction of the Virginia football program want answered. A D3 coach making $75,000 a year to coach football, teach a weight-training class and make sure the multipurpose field is mowed in the summer can rack up four losing seasons in five years and not avoid the hot seat.

London was widely assumed to be on one of the hotter seats in the Power 5 conferences heading into the 2014 season on the heels of a disastrous 2013 that saw UVA finish 2-10, drop its last nine and be outscored by its opponents by an average of 21.8 points per game.

After a 4-2 start that sent the Cavs into their first bye week atop the Coastal Division standings, Virginia would win just once more down the stretch, in Week 11 at home against Miami. UVA was competitive in all but one of its 12 games, a 35-10 loss to eventual Coastal champ Georgia Tech, and after the Miami win a few observers, including this one, opined that London had saved his job, and Littlepage confirmed that two days before the regular-season finale at Virginia Tech.

But it wasn’t the result in the Miami game that saved London, according to what Littlepage told Ratcliffe.

“No one factor was going to be the one that was the tipping point, and no one game was going to be the tipping point,” Littlepage said. “I felt very good going into the last three or four games of the season. These guys and our coaching staff competed every game and stayed together throughout.”

All you can say to this is, Wow, this guy seems out of touch with any sense of reality. Michigan fired Brady Hoke after a four-year run that had his Wolverines team go 31-20. Nebraska fired Bo Pelini after seven seasons in which his Cornhuskers teams went 67-27, including 9-3 this season. Florida let Will Muschamp go after a 28-21 record in four years.

London’s UVA teams are 23-38 in five years. The Cavs averaged 39,320 fans for its seven home games in 2014, more than 22,000 under the official 61,500 capacity and more than 25,000 below what UVA can realistically fit into the stadium (the attendance record at Scott, set in 2008 for a home tilt with Southern Cal, is 64,947).

And Craig Littlepage doesn’t care.

“College sports is unlike the pros,” Littlepage said. “Our No. 1 goal has to be the education and the development of the student-athlete from their academics to their social and athletic skills. They have to be able to embrace education and must foster an environment that they graduate. It’s total development in what these guys do in the classroom and in the community.”

That’s an admirable stance, to be sure, but if London’s number one job is the education and development of student-athletes, he probably should be paid less like a major I-A football coach and more like a tenured professor.

The average salary for a full professor at UVA in 2013 was $143,200. London brings in $2.4 million annually, about 17 times what the average professor focused on the education and development of students at the University of Virginia count as take-home.

So there’s my radical idea. Claw back the big bucks from London, to let him continue to be more focused on developing young men than winning football games without the pressure from a fan base that still seems to think that what George Welsh was able to do in the 1980s and 1990s, you know, developing fine young men and winning football games, is still somehow possible in this day and age.

Or maybe we tie Littlepage to the hot seat with London. Which would seem to be hard to do, with the rest of the UVA athletics program doing so well, finishing fourth in last year’s Director’s Cup, and on its way to a similar finish in 2015, with both soccer teams in the College Cup, basketball in the Top 5 nationally, and baseball a perennial national-title contender, among others.

Or maybe that’s his insulation on football, or maybe he thinks that his insulation on football, anyway. The rest of the program being what it is, the fan base has had it with football, as if that needs to be said, with attendance at historically low levels in 2014.

The 2015 season doesn’t promise to be any easier, with the opener on the road at UCLA, followed by home games with Notre Dame and Boise State sandwiched around the only breather, a Week 3 contest at home against William and Mary.

If you’re a diehard, you may be distressed to hear that Littlepage doesn’t consider London to be on any hot seat heading into 2015.

“I wouldn’t categorize it as a short leash or a make-or-break year [in ’15], but I know Mike wants to win. This coaching staff wants to win. These players want to win. This athletic director wants to win,” Littlepage said. “The won-lost record, everybody would agree has to be at a higher level. There’s no doubt about that.”

Read that as, When football season rolls around, what that really means is that the start of basketball practice is but five weeks away, and that will help you get through.

– Column by Chris Graham

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