Focus | The next UVa. football coach

 
Column by Chris Graham
freepress2@ntelos.net

Before we get to the next UVa. football coach topic, I have a commentary on a point raised in Daily Progress sports editor Jerry Ratcliffe’s column on the sacking of Al Groh.

Ratcliffe wrote that it was “bush league” for the athletics department to have informed the news media of Groh’s dismissal before he could talk to his assistant coaches, most of whom ended up being jettisoned with him.

Maybe I’m more tied into what’s actually going on than the rest of the media, but I was first informed of the pending Sunday early-afternoon news regarding Groh’s dismissal on Thursday.

The information I received to that effect was specific enough to include the recommendation that I keep the 1 p.m. Sunday hour free in the event that the release of the information was to be done by news conference.

In the end, the information was sent out as a news release around 1:30 p.m. Sunday.

The odd poem reading-with-family photo-op that ended Groh’s Virginia Tech postgame press conference Saturday evening tells us that Groh had been let in on what was going to happen on Sunday.

The implication, thus, that the school acted in a “bush league” manner relative to how things went down is shameful spinmeistering, but not surprising, considering the source.

 

Moving on

I’ve been among those critical of Craig Littlepage for the troubles in the revenue sports at UVa., but after talking things over with fellow alums this weekend have come to a more enlightened view.

The point was made to me that Littlepage has a pretty good track record on hires on which he made the primary call – to name the two best-known examples, baseball coach Brian O’Connor, and new men’s basketball coach Tony Bennett.

Former men’s hoops coach Pete Gillen was pre-Littlepage. His successor and Bennett predecessor Dave Leitao is widely thought to have been the call of UVa. President John Casteen, who is also credited/blamed with the hiring of Groh and the move to upgrade and extend Groh’s contract in 2004 on the basis of three (in retrospect) relatively mediocre seasons.

The O’Connor and Bennett hires give us a model for what a Littlepage-led football-coach search might look like. Both are young, cerebral, considered up-and-comers at the time of their hires, and are looked at as players’ coaches, to borrow from the sports vernacular.

In short, they’re the 2000s versions of Terry Holland and George Welsh. The fans and alums wanted to see Littlepage in particular make a splash with the new basketball coach, with interest focusing on big names like Minnesota’s Tubby Smith and Oklahoma’s Jeff Capel. The Bennett hire raised eyebrows among those who didn’t react to the news by saying, Who?, and it’s still way, way too early to judge whether or not Bennett will get the job done long-term, but the early returns seem promising.

With recent history as a guide, then, I think you can throw out the big names. Sorry, Tommy Tuberville, Jim Grobe, Insert Name of Supposedly Hot But Soon-To-Be Recently Fired NFL Coach Here, thanks for your interest, but we’re going in a different direction.

I think we can ultimately rule out Mike London using the O’Connor/Bennett rule. The jury is still out on what London, 49, the two-year head coach at I-AA Richmond, can do with his own guys, and while O’Connor came to UVa. baseball from an assistant job at Notre Dame, he was known as a recruiter in South Bend; and Bennett, while only at the helm at Washington State for three years before being hired at UVa., had been on his father Dick Bennett’s staff prior to taking over, and thus could be seen as having more of a hand in his success as a head coach than you’d think otherwise based on thin his head-coaching resume.

London’s resume includes mention of how he served as Groh’s recruiting coordinator from 2002-2004. Those kids would have formed the nucleus of teams from 2005 on, a period that saw Virginia compile a 29-32 record.

Chris Petersen, 45, and in his fourth year at Boise State (where his teams have gone an otherworldly 47-4 in his time as head coach), may be a good fit to the model, though it’s hard to figure why Petersen would leave the blue field at Boise for more money and more problems at UVa.

Derek Dooley, 40, a 1990 UVa. alum and the third-year head coach at Louisiana Tech, is another possibility based on the modeling, but I think the issue raised with London about winning with his guys (Tech is 3-8 this year in Dooley’s third season) could apply here.

Al Golden, 40, has proven (this year, anyway) that you can win at Temple (9-3 in 2009), and he’s doing it with “his guys” (Golden is in his fourth year at Temple). Like London, he has ties to the UVa. program; unlike London, his ties aren’t recent enough that allow one to say that he was a contributor to the downfall of the Groh regime. Golden was also part of the staff when George Welsh was in town, a plus, and at Temple has built his success by recruiting Pennsylvania and New Jersey, which used to be a pipeline of talent for UVa. teams under Welsh.

The current Air Force coach, Troy Calhoun, 43, is the most intriguing possibility to me. Calhoun has turned the Air Force program around in his three years at the helm, improving from 4-8 in 2006 to 9-4 in his first year in 2007, with experience as an assistant in the NFL and at Wake Forest in the ACC. Another plus: His time at Air Force, like Welsh’s at Navy, has him used to the rigors of recruiting in a tough academic environment.

I’d rank Calhoun a strong top choice and do what I could to get him to Charlottesville, personally. That’s assuming Petersen wouldn’t be available.

If Petersen would be available … I dunno.

That’s why they pay Littlepage the big bucks. There’s my official answer on that.

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