Remember when UVa. basketball meant something?

It’s been a long, long time since Virginia basketball was relevant. But remember those days? When UVa. was 50-2 at home during the Ralph Sampson era? When Final Fours seemed a distinct possibility every November, and if the ‘Hoos didn’t win a game or two in March Madness something seemed wrong with the world?

As the world turns, March 1995 was the day the music died. Virginia had a lead late in a regional final with Arkansas before bowing in their Elite Eight matchup, and the recruiting class from that second stop at the door of the Final Four in seven years, ranked #2 nationally by one scouting service, ended up matriculating elsewhere, with legal issues forcing four of the five (most prominently Melvin Whitaker, who ended up serving time in prison) into permanent off-Grounds housing before they could ever walk The Lawn.

A run of two losing seasons in the next three years sent their coach, Jeff Jones, out the door with them, in what looks now from the perspective of 11 years time having elapsed to have been a rash decision.

Sure, Virginia had been to 12 NCAA Tournaments in 15 years spanning the end of the Terry Holland era and the first five seasons of the Jeff Jones era before the troubles began, rendering those two sub-.500 seasons unacceptable to the fan and alum base given the recent history. But look at what we’ve had since – a run of 11 seasons with two, count ’em, two NCAA appearances, one NCAA win, in 2007, and attendance in the 3-year-old John Paul Jones Arena at about two-thirds capacity on average for the 2008-2009 season.

We’re (and I can say we’re, as a 1994 alum) pretty much in the same place as we were back before we hired Dave Leitao to replace Pete Gillen in 2005. Well, except that back then we were only looking forward to JPJ, which the various coaches and TV analysts that I talk with regularly tell me is the nicest arena in college basketball today. We now know what we have in JPJ, though I’m afraid that we’ve already failed in one key respect in not establishing a winning tradition in the new arena from year one. We’re another bad coach away from JPJ being a $200 million waste of money and time and effort, which means it’s incumbent that we get this one right.

I was saying this four years ago, of course, looking ahead to the opportunity the first coach in JPJ would have to build a winner in the Taj Mahal of the ACC.

I wish I had the surefire right answer to this one, but I don’t. Tubby Smith – too old, and a tad overrated. Jeff Capel – no way we could lure him to make a lateral-at-best move from Oklahoma. Sean Miller – do we really want another Xavier coach after Gillen? Anthony Grant – he’s won in the CAA, but the CAA is a million miles away from the ACC.

Good luck, Mr. Littlepage. You’re bound to get this wrong any way you go, but you probably knew that already.


Column by Chris Graham

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