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Virginia needs a football coach: Breaking down the job, and the top candidates

uva football entrance
Photo courtesy UVA Athletics.

Bronco Mendenhall is stepping down as the Virginia football coach after the bowl game. Signing day is 13 days away. The transfer portal is milliseconds away.

AD Carla Williams has an impossible job: she needs to find the best candidate for the long term, and she needs to have that man in place right now, if not sooner.

The Athletic is listing the UVA job as the second-best one on the board, to Oklahoma, so it’s a distant second, but that’s OK, because the candidates for a job like Oklahoma aren’t in the same stratosphere as a job like Virginia.

Which is to say, no, we’re not getting a big-time Power 5 coach to up and pack his bags for Charlottesville.

The last three hires here are an unaccomplished first-year NFL coach with UVA ties (Al Groh), a second-year FCS coach with ties to the previous regime (Mike London), and the coach at an independent program who came (and went) as a total surprise (Mendenhall).

This time around, our sights are likely going to be directed similarly, either at a guy with UVA ties or someone from a Group of 5 or FCS school.

A lot will be discussed among the fan base as to the best course being either a guy with head-coaching experience at a lower level, like was done the past couple of times, or a guy who lacks head-coaching experience, but has experience as a coordinator at a Power 5 school.

It’s six of one or half-dozen of the other, really.

A head coach at a Group of 5 or FCS school has experience as a head coach, sure, but does he have any idea of what to do with a big budget, and big expectations?

Flip side, the Power 5 coordinator has a feel for the pressure of the game at the top level, but is it safe to assume that the experience will translate when he moves under the big headset?

The situation

Virginia has, according to Mendenhall and Williams themselves, the worst facilities of any football program in the ACC. They said as much in a talk with the Board of Visitors in the summer. There are plans in the works for a $65 million football operations center, but the fundraising stalled during the pandemic, and the hire, and how he’s received, will go a long way to determining if ground gets broken anytime soon.

The other major disadvantage to the job: it’s tough to recruit to a school with high admissions standards. Even Groh, an alum, struck out a few times with high-profile recruits who couldn’t get past the folks in admissions.

Then, there’s the apathetic fan base. UVA averaged 42,439 fans per game in the 61,500-seat Scott Stadium in 2021, and couldn’t even break 50,000 with Notre Dame in town last month. Even in the Coastal Division championship year in 2019, there were just under 14,000 empties per home game in Scott Stadium.

So, worst facilities in the conference, it’s hard to get kids admitted, even if you win, people don’t come.

Oh, and one other drawback to the job: since George Welsh retired in 2000, the program has gone 122-137 over the past 21 seasons, with just three winning seasons since 2007.

Holy crap, is that right? I need to go back and double-check that.

Damn, it is. London had one, in 2011 (8-5), and Mendenhall had two, in 2018 (8-5) and 2019 (9-5).

Scanning now for the advantages to taking this job: hmmm.

If you can win here, you can win anywhere. Is that an advantage?

The candidates

This list, obviously, is as unofficial as it can be. The folks in the know don’t tell serfs like me what they know.

In no particular order, let’s start with Anthony Poindexter, if for no other reason because my colleague, Jerry Ratcliffe, the dean of the UVA sports media, just wrote a column giving Dex his unqualified endorsement.

Poindexter is the current defensive coordinator at Penn State, a job that he shared with the new Virginia Tech coach, Brent Pry.

Wouldn’t that be hilarious, for our rivalry to be a matchup of two former Penn State assistants?

Dex would be a popular choice for the fan base and among UVA football alums. His ascent to the job might open up the checkbooks of recalcitrant big-money donors to get that ops center project moving.

I’d assume that Dex would also get Virginia competitive recruiting-wise in Virginia again.

Next on the list would be Bill O’Brien, another guy with Penn State ties – O’Brien replaced Joe Paterno after the Jerry Sandusky scandal, and led the Nittany Lions to a 15-9 record in two seasons before taking the head job with the Houston Texans in the NFL.

O’Brien is currently the offensive coordinator at Alabama, and was rumored to be on the short list at Virginia Tech before AD Whit Babcock settled on Pry.

He’s actually tops on my list because I remember telling my wife, Crystal, a Tech alum, that he was the guy that I didn’t want to see get the Tech job, because of his Power 5 and NFL head-coaching experience.

I believe my exact words were, “Bill O’Brien is the guy they could hire who scares me.”

You have to remember, the job of head coach at the college level is not X’s and O’s, but CEO. It’s all about being able to hire a good staff, get them out recruiting, then make the important calls about going for it on fourth down inside your own 20 and not throwing the ball to the offensive tackle in the red zone on game day.

Might be just me, but I view O’Brien, with his experience at Penn State, Alabama and the NFL, as the most qualified to get a competitive staff together, and get the program moving forward.

Coastal Carolina coach Jamey Chadwell’s name keeps coming up for open jobs. I’m not so keen on him for Virginia, and I’m the same on Curt Cignetti, the current head coach at JMU, an FCS program that will soon be making the move to FBS with the Dukes set to join Conference USA.

Yes, they’ve had success as head coaches, but … not at this level. It’s not fair to them, but the experience with Mike London, who never did get out of the deer-in-headlights phase in his six years at Virginia, soured me on taking a rider on a guy from down below.

One name that I hadn’t thought of listed in The Athletic story is Texas A&M defensive coordinator Mike Elko. The Aggies are ranked fourth in the nation in scoring defense in 2021. Defense has been the hindrance for some pretty good offenses at Virginia the past three years, so getting a guy like Elko would address that. Plus, he has experience in the region – his previous coaching stops included stints at Richmond and Wake Forest.

It’s taken me an hour to write this story, which means we’re an hour closer to signing day, and who knows, maybe I’ll check the transfer portal and see some familiar names there.

Time, obviously, is of the essence here.

Oh, and of course, we need to get the right guy.

Maybe that’s why Carla wasn’t at the basketball game the other night …

Story by Chris Graham


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