Good man, but maybe not right man for Vir­ginia

The Washington Times Daily - - Weather -

This is a dif­fi­cult col­umn to write. It isn’t be­cause the sub­ject is par­tic­u­larly sen­si­tive or the opin­ion over the top or com­bat­ive. It’s be­cause I’ve bro­ken one of the car­di­nal rules of jour­nal­ism and it is now com­ing back to bite me.

We learn early in this busi­ness not to get close to the sub­jects we cover. The na­ture of our jobs puts us at cross pur­poses pretty of­ten and you never know when you might have to re­port or write some­thing that isn’t too com­pli­men­tary.

But if you get to know Mike Lon­don at all, it is al­most im­pos­si­ble not to form a very fa­vor­able opin­ion. Over many years, I have come to know Lon­don, cur­rently the head foot­ball coach at the Univer­sity of Vir­ginia, and my opin­ion of him could not be higher.

We’re not bud­dies. We’ve never had a meal to­gether or even a drink. Our re­la­tion­ship has been strictly pro­fes­sional, dat­ing back to his days as a player at the Univer­sity of Rich­mond. He’s been an as­sis­tant coach at schools I’ve cov­ered as well as a head coach.

I like him, a lot. He’s a man of in­tegrity and honor.

That said, I’m start­ing to won­der if it is go­ing to work out for him as the head coach at Vir­ginia. Check that. I’m pretty con­vinced it won’t. As much as it pains me to say it, I think the school needs to se­ri­ously con­sider mak­ing a change.

Granted, I view Vir­ginia foot­ball at a dis­tance these days. I haven’t been to a game since Lon­don has been head coach there, nor have I spo­ken with him. I see it with a very de­tached view and that view is one of a

ma­jor dis­con­nect. It just isn’t work­ing.

Vir­ginia is off this week­end, which is good news be­cause it means the Cava­liers’ los­ing streak won’t grow. They’ve dropped seven straight and given up at least 35 points in the past four. They sit at 2-8, with a vic­tory over a good Foot­ball Bowl Sub­di­vi­sion squad in Brigham Young and a bad Foot­ball Cham­pi­onship Sub­di­vi­sion team in VMI.

Ahead are games at Mi­ami and at home against Vir­ginia Tech. In a sea­son with a fa­vor­able sched­ule that fea­tured eight games at home, a 2-10 record seems likely. Worse, Scott Sta­dium has been about two-thirds full. Noth­ing dam­ages an ath­letic depart­ment’s bud­get quite like too many empty seats at its big­gest rev­enue pro­ducer.

Ath­letic di­rec­tor Craig Lit­tlepage has given Lon­don a vote of con­fi­dence in re­cent weeks and said pub­licly he won’t make a change. It is ad­mirable he’s stand­ing be­hind Lon­don, who was plucked away af­ter only two years at Rich­mond and is now be­ing paid about $2.5 mil­lion a year. It just may not be smart, even given the high price tag (in the $8 mil­lion neigh­bor­hood) that would come with cut­ting Lon­don and his staff loose.

Lon­don had as many wins over Duke in two years at Rich­mond as he’s had in four years at Vir­ginia: one. Yes, Duke isn’t the door­mat at used to be. That’s one of the stick­ing points. If Duke can up­grade its pro­gram, why can’t Vir­ginia?

Worse, from the Cava­liers’ point of view, is the fact that Vir­ginia’s ri­valry with Vir­ginia Tech has be­come onesided to the point of ab­sur­dity. Tech has won nine straight and 13 of the past 14 against Vir­ginia.

There’s no rea­son for that, no rea­son Vir­ginia shouldn’t be much more com­pet­i­tive with its in-state ri­val. Vir­ginia is lo­cated in a won­der­ful city, boasts a beau­ti­ful cam­pus (or grounds as they say in Char­lottesville) and of­fers a world-class ed­u­ca­tion. It should be able to look Tech, and pretty much any pro­gram in the ACC, right in the eye on an an­nual ba­sis.

The Cava­liers haven’t had any prob­lems at­tract­ing qual­ity play­ers and re­cruit­ing is one of the rea­sons Lit­tlepage gave for stick­ing with Lon­don. Since 2002, when the web­site started keep­ing track, Vir­ginia’s class has ranked higher than Tech’s four times in Ri­vals.com’s na­tional re­cruit­ing rank­ings.

Not quite even, but not so out of whack as the on-field re­sults would in­di­cate.

Look, too, at cur­rent NFL ros­ters. You’d think a school that’s won 13 of the past 14 meet­ings over the other would have a higher num­ber of ac­tive pros. Nope. Ac­cord­ing to charts kept on each school’s ath­letic web­site, Vir­ginia Tech cur­rently has 22 play­ers on NFL ros­ters at some level (ac­tive or in­jured re­serve). Vir­ginia’s num­ber? Also 22.

So Vir­ginia is re­cruit­ing al­most as well over the years and bet­ter in sev­eral years. It is pro­duc­ing pro­fes­sional play­ers at the same rate. Sure, other fac­tors are in­volved, but again: no way should this ri­valry be as lop­sided as it has be­come.

Vir­ginia went to bowl games five times in nine sea­sons un­der Al Groh, but only once in his fi­nal four sea­sons. Lon­don was lured away from Rich­mond, where he went 24-5 in two sea­sons and won an FCS ti­tle in 2008.

Lon­don earned the ACC Coach of the Year award af­ter go­ing 8-4 his sec­ond sea­son and it looked as if the Cava­liers were go­ing to progress to where they were early in Groh’s ten­ure, and maybe fur­ther.

But Vir­ginia slipped to 4-8 last sea­son and that’s the best it can do this sea­son if it man­ages to beat Mi­ami and Vir­ginia Tech.

In­ter­est is wan­ing, as crowd counts show. The re­sults are dis­cour­ag­ing. Here’s hop­ing Lit­tlepage is cor­rect and that keep­ing Lon­don proves to be the right call. Never would I be so happy to be wrong.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

The suc­cess that Mike Lon­don had at Rich­mond (above) got him a dream job at Vir­ginia. But this sea­son has been a night­mare for the fourth-year coach as the Cavs are 2-8.

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