There’s no rationalizing it, Virginia football has been just plain bad this year. After what seemed to be an encouraging 19-16 win over a talented BYU team to start the year, Virginia has yet to play four sustained quarters of good football. They were mathematically eliminated from playing in a bowl game a long time ago, and are likely to finish with only two wins this year. This brings the future of the program into sharp focus. While it is generally accepted that Mike London will be back as head coach for at least one more year, I want to examine whether he should. In an age where football fans call for a coach’s head after one bad season no matter how good he was before, I’m going to try to take a good, hard look at the evidence on both sides of the argument.
On the recruiting front, Virginia has fared well of late. London came in with the expectation that he would be a solid recruiter, especially in the talent-rich “757” area of Hampton Roads. This is probably the biggest piece of evidence in London’s favor. In each of the three full seasons London has had on the recruiting trail (I don’t count 2010 because his regime didn’t recruit all those players), Virginia has consistently ranked at or near the top 25 teams in terms of ratings of the players they bring in. High school players are generally rated between one and five stars depending on how good scouts think they are. Virginia usually lands one or two five-star recruits every year, and their classes generally average about 3 stars.
But the relatively high talent level of the recruits hasn’t translated on the field. Here’s a snapshot of London’s seasons as coach:
2010: 4-8 (1-7 ACC), no bowl game
2011: 8-5 (5-3), lost to Auburn in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl, 43-24
2012: 4-8 (2-6), no bowl game
2013 (so far): 2-8 (0-6), no bowl game (last two games are against Miami & Virginia Tech, so this is probably going to end up 2-10, 0-8)
London does have one good year on his record. 2011 was no fluke year either; that Virginia squad became the first team (not the first Virginia team, mind you, the first team) to beat both Florida State and Miami at their home stadiums in the same season. They also knocked off perennial conference power Georgia Tech. But there is little optimism to be found in his other three seasons, in which Virginia never even sniffed a bowl game. Recruiting is only half the battle in college football, though; the other half is developing that talent once it gets on the field. And Virginia has fallen short in this respect, too.
One case study for Virginia’s shortcomings in this area can be found in current starting quarterback David Watford. Watford was a solid three-star recruit coming out of high school, and had attracted the attention of such high-profile programs as Michigan, Virginia Tech, and West Virginia. But he has flat-out not produced since coming to Virginia, throwing more interceptions than touchdowns and rarely doing anything right. I use Watford as an example because his poor production can be traced to how the coaching staff has used him. He got his first taste of game action in his freshman year, 2011, but was rotated in and out with starter Michael Rocco in a weird two-quarterback system that never allowed either to get comfortable running the offense, and may have cost Virginia some early wins. Then, after heralded transfer Philip Sims came to the Cavaliers (who also turned out to be a bust), Watford was redshirted. After Rocco transferred because he thought he would lose the starting job to Sims, Sims was kicked off the team and Watford was thrust back into the starting role. I think the constant back-and-forth and redshirt year damaged Watford’s confidence and made it difficult for him to live up to his potential.
Virginia’s coaching staff has also struggled with clock management and strategic decisions. This was most clearly demonstrated in the rivalry game against Virginia Tech last year, when London chose to go for it on fourth down late in the game rather than kick a chip-shot field goal that would have put Virginia ahead 17-7. He also inexplicably held onto two timeouts after Virginia Tech got a key interception late in the game, allowing them to run out the clock and preserve a 17-14 win. A win in that game would have shaken off some of the negativity surrounding that season, as it would have been Virginia’s first win against Tech since 2003, and would have snapped Tech’s streak of 20 straight seasons in which they played in a bowl game, third in the nation. Virginia overhauled its staff going into this year, firing most of their assistants and coordinators. But that has failed to stop boneheaded decisions like these.
Now, you might have read to this point thinking, “Wow, he’s really excoriating Coach London here, I bet he’s going to say he deserves to be fired!” Actually, I don’t think so. Most college coaches need two or three years so that their recruits can take center stage; this is generally the true test of how good they are. London has had four years, so he has progressed into the put-up-or-shut-up phase. If he didn’t have that one good year on his resume and hadn’t had as many recruiting successes, I think I’d be calling for his head. But, I think he has done enough to merit one more try at guiding the Cavaliers back to their winning ways. But nothing less than six wins and a bowl game should be acceptable. The second the Cavaliers lose their seventh regular-season game next year, he should be shown the door.