The Virginia football program broke new ground in 2014. It just wasn't always positive ground. While the team improved its win total, there were also some extremely disconcerting statistics coming out of the season. Let's reflect quickly.
- The program suffered its 7th losing season in the last 9 and its 4th losing season in the last 5.
- Average home attendance settled around 39K fans per game. That was the lowest home attendance average since 1993. Average attendance was down from 47K in 2013 and a program-high of 59K in 2007.
- Attendance for the home opener was around 45K. That was the lowest home-opener attendance since before Scott Stadium was expanded in 1998.
- Attendance against Kent State came in around 33K. That was the least-attended game since 1989.
Go ahead and re-read that last bullet again. It's not a typo. 1989. George Bush was President. The first one. The Soviet Union was a thing. 80s music was just called "music." That's how long ago it was that Virginia attracted so few fans to a home football game.
And yet, while Virginia fans are abandoning the program in droves, those that remain will be treated to another year of the status quo. Two days before the season finale loss to Virginia Tech, Virginia athletic director Craig Littlepage announced he was keeping head coach Mike London for a 6th year. Littlepage gave an interview in the Daily Progress this week explaining his decision. It's linked here. If you suffer from high blood pressure, you might want to avoid reading it. But if you're a sucker for punishment, here are the highlights:
Littlepage on the relative importance of winning in his decision: "My decision speaks to the fact that this is not just about wins and losses. There’s a place for that, but we stand for a lot more than that. The won and lost record doesn’t tell the whole story."
More from Littlepage on winning: "This coaching staff wants to win. These players want to win. This athletic director wants to win...the won-lost record, everybody would agree has to be at a higher level. There’s no doubt about that."
Littlepage on how to fix falling attendance: "If there was one way to guarantee we could get 60,000 fans into Scott Stadium every game, we would do so...I know winning would help."
Now re-read that last line ... on how to reverse the trend of falling attendance: "I know winning would help."
But more from Littlepage on why winning isn't that important: "This is college athletics, not the pros. Winning isn’t enough here at Virginia. That doesn’t make us better, it makes us maybe a little different in some regards. There is an importance that winning has its place, but all of these things have to be taken in a proper context."
Littlepage on how coaches are judged if they aren't judged on winning: "Our No. 1 goal has to be the education and the development of the student-athlete from their academics to their social and athletic skills. They have to be able to embrace education and must foster an environment that they graduate. It’s total development in what these guys do in the classroom and in the community."
So to summarize, winning would be great. It would help bring fans back. But...it's not the main thing an athletic department should judge its coaching decisions on.
To be fair, there's a ton in the interview about how Coach London is a sterling representative of the University. And he most-definitely is. And there are gobs of insights in there about how his players are also sterling representatives of the University. And they most-definitely are. There's also some nice context in there about how London has won over the Virginia faculty, academic administrators and community leaders. And it's easy to understand why. The guy is about as solid as there is. Even Chris Long has come out recently saying that keeping London was a good decision.
But the sticking point as I see it is this. We Virginia fans want a lot of the same things that Littlepage wants. We want a coach that comports himself well. We want players that are great citizens. We know that this isn't a football factory. We don't want Virginia to operate the same way that Florida State and LSU and South Carolina do.
But we also want a coaching staff that looks like it has a clue during the games. We are tired of watching our players get flagged for having 12 men on the field. We are tired of late hits and ineligible receivers downfield and questionable play-calling in the red zone. We are tired of our quarterback having to call timeout because we can't get a play in on time. We're tired of botched 4th-down attempts and of what feel like endless failed first down runs up the middle.
We are also tired of getting beaten by Duke: a place where the academic standards are just as high but where the coach is an offensive magician. We are tired of watching Stanford play in the Rose Bowl and having to ask "if they can win, why can't we?" We are tired of watching Georgia Tech, and Notre Dame and Northwestern and UCLA -- all schools that rank high academically -- play in the postseason while our Wahoos sit home almost every year.
By sticking with London for another year, Littlepage set up choice for Virginia fans. We can either have London, a coach who's players go to class and are great in the community. Or we can have another coach who might not run the program with as much class. But Virginia fans are too smart to accept that choice. There's no reason we can't have a coach who keeps his players in line and also leads his teams to victory consistently. In fact, we have one in basketball. His name is Tony Bennett. And we want the football version of him.
Judging by the falling attendance at Scott Stadium, I'm guessing I'm not the only one who thinks that way.
By keeping the current staff, Littlepage is betting that London can turn this thing around and that...eventually...the fans will forgive and forget. But my sense is that he's not giving the fans their due respect. It's a tall order for any fanbase to sit through 4 losing seasons out of 5 and to be told to focus on the fact that their head coach is a good guy. Patience wears thin and entertainment dollars are limited. Customers make different choices when they don't like the product.
Virginia fans voted with their wallets in 2014. And the administration decided not to listen. There should be plenty of elbow room in Scott Stadium in 2015 as a result.