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The Orange and Blue Blues

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Virginia's football future will be defined by how the school comes to terms with its past.

Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports

"I remember one morning getting up at dawn, there was such a sense of possibility. You know, that feeling? And I remember thinking to myself: So, this is the beginning of happiness. This is where it starts. And of course there will always be more. It never occurred to me it wasn't the beginning. It was happiness. It was the moment. Right then." - from the movie "The Hours"

***

When John Casteen was president of the University of Virginia, he would invite members of the student media to meet with him in advance of Board of Visitors meetings. We'd spend thirty minutes or so going over the agenda for the upcoming meeting, and then Casteen would answer other questions we had. It was in one of these meetings that I attended when he was asked how the university had come to hire Al Groh as the new head coach for the football team. At the time, Groh's hire was seen as coup, given his recent NFL experience as head coach of the New York Jets.

Casteen answered that initially he and others had gone to consult with Groh, then the most prominent alum in the coaching field. Groh asked Casteen what he wanted to accomplish on the football field, and it was Casteen's answer that turned Groh from a consultant to a candidate and the eventual hire.

Casteen said he wanted to win a national championship.

Now, I realize that any Virginia football fan over about 20 years of age will probably laugh long and hard at Casteen's response. The man who waved off the rivalry with Virginia Tech as "jocular"? The man who was handed an opportunity to doom his school's biggest in-state athletic rival to the wilderness of college sports and passed? He must have been joking, right?

No, I believe he was serious. I also believe his answer came with a hulking, monstrous asterisk - and in that asterisk is where we find the question that Virginia must confront honestly before it hires a new football coach.

***

By no means is Virginia the most pitiful football program in the country. The Hoos have scraped together more wins recently than a few teams out there. Nor are Virginia's prospects for improving particularly bleak. There will always be some poor mid-major Division 1 programs that cannot match the financial support that Virginia expends on football.

But I think you would be hard pressed to find a college program that has so consistently disappointed its fanbase for the stretch that Virginia fans are enduring. The image of the fan collapsed on the wall at Scott Stadium following the crushing last second touchdown by Notre Dame to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory was a perfect symbol for what it has meant to be a fan of this program over the last decade. Any hopes for a turnaround, any excitement about the future, any optimism will almost certainly be ripped out of you - leaving you slumped over a wall.

***

In an alternate universe, Virginia is one of the college football superpowers. In that universe, President Colgate Darden accepted that bid to the Orange Bowl in 1951. He blew off the Gooch Report and kept right on fully funding athletic scholarships for the football team, despite narrowly avoiding banishment from the NCAA for doing so. The football program built a tradition and fanbase on years and years of winning seasons, and perhaps even managed to win a national championship with all the great Virginia-raised players that dreamed of playing for the Hoos.

In the universe we occupy, however, Darden turned down the bowl bid - setting a precedent that held for thirty years. His decision helped chase off legendary coach Art Guepe to Vanderbilt. Darden also took the Gooch Report to heart. While he did not go so far as the report suggested and place intercollegiate athletics at Virginia under faculty control, he did slash scholarships, and effectively send the football program into a three decade death spiral.

This was the context of the program that George Welsh took over in 1982. Following Guepe's departure, eight men coached Virginia, and none of them compiled a winning percentage over .500. One of them, Richard Voris, won a single game in three seasons.

Darden's decision highlights the legacy that lingers over Virginia football. Shortly after Darden hamstrung the football program for a generation, he consented to joining the fledgling Atlantic Coast Conference. The ACC was formed by seven schools that departed the Southern Conference, in part, because the Southern Conference banned participation in bowl games. Perhaps nothing better illustrates the dichotomy of Virginia football than a program that had sworn off post-season bowls two years earlier signing on with a conference created to permit the member schools to go to bowls. Virginia, joining a big-time football conference, while refusing to play big-time football.

***

George Welsh is easily the best head coach Virginia has ever had, but in a sense he may have been the worst thing to happen to the expectations of Virginia fans. Welsh invigorated the moribund program, taking it to its first bowl appearance in history in 1984. His 1989 team played on New Year's Day, and the 1990 team spent several weeks ranked #1 in the country. He was the first Virginia coach to notch a win against Clemson. He was the first coach not named Bobby Bowden to win an ACC game involving Florida State.

Lost in all of this are some harsh facts. No Welsh coached team ever finished the season ranked higher than #15 in the final AP poll. The 1990 team that ascended to the top of the polls finished 8-4 and ranked #23 after a loss in the Sugar Bowl. Welsh only lost less than 3 games once, in 1984 when the team finished 8-2-2. His record in bowl games was 4-8. Both of his ACC championships were shared with other teams.

When Welsh retired following the 2000 football season - his first with less than 7 wins in 14 years - the perception was that he might have hung on a little long, and in doing so, Virginia's prospect at consolidating the gains made in the previous decade of winning football might have faded. Those fans with a longer view, however, might have been surprised that anyone believed that Virginia had a prospect of reaching higher at all.

The reason Welsh may have actually been the worst thing for the expectations of Virginia fans lies in the response a fan gets when trying to argue that Virginia needs to get realistic about the ceiling of the football team. The fact that George Welsh lugged the dormant program all the way to the mountain top in the middle of the 1990 season is the comeback. If Virginia could make it to #1 once, what's to stop them from doing it again? All it takes is the right coach, not substantive changes to the way the program is being run.

What has become clear in the past 25 years, however, is that Virginia's short stint at #1 was not the beginning of something greater. It was just the brief moment the Hoos caught lighting in a bottle.

***

Which brings us to that asterisk. I honestly believe President Casteen wanted to win a national championship in football, but I also believe that he wanted to win it on the University of Virginia's terms. I think Casteen hoped that Virginia could show the world that an institution of higher learning did not have to sell its soul to achieve excellence on the gridiron.

I wonder if Groh heard the same message that Casteen thought he was sending. For a time, it looked like things might have changed at Virginia. Groh succeeded in getting one of the highest ranked recruits in Virginia football history, Ahmad Brooks, into the University mid-year - which was practically unheard of at the time. Brooks repaid the favor by leaving after two seasons under a cloud of disciplinary issues. Groh recruits frequently wound up at prep schools after their senior years in high school, a practice that has been virtually non-existent since Groh left.

Groh asked the fans of the University to adopt a big-time football mentality by scrapping semi-formal dress in favor of orange and blue T-shirts. Some students bemoaned the request as a sign of creeping "State U-ism", but many more complied. Groh's early teams generated a fair amount of excitement - almost all of the largest crowds in Scott Stadium history gathered to watch Al Groh coached teams.

Over time, however, Groh's win totals started dropping, and his aloof personality began to wear thin. Any goodwill that he had with the admissions office when he started his tenure evaporated as his players frequently ended up under academic suspensions. The closest Groh would come to Casteen's wish would be in his second seasonn, when Virginia finished ranked #22 in the final Associated Press poll. In hindsight, Groh's tenure was a manifestation of the same old tug-o-war that has afflicted Virginia football forever - Groh pushing the program to be more of a big time football type team in hopes of fulfilling Casteen's wish, and increasingly fighting the tide of an institution that does not have the mentality necessary to make that wish come true.

***

You can view the hiring of Mike London as a drastic over-reaction to the off-the-field problems that plagued Al Groh's tenure. In the rush to instill order in the University's most visible team, the Athletic Department, however, hired a man that seemed to be better suited for the job of high school principal. Mike London is a great man. His discipline has kept football player mugshots off the front page of the local newspaper. His demands for class attendance has paid major dividends in terms of keeping players eligible. He's an immensely likable guy in a field not known for a surplus of terribly nice people. His players are among his biggest fans.

Yet, by any measure, it was time for London to step aside. If Virginia is indeed attempting to climb into national relevance on the gridiron, then London's stretch as coach has been a dismal failure. If the goal is to honor the school's academic status by holding football players to a higher standard than they might encounter at other schools, then London has still failed. Teams that are deliberately playing with one hand tied behind their back must be fundamentally sound. Coaches in such a situation must be able to find talent that other schools have overlooked, and then develop them into solid Division 1 football players. There's no expectation that programs with higher academic standards will be world beaters, but they cannot be self defeating.

London's teams - particularly in the past two seasons - have seemingly committed every costly procedural mistake possible in the game of football, and may have created a few new ones. In the narrow 23-20 loss to Virginia Tech that was London's final game as coach, the Hoos had three receivers called for neutral zone infractions, leaving Virginia radio color commentator Tony Covington baffled during the broadcast.

London's tenure was yet another maddening example of how Virginia has been trying to walk a line between looking like a big-time football program without actually acting like one. London was the third-highest paid coach in the ACC in 2015, behind only Florida State's Jimbo Fisher and Clemson's Dabo Swinney. Despite the lofty compensation, London weathered a series of losing seasons that would have gotten many of the men making far less than him fired long ago. Virginia was paying London big-time football money, but holding him to a different set of standards.

Perhaps there is no better example of how Virginia is playing by its own rules and hamstringing itself as a result then how the silly season of coaching changes began in the mid-Atlantic states. Both Virginia Tech and Maryland made moves to put their football head coaching positions into the market in the middle of the season. The thought behind doing this is to begin the coaching search as early as possible, and to snap up the school's best option before other schools start their own hiring processes. This was particularly important in the 2015 coaching carousel when a high number of positions became available, some very early in the season.

Virginia, however, has always made a point to let coaches finish seasons before making a public decision about whether they will return. While UVA may have been talking to candidates behind the scenes, there has to be some trepidation on the part of candidates for the job that the school could have always elected to keep London because they had not announced his departure yet. Candidates for the Virginia Tech and Maryland jobs were not so concerned. Firing a coach mid-season used to be a rarity, but it has become commonplace as the competition for top-notch coaching prospects in the revenue sports has become red hot. Yet, Virginia still adheres to the antiquated rule of waiting until the end of the season - despite the fact that the schools that they compete with on the football field no longer feel so encumbered.

It's this dichotomy that currently afflicts the the UVA football program - the tightrope walk between the desire to steer clear of the NFL-lite mentality so many Division 1 schools have adopted, and the increasingly clear realization that in doing so, Virginia will almost certainly stay at the bottom of the FBS world. George Welsh managed to succeed, but even he increasingly faltered as he went along in Charlottesville. Virginia has been deliberately bringing a knife to a gun fight since it joined the ACC, only in the age of mega-conferences and massive television revenue the gun fights have escalated into heavy artillery battles. In the midst of the rain of high explosive shells, there's Virginia every week, swinging its old rusty knife, refusing to admit that it might be outgunned.

***

In order to move forward, Virginia must make a decision about what the goal of the major revenue sport in college athletics is going to be in Charlottesville. Is the school going to pay top dollar for a new head coach and demand top dollar results? Will the school continue to point to its more stringent academic standards as a reason for lower expectations, even when some of the recruits that Virginia has had to cut ties with over academics show up on the sidelines of fellow ACC conference members? Can UVA tolerate stretching the definition of ""student-athlete" as far as other schools have done in the search for the pot of gold that comes with football success? Either way, the fans of the school should know before the next Virginia head coach leads his team out of the tunnel in 2016, just what those goals are. Is the University taking the steps necessary to compete at the highest levels of the sport, like so many other athletic teams at Virginia do? Or are the compromises needed to do this in football just too much to bear?

In the statement from the University announcing the end of London's tenure, Athletic Director Craig Littlepage said that the goal for the football program was to compete for the ACC Coastal Division title annually, and be nationally relevant by virtue of doing so. It's a goal that would appeal to all but the most delusional of Virginia football fans. Yet, a statement in a press release is worth little if it is not backed by the resources and practices necessary to make it happen.

Virginia fans occasionally mock the Virginia Athletic Department's goal of "Uncompromised Excellence" during football season. They like to point at the football team and ask if the results on the gridiron are the kind of excellence envisioned by this goal. After all, to be excellent at a sport, you should be winning a lot more than you lose.

But there's another way to interpret the goal. The goal could mean that the excellence achieved in the athletic department will not be attained through shortcuts. There will be no lowering of academic standards, no made-up classes, no athlete dominated majors that do little to prepare student-athletes for a life beyond sports. Virginia is going to do it the hard way, and if it means losing a bit more often, then so be it.

If so, that means recognizing that the high points of the program's history - the brief residency at the top of the polls in 1990, Warrick Dunn falling just short of the end zone in 1995, Wali Lundy's performance against Virginia Tech in 2003, Marques Hagans carrying the team against the Noles in 2005, Dustin Hopkins' field goal attempt sailing by the uprights in 2011, the Hook and Ladder, Jake McGee in the back of the end zone against the Canes...these are the moments. Like the quote at the top of the story, they are not the beginning of something - they are the thing. And if the Virginia football program will continue to play by the rules it has laid out for itself that make it so difficult to be a nationally relevant program, then fans need to know that those moments are the treasures they must enjoy to the fullest.