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Revisiting: Is Jon Oliver to blame for Virginia’s football struggles?

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22 months later, Virginia's football program continues to suffer under Jon Oliver's executive leadership.

Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports

As I stood in the falling mist Friday night watching Boise State embarrass a hapless Virginia team on its home turf, my thoughts turned to Virginia Associate Athletics Director Jon Oliver. I wondered what Oliver might have been thinking as he watched his alma mater trounce his current employer. I wondered if he felt any sort of responsibility for the debacle on the field. Oliver was essential in hiring Mike London in 2010. He was essential in overhauling London’s coaching staff in 2013. And he was essential in putting teams like Oregon, BYU, and Boise State on UVA’s schedule.

Friday night, in a rainy and nearly empty Scott Stadium, it seemed all of Oliver’s decisions were laid bare. Virginia, led by a failing head coach and a failing assistant coaching staff, was getting exposed on national prime time television by an opponent it had no business playing. The emperor was shown, once and for all, to have no clothes.

There’s been increased interest in Jon Oliver this week. A 2013 column we published on Streaking The Lawn suddenly reappeared on message boards, in Twitter feeds, and on Facebook pages across the Virginia fan base. The 2013 column, linked here, argued that Oliver needed to be held accountable for the decline of Virginia football. It argued that Oliver was just as culpable as London. And it suggested that if London ultimately failed, Oliver would have failed as well.

Walking out of Scott Stadium Friday night, it was obvious that London, and Oliver, had failed. Let’s take a deeper look at some of the failures.

Rating Oliver’s Staff Changes

In 2013, we highlighted how instrumental Oliver was in the 2013 reshuffling of Mike London’s staff. Following a 4-8 season in 2012, Virginia, under Oliver’s watchful eye, enacted sweeping staff changes. UVA fired four assistant coaches, including defensive coordinator Jim Reid, offensive coach Shawn Moore, and running backs coach Mike Faragalli. Anthony Poindexter was relieved of his special teams coordinating duties. And soon, offensive coordinator Bill Lazor left for the NFL.

In their places, Virginia hired Tom O’Brien, Larry Lewis, Jon Tenuta, and Steve Fairchild. In 2013, we wrote the following that highlighted Oliver’s place in the process.

On the decision to pursue Tom O'Brien, Oliver said "I worked hard to make sure that Mike and Tom could get together." On the decision to go after Larry Lewis, Oliver said "Larry, I need you to come and talk to Mike London." On Steve Fairchild: "After the call, Oliver told London, 'I think that’s your guy. Let me know how it goes, but I think that’s your guy.'"

We argued that those coaches hadn’t yet provided an improvement over their predecessors. Now, 22 months later, we have more data with which to make an assessment. The data presents a grim picture.

Steve Fairchild: It’s hard to describe Fairchild’s tenure as offensive coordinator as anything less than an unmitigated disaster. The optics alone have screamed "clown show." Virginia has fielded three different starting quarterbacks in three years. UVA has had two starting quarterbacks transfer and a former four-star recruit announce a transfer, only to be coaxed back. Virginia’s play-calling under Fairchild has drawn boos from Scott Stadium crowds on number occasions. The offensive attack has been so vanilla that when UVA opened up its playbook against Notre Dame, there were rumors that newly-hired assistant Chris Beatty, and not Fairchild, was calling the plays.

The statistical data paints an even bleaker picture. Under Bill Lazor from 2010 – 2012, Virginia finished 37th, 46th, and 62nd nationally in yards per game. Under Fairchild, Virginia finished 91st in 2013 and 90th in 2014. The Wahoo offense is currently 108th in 2015, making them one of the most statistically feckless offensive attacks in the nation.

Under Lazor, Virginia finished 73rd, 86th, and 95th in points per game from 2010 – 2012. Under Fairchild, the Cavaliers haven’t improved a lick, finishing 111th in 2013 and 87th in 2014. Virginia currently sits at 103rd in ppg in 2015.

I think it’s fair to say that the hiring of Steve Fairchild has been an epic fail.

Larry Lewis: To be sure, Lewis wasn’t London or Oliver’s first choice as special teams coordinator. Jeff Banks was originally hired to replace Anthony Poindexter, but Banks soon took a job at Texas A&M. Poindexter’s special teams had a tendency to give up big plays and look lost. Does anyone want to suggest that Lewis’s special teams have performed better?

As I think back to some of the most painful moments of Cavalier ineptitude during the last 3 years, a disproportionate number of them have come with Virginia’s special teams on the field. The Wahoos have been caught off guard by Virginia Tech, North Carolina, and William and Mary on onside kicks. The Hoos have had punts blocked in the end zone by the Hokies and Tribe. Lewis’s field goal team famously had 12 men out on the field in a back-breaking 2014 loss against UNC, allowing the Tar Heels the opportunity to run out the clock on a penalty.

Throughout 2015, we’ve watched Virginia continually bring the ball out of the end zone on kickoffs, only to be stuffed well behind the 25-yard line. Virginia’s kick returners look confused, unsure, and like they’ve never practiced. That would be embarrassing enough if special teams were an afterthought for an assistant coach whose primary responsibility was to coach another position. But special teams is Lewis’s #1 priority.

I think it’s fair to say that the hiring of Larry Lewis has proven to be another subpar decision.

Tom O’Brien: It’s a bit harder to assess O’Brien’s two-year reign as tight ends coach and assistant head coach for offense. But it’s potentially instructive to look at Virginia’s current tight end corps. O’Brien gets kudos for bringing in Evan Butts. The redshirt freshman has been a bright spot on the Virginia offense. But otherwise, O’Brien left the tight end cupboard so bare that Virginia had to convert Brendan Marshall from quarterback and bring in transfer Charlie Hopkins for playable depth.

In his job as assistant head coach, O’Brien would help London think through in-game strategy. He spoke to the Roanoke Times about his role after the 2014 season. I think this quote from O’Brien on his role is particularly instructive:

"This year, what I did was, I talked to [head coach] Mike [London] the whole game. It was just the two of us. I would tell him what the defensive call was and what the offensive call was, so he would know what was going on.

"I’d try and stay ahead and help him anticipate, ‘You might have this decision to make.’"

One way to judge O’Brien’s performance, then, might be to ask if London made better decisions because O’Brien was there. I think the jury is out on that one, and I think it can be argued either way. Clearly O'Brien wasn't anywhere to be found during the fourth quarter of the '14 UNC game when Virginia snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Overall, I’d give O’Brien an "incomplete" for his two-year stint in Charlottesville.

Jon Tenuta: Of all the assistant coach hires in 2013, Tenuta has been the most successful. His defenses have certainly been exciting and dynamic. They’ve produced sacks and turnovers, and Tenuta’s blitzing style has endeared him to fans.

But if we examine the numbers, Tenuta’s defenses really haven’t shown much improvement over Jim Reid’s. Under Reid, Virginia finished in 78th in ‘10, 40th in ‘11, and 28th in ‘12, in yards allowed per game nationally. Under Tenuta, Virginia finished 66th in ’13 and 31st in ’14. Tenuta’s vaunted ’14 defense, led by Anthony Harris, Eli Harold, Max Valles, and Henry Coley, finished worse nationally than Reid’s ’12 defense. Even worse, the Wahoos currently sit 100th in yards per game in through four games in 2015.

The points per game story doesn’t look much better. Under Reid, Virginia finished in 70th in ’10, 46th in ’11, and 71st in ’12 nationally in points allowed per game. The Wahoos finished in 99th ’13 and 42nd in ’14 under Tenuta. Here, Tenuta’s best defense (the 2014 unit) finished only marginally better than Reid’s best (the 2011 unit). Worse, Virginia currently sits 110th through four games in 2015. It’s statistically one of the worst defenses in the country.

Under Tenuta’s watch, Virginia has had sterling defensive efforts in wins against Louisville, BYU, Pittsburgh, and others. But Virginia has also given up 59 points to Oregon, 59 points to Clemson, 56 points to Boise State, 48 points to Ball State, 45 points to UNC, and 45 points to Miami. Virginia has also yielded last-minute touchdown drives against Virginia Tech and Notre Dame. The defense was burned on big plays for both.

Unquestionably, Virginia’s defense has performed better than its offense or its special teams. If I were at teacher, I’d give Tenuta a C-plus. But given that Reid’s defenses were performing at a relatively decent level already, can we really say that the swapping out Reid and swapping in Tenuta has paid off?

Bottom Line: When I was a kid, if I had brought home a report card with an F, a D, a C plus, and an incomplete, I would have been in all kinds of hurt. I would have had my video games taken away. I would have had the TV taken away. And I would have had my rear end worn out by my grandmother’s trusty fly-swatter.

Jon Oliver’s 2013 assistant coach hires have failed to resurrect a dormant Virginia football program. Oliver’s 2010 hire of London has arguably made Virginia worse than it was at the end of Al Groh’s regime. Oliver’s scheduling has failed utterly – Virginia is 1-5 against the likes of Oregon, BYU, UCLA, and Boise State, and still has road games with the Ducks and the Broncos. The box office hasn't benefited from the schedule either. Fewer than 45K fans showed up for the Boise State game on Friday. The 2014 home opener against UCLA was Virginia's least-attended home opener since the stadium expansion.

Oliver might be a master administrator behind the scenes. He might have done a sterling job managing some of Virginia’s other programs. But in the case of strategically guiding the football program, he’s been an abject failure.

Barring a miracle, Virginia is soon going to be looking for a new football coach. If it comes to that, I hope someone has the brains and good sense to keep Jon Oliver away from the process.