Make no mistake about it. Jon Oliver's departure is a great thing for the Virginia Cavaliers.
Oliver is leaving the school on September 15, 2017 after 16 years as associate executive athletic director, a role that saw him run the day-to-day operations of the department under athletic director Craig Littlepage. The legacy he leaves is, at best, complicated. He played a role in bringing rich successes in men's basketball and a host of non-revenue sports to Charlottesville. But by the same token, the track record of complete failure in football that precedes current head coach Bronco Mendenhall rests at Oliver's feet.
Taking a holistic approach to evaluating how the department performed under his watch doesn’t just mean looking at how the various sports performed on and off the field. It requires one to look at how the entire department has done academically, athletically, financially, and even at marketing and public relations.
Let’s break it down.
Academically, even Oliver’s toughest critics cannot fault him. On average, 94 percent of UVA’s student-athletes who finish their eligibility graduate. In modern college athletics, that mark is nothing short of exemplary; Oliver and the entire department are to be commended.
On the field, you can’t deny that many sports have done well. A conference-high 76 ACC titles since 2001 is further boosted by 13 NCAA team titles, the second-most in the league during that time. Most especially, the baseball and men’s basketball teams have gone from the outhouse to the penthouse over his tenure. Baseball was this close to becoming a glorified club sport in 2002 before Brian O’Connor was hired as coach and the so-called “tiering proposal” was rejected, and the rest is history often written in Omaha. What’s transpired with the hoops team under Tony Bennett needs no description. Oliver had a heavy hand in bringing both men to the school, where they've led their respective programs to all those memorable triumphs.
While the majority of the rest of the sports on Grounds have continued to excel, the school’s most visible sport has been in a tailspin since as far back as 2006, with no sign of immediate, long-term recovery on the horizon. In those 11 seasons since, the football team has won 51 games (an average of 4.6 wins per season), been to the postseason just twice, and has a record of 0-13 in games played after Thanksgiving Day (i.e., against Virginia Tech and bowl games). Al Groh’s final two years at UVA were far from stellar, and Virginia officials were right to make a coaching change when they did in 2009. Was Mike London the right man for the job at that point in time? Perfect hindsight says no. Even without Oliver’s apparent on-the-field, game-by-game influence, London’s ineffective recruiting on both lines and at quarterback - plus his woeful in-game management - would never have allowed the Cavaliers the kind of achievements that they had under George Welsh from 1989-98.
But, even on top of London’s own coaching struggles, it’s been repeatedly suggested that Oliver meddled in the program in a way that accelerated and deepened the team’s demise. After a 2012 season that saw the Hoos go 4-8, Oliver and London teamed up to largely dismantle a coaching staff that had gone to the Chick-fil-A Bowl the previous season. Oliver and London landed on a retread from Colorado State named Steve Fairchild to run the offense. “I think that’s your guy,” Oliver told London at the time, according to the Daily Progress. Predictable playcalling based on a three-feet-and-a-cloud-of-dust style of offense was the name of the game for the next three years until London, Fairchild, and the rest of the coaches left the University in 2015.
Oliver’s general manager-esque style of leadership didn’t begin to manifest with London. As our Matt Trogdon wrote in 2013, the evidence suggests that Oliver forced Groh to make significant changes to his staff after a 2008 season that saw the team fall one win short of going bowling for the sixth time in seven years. On Jon Oliver acting like a general manager, “they're like a pro organization in that respect,” said Groh, who would know after coaching in the NFL for 13 years.
The staffing woes were just one symptom of Oliver’s total mismanagement of the program. Since 2008, the Cavaliers have played a home-and-home series with Pac-12 powerhouses USC, Oregon, and UCLA. BYU and Boise State have been on the schedule too, with the return game against the Broncos to come in Week 4 this year in Boise. Of the nine games played to date in those home-and-home series, the Hoos are a paltry 1-8. Of those losses, three have featured nationally-televised meltdowns by UVA in Charlottesville: 52-7 against USC in 2008, 59-10 against Oregon in 2013, and 56-14 against Boise State in 2015.
Whatever exposure UVA might have attained from those games was not just negated, but far outweighed, by getting embarrassed in its own house. The 2013 and 2015 games would likely have only made a symbolic difference in terms of final record in those years — 3-9 and 5-7 records aren't anything to be proud of. And this goes beyond symbolic differences or purported dips in reputation. Take, for example, the 2014 game against No. 7 UCLA, a 28-20 loss for the Hoos. Given a lower-level Power 5 team or just about any Group of 5 team to play in Week 1, Virginia theoretically goes 6-6 that year instead of 5-7. Add in the psychological momentum that a season-opening win brings, and could the Cavaliers have beaten Virginia Tech in that very close game in Blacksburg? Maybe, maybe not. But that UCLA loss, which happened in part due to maddening fourth-quarter playcalling from Fairchild, was another ramification of Oliver's management style.
How do these myriad mistakes tie in to the overall health of the department, namely, when it comes to the balance sheet?
Virginia’s balance sheet is actually fairly healthy. Among the eight ACC schools included in USA Today’s annual report, Virginia ranks fourth, and is No. 28 nationally, in total revenue, at $103.3M in the 2015-2016 season, so on the whole, the program is doing pretty well. But attendance at Scott Stadium this past year averaged only 39,929 tickets per game, the second time in four years that the average attendance has dipped below 40,000 in a stadium that seats 61,500. With an average ticket of of, let’s say, $50, that’s a cool million per game left on the table in ticket revenue alone. Then take into account additional revenue from concessions, merchandised, sponsorship potential. The napkin math adds up.
Marketing & Public Relations
It’s difficult to pinpoint Oliver’s exact role in the marketing and PR operation. The #HoosTogether movement in response to the violence of August 12 has undoubtedly been a source of comfort. Having Bennett, Larry Sabato, Heath Miller, and other recognizable faces in front of the camera was an undeniably good decision, reminding the public what the University is about, that UVA is a place of unity in the face of terrifying hate.
On the other hand, Virginia athletics has had some some public PR misses as well, most recently against the treatment of longtime head men's lacrosse coach Dom Starsia. If you will recall, Starsia had reportedly emailed the program’s alumni that he would not be returning. Days later, it was reported that Starsia had received a contract extension. Only a few days after that, it was officially announced that he would be departing the program. In a standing statement from Virginia spokespersons leading up to the rollercoaster of events, Littlepage told reporters, “In recent years we haven't played at a championship level so we're now in the process of determining what's necessary for our men's lacrosse program to be successful and reach our desired goals,” which makes it difficult to spin Starsia’s removal as anything but a firing. Though Oliver was not publicly involved with the ouster, two people very close to the program told me at the time that his fingerprints were all over it.
So, with all of that fleshed out, how do we evaluate the UVA athletic department’s performance over the last 16 years? By most any metric, it's miles ahead of where it was. Two of its strongest programs today — baseball and men's tennis — were on the chopping block in those days, and now they're regular national title contenders. Men's basketball has transformed from an also-ran to a national power. Virginia consistently performs well in the Directors Cup’ standings, which takes into account postseason accomplishments across all sports, and the entire community has benefited from that.
But having said all that, I just can't let football go. It drives modern collegiate athletics, both economically and culturally. A lot of schools can be football schools, but few that play Power 5 football can be basketball schools through and through and truly get away with it. I think the latter of those groups consists of Duke, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina and maybe Louisville.
The Cavaliers’ other successes on and off the field aren't to be ignored or discounted. The other end of the spectrum isn't a good place to be either. The participants in the two most recent College Football Playoff championship games, Alabama and Clemson, finished 25th and 52nd respectively in the Directors’ Cup last year. But here's the good news: it's not a pick-only-two-of-these-three situation. Michigan and Stanford stand out as ideal examples to follow. They're first-rate academic institutions that hold their student-athletes to similarly high standards, and do so while not sacrificing results on the scoreboard for results on term papers. Stanford has won every Directors’ Cup since 1995, and Michigan has finished no worse than 19th since 2011. Virginia has had six top-10 finishes since 2009. Even then, those numbers could be even better with a football team that's even competitive, let alone successful like it has been in the past.
An outstanding athletics program must have a strong football foundation that supports success across all other sports and is surrounded with academic integrity. Oliver’s reputation of micromanaging the football program in the wrong direction has left a lasting trail of failures and missed opportunities. If what you hope for and expect from Virginia athletics is truly “uncompromised excellence,” then Jon Oliver's resignation calls for a celebration.