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One typically cited reason is coaching. For many Cavaliers fans, former football coach Al Groh’s heavy emphasis on out-of-state recruiting - only 29 of his 62 recruits between 2008-2010 hailed from Virginia - allowed Virginia Tech to gobble up the talent-rich recruiting pipelines within the commonwealth. Former basketball coach Dave Leitao, meanwhile, was viewed by some as a bad-tempered presence who couldn’t get along with his players.

Both men have been replaced by coaches who already have begun to reverse such negative perceptions. London’s first recruiting class includes 17 in-state players, nine more than Virginia Tech’s latest class. And basketball coach Tony Bennett, whose 31-31 record during his first two seasons represented only modest improvement, has at least been hailed for his likable personality and ability to relate to players and fans.

For Littlepage, a new slate of coaches signaled the first and most important step towards a return to prominence.

“It starts, I think, with our coaches and coaches that understand how to operate in this kind of highly competitive environment,” Littlepage said. “These are people that are very easy to respect and very easy to like. I think that’s the first step in that process of reaching out to our fan base and getting excited about the future of those sports in particular and about the department overall.”

Even with solid coaches at the helm, however, some wonder whether Virginia can compete at the highest level with such rigorous academic standards. The opportunity to attend one of the top public universities in the country is an attractive draw for some athletes, but for others it might represent an aggravating distraction from duties on the football field.

London, who coached Richmond to a Division I-AA national title in 2008, repeatedly has insisted success on the football field can coexist with academic excellence.

“I’ve been associated with the academic schools that have done well and achieved, where you can have a school with high academic expectations and still win,” London said. “Virginia’s going to be Virginia. It’s going to be a school that demands that you have academic capabilities. Now my job is to try to associate the program with talented, athletic young men that can do it in the classroom and do it on the field.”

London’s academics-first mentality is not unique in the ACC, where a number of schools carry nationally renowned academic reputations. Even Virginia Tech - which owns the country’s longest streak of 10-win football seasons - gets the job done in the classroom. The Hokies’ football team maintained a cumulative team GPA above 2.5 this past year and notched a 79 percent Graduation Success Rate, one of the highest such figures in the country. By comparison, Virginia’s GSR stood at 75 percent.

Yet while Virginia Tech remains a benchmark for athletic and academic success, the more widely distributed success at Stanford and Duke might make them more applicable models for a Virginia athletic department that strives for broad-based success in all its sports while maintaining elite academic standards.

Setting the standard

No athletic department carries a finer reputation than Stanford, whose 17 consecutive Directors’ Cup titles are made even more impressive by its tradition of academic distinction. In the process of finishing in the top 10 in 20 of its 35 sports, the Cardinal also managed to lead the Pac-10 in student-athlete graduation rates this past academic year.

Similarities run between Virginia and Stanford as far as broad-based athletic and academic success go. The major difference that has emerged over the past few years, however, has been on the gridiron. After toiling in mediocrity for a number of years, Stanford emerged as a dominant force last year with a 12-1 season that culminated in a crushing Orange Bowl victory against Virginia Tech.

The main impetus for improvement was the hiring of Jim Harbaugh, a fiery young coach with plenty of upside. Like London, Harbaugh’s first campaign at Stanford produced a 4-8 record. His team steadily improved over the following three years with records of 5-7, 8-5 and 12-1. The record-setting 2010 season featured a graduation rate of 86 percent, the highest of any team in a BCS bowl.

That interplay between steady improvement on the field and high academic focus is exactly what London is trying to infuse in his program.

“To me, I look at Stanford as a school that has done a great job identifying what the model is as a student, and then going after the best of whatever that criteria is and then competing and competing well,” London said. “Stanford, Virginia, they’re schools that aren’t going to change their academic profiles to win national championships. But on the other hand if you can identify student athletes that can do it in the classroom but are at the highest level of being good or great athletes - and they are out there - you have a tremendous chance.”

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