The football team at the University of Virginia is reeling from a third consecutive losing season. The men’s basketball team is coping with a gut-wrenching defeat that kept it out of the NCAA tournament for the fourth straight year. Scott Stadium is losing fans by the thousands. And perhaps scariest of all, many Virginia fans are running out of patience.
Yet Virginia’s athletics program is thriving more than ever before. The Cavaliers closed the 2010-11 academic year with a seventh-place finish in the Learfield Sports Directors’ Cup, which measures the broad-based success of 279 Division I athletic programs. It marked the school’s third consecutive top-10 finish and second-best result ever, trailing only the previous year’s third-place finish.
The achievements behind that recognition are impressive: a men’s lacrosse national championship, a fourth consecutive team indoor championship in men’s tennis, a College World Series appearance by the baseball team, five ACC titles, and individual NCAA titles in track and swimming.
For die-hards in Charlottesville, though, the Directors’ Cup finish conceals a major blemish. Out of the top 25 schools in the 2010-11 Directors’ Cup standings, Virginia is the only one that failed to make a postseason appearance in football or men’s basketball.
Olympic sports accomplishments are important, but a Division I athletic program cannot truly gain national prominence without success in the two arenas that, in Virginia’s case, generate nearly seven times more revenue than all other sports combined on a yearly basis. With new coaches, impeccable facilities and a student body hungry for something to cheer about, can Virginia restore glory to its football and men’s basketball teams?
Starving for success
Coach Mike London has accomplished a lot over the course of his first year at the helm of the Virginia football program. His team posted its best cumulative grade-point average in 10 years this past spring; his players are intimately involved in community outreach programs; and his first recruiting class was ranked 19th in the country by ESPN. At the end of the day, though, he has yet to meet his primary goal: win games. The Cavaliers’ 4-8 finish last year meant the football team has won just one third of its games during the past three years, the worst mark of any of the 25 intercollegiate teams at Virginia.
Such futility factors into a stark contrast in the athletic department. The football and men’s basketball teams have combined for a .420 winning percentage and no postseason appearances during the past three years. During that same span, men’s lacrosse, men’s tennis and baseball, three teams that grabbed headlines this past spring, won 85 percent of their games and racked up six ACC championships to go with four NCAA titles. While football and basketball players sat at home come playoff time the past three years, the rest of UVa.’s teams were winning 18 conference titles and six national championships.
Rather than view his department as a divide between nonrevenue and revenue sports, athletic director Craig Littlepage insists that the establishment of a legitimate athletics program requires the success of many sports rather than a few. He remains encouraged by the development of the school’s Olympic sports programs while harboring optimism for the future of football and men’s basketball.
“The charge upon taking over as athletics director in 2001 was to develop a consistently performing top-10 program,” Littlepage said. “So as it relates to our achievements being aligned with our goals as articulated 10 years ago, we’re certainly headed in the right direction.”
Still, Littlepage cannot ignore the detrimental effects of struggling football and men’s basketball teams. Attendance at home football games has declined precipitously in recent years, falling from an average of 59,824 fans per game in 2007 to 45,459 last season, its lowest mark since Scott Stadium was expanded to 61,500 seats in 2000. The three seasons between 2003 and 2005 illustrated the symbiotic relationship between winning and fan support, as a total of just three home losses coincided with an average attendance above 60,000 during that span. It should come as no surprise, then, that the Cavaliers’ 6-18 conference record during the past three seasons led to a 2010 average attendance that failed to even fill three-quarters of stadium capacity, the third-worst percentage in the conference behind Miami and Maryland.
The men’s basketball team has experienced similar declines in attendance. Last year’s average mark of 10,156 represented a steep drop from 13,521, the 2006-07 average that accompanied the inaugural season in the $130 million John Paul Jones Arena. Although Virginia was one of six teams to experience attendance increases last season, it still only filled about two-thirds capacity of its lavish 15,000-seat arena.
In the face of potentially crippling financial effects associated with such declines in attendance, the Virginia athletic department has actually managed to increase its revenue even as ticket sales have decreased. Though football season ticket sales underwent a record drop from 39,532 in 2007 to 35,538 in 2008, the revenue generated from those ticket sales rose from $10,204,448 in 2007 to $10,887,500 in 2008. The profit increase came from the department’s 2008 installation of a new priority seating policy, which handed parking and seating preferences to Virginia Athletic Foundation donors. While the new policy brought in more dollars, it angered longtime season ticket holders who previously had been able to keep their seats by paying a considerably lower minimum donation. A poor economy has added to the pain of Virginia fans who aren’t willing to pay more money to watch a losing football team.
Why aren’t they winning?
Virginia continues to churn out NFL-caliber football players on a yearly basis. Its facilities are first-rate. The coaches associated with the football and men’s basketball teams are proven winners. So why do those teams seem so far away from a recent past, when bowl games and NCAA tournament appearances were as commonplace as polos and topsiders on Grounds?
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.”
Duke is another school that consistently achieves on and off the field. While carrying the most rigorous academic reputation in the ACC, Duke finished fifth in the latest Directors’ Cup standings, tops of any school in the conference. That result came despite the lack of any national titles this past year, meaning its point total stemmed from solid seasons by nearly all of its teams.
While the Blue Devils continue to struggle on the football field, they at least get to enjoy the consistent success of one revenue sport. Duke stands as the fourth-winningest basketball program in America, thanks mostly to its legendary 31-year coach, Mike Krzyzewski. Like London and Bennett, Coach K did not begin winning right away. The establishment of a perennial national title contender took many years, as his first three seasons at the helm came with losing conference records.
And like the coaches at Virginia, Krzyzewski and the rest of the Duke athletic department always have used high academic standards as a pulling point for recruits rather than a deterrent.
“From the conversations I have with coaches here, it’s a draw,” said Jon Jackson, associate athletic director at Duke. “Parents like to know that their children have opportunities, and the opportunity to get a quality degree from a school such as Duke is a pretty powerful thing. It’s like anything: If you achieve success by doing it a certain way, all of a sudden those types of kids might gravitate towards your school.”
What lies ahead
The recent past has been agonizing for Virginia’s football and basketball teams, but many followers of the programs are finding more reasons to feel hopeful. The entrenchment of new coaches and higher-caliber recruits suggests the school’s two most popular teams can only move upward. Moreover, the achievements of the school’s nonrevenue sports in the face of adversity should serve as further inspiration to reach great heights. Sports such as men’s tennis, men’s track and field, wrestling, swimming and diving, and baseball were at risk of being cut 10 years ago. Now they are the cornerstone of an athletic department whose strength rests in the hands of its Olympic sports.
At schools such as Stanford and Duke, winning breeds winning. Once a reliable formula is established, coaches can find the kind of consistency that cultivates a winning environment.
“It’s just kind of the culture that’s in place,” said Duke’s Jackson. “And the culture here has been one of uncompromising standards. We expect that our kids are going to be successful athletically, in the classroom and in the community and represent their school and represent themselves and their families in a way that they would want to be represented.”
Until such a culture re-emerges, though, football and basketball players at Virginia will live in the shadow of teams that have risen from near extinction to national spotlight.
“You can’t really ignore it; it’s the truth,” senior wide receiver Kris Burd said. “We need to pick it up, honestly. I feel like they’re representing Virginia in the way Virginia needs to be represented. It’s always in the back of your head when you see them compete for championships. You think to yourself, ‘The time is now.’”