The good news in Charlottesville is that men’s basketball season is underway. Virginia is 3-1 and on the verge of the top 25, having lost only to 10th-ranked VCU on a late three-pointer. The Cavaliers are expected to reach the NCAA Tournament come March and could well finish with their best record since a 25-9 mark in 1994-95.
The bad news in Charlottesville is that football season isn’t over yet. The Cavaliers are 2-8 and with games against 7-3 Miami and 7-4 Virginia Tech remaining, they figure to finish with their worst record since 1981.
This imbalance between the main sports at Mr. Jefferson’s University – with all due respect to the men’s and women’s lacrosse and soccer programs – hasn’t always been so profound.
The basketball team posted 18 winning seasons and advanced to the NCAAs 13 times, including two Final Four berths, under coaches Terry Holland and his former point guard, Jeff Jones, from 1978-97.
Coach George Welsh’s football team posted 16 winning seasons and made 12 bowl appearances, including a Sugar Bowl, from 1982-2000.
Those were the glory decades in Charlottesville. This millennium hasn’t been as satisfying for Virginia fans.
The football program did maintain the postseason tradition for a while under Welsh’s successor, Al Groh, going bowling five times from 2001-07, but 2011 has been its only winning/bowl season since.
The basketball program went dancing just three times during the past 16 years as many of its nine winning records weren’t that impressive.
But while hoops coach Tony Bennett’s team has gone 48-23 since he was .500 during his first two seasons, football coach Mike London is 18-29 during his four seasons even with that 8-5 mark from two years ago.
The football team began this year by surprising BYU, getting crushed by No. 2 Oregon and pounding VMI. But the Cavs haven’t won since. Their seven-game skid — including an “are you kidding, me? 48-27 home loss to Ball State — is their longest in 32 years.
“They did an excellent job doing what they needed to do and we did not,” London said after a 45-14 rout at North Carolina, UVa’s most recent debacle. “And the results are what they are.”
Fortunately for London, his lousy results haven’t convinced athletic director Craig Littlepage to make a change. While the Cavaliers haven’t had a top-notch quarterback since Matt Schaub headed for the NFL in 2004, next year’s superb recruiting class is led by top safety prospect Quin Blanding and defensive tackle Anthony Brown, considered one of the nation’s five best players. Brown turned down 10 of the 11 schools that have won the BCS championship to remain in the Commonwealth.
“Andrew is a dynamic player,” London said. “His ability, his accomplishments, his work ethic … so many different things … that he brings to the table makes your football team a better team.”
While London’s team can only dream of better days, the good times are now for Bennett’s bunch which should be 6-1 heading into a Dec. 4 clash with Wisconsin. Shooting guard Joe Harris, a preseason All-ACC selection, and defensive ace Akil Mitchell are Virginia’s only seniors, but the top six scorers are back from a 23-12 team that just missed out on an NCAA bid before advancing to the NIT quarterfinals.
“A formula for success for us … is to have a team that has some maturity so you can compete against the best in the league,” said Bennett, whose teams always focus on defense first. “We’ve worked hard to get our program to where we have experience and depth. In this league, you better be good or you’re going to be in trouble.”
The Cavs were forecast by media who cover the ACC to finish fourth behind established powers Duke, Syracuse and North Carolina but ahead of 2013 NCAA entrants Miami, N.C. State, Notre Dame and Pitt.
“That’s nice,” Bennett said of the poll results. “[But] if you’re a team that has some more expectations, if you’re so focused on the end result, you’re going down the wrong path. You better compete daily, improve, hold each other accountable. When you face adversity, how you respond to that is going to determine how successful you’ll be.”
These days in Charlottesville, it’s London, not Bennett, who has to figure out how to respond to adversity. Plenty of it.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011.