January 29, 2008
CHARLOTTESVILLE As the Virginia basketball team continued to tread water, the Cavaliers' football team was sinking below the surface.
On Jan. 17, UVa announced that four underclassmen were not enrolled for the second semester, including two-year starting quarterback Jameel Sewell and top cornerback Chris Cook.
One day later, Richmond called a news conference to announce the appointment of its new head football coach, UVa defensive coordinator Mike London.
Already, the Cavaliers had lost top underclassmen Branden Albert, a first-team All-ACC offensive guard who said Jan. 2 that he would be placing his name in consideration for the 2008 NFL draft.
With all that, there were concerns that the situation would get worse before it got better. Many signs pointed to the loss of defensive end Jeffrey Fitzgerald, who was more impressive over his first two seasons than departing All-American senior Chris Long was over a comparable stage.
Fitzgerald remained enrolled as of Jan. 25 but faced an academic-related issue that could prevent his return to the team and school.
There had been rumors of major problems leading up to the Gator Bowl, when it was reported that Cook and running back Mikell Simpson had not traveled to Jacksonville with the team.
Simpson eventually was allowed to play, after attending to an academic matter, and it was something of a surprise when UVa announced that the four players were not enrolled that he was not among them.
There aren't many requirements for a player to be eligible for a bowl. All he has to do is pass six credit hours the equivalent of two courses in the fall. If Simpson barely passed two courses, certainly that would have put him in jeopardy for the second semester.
At UVa, a student on academic warning in consecutive semesters is subject to suspension for one year. Apparently, there is an appeals process that may have rescued Simpson and others. Since the academic-warning rule is a school rule and not an NCAA rule, a successful appeal would not affect NCAA eligibility.
On the other hand, a successful appeal will not automatically place a student in good academic standing, and it will be interesting to see how many UVa players miss spring practice to concentrate on academics. From the look of things, it could be a record.
LONDON'S LOSS LOOMS LARGE
None of the academic issues, by itself, has the potential of damaging the UVa program to the degree that London's loss could. Of the first 16 recruits to commit to the Cavaliers for 2008, eight were London recruits.
In fact, less than a week had elapsed before Ugo Uzodinma, a D.C. defensive lineman, reneged on his commitment to the Cavaliers and said he would sign with Illinois. Uzodinma even has a sister at Virginia, but blood wasn't as strong an attraction as London, the UVa coach who had recruited him.
Other London recruits were said to be wavering, including Corey Lewis, an all-state offensive lineman from Pennsylvania. In the week following London's appointment by Richmond, Lewis took a visit to Penn State, with his high school coach leading the way.
London, a six-year assistant in Charlottesville, was no less popular with the UVa players he coached than with the players he was recruiting. Clearly, players in the program felt a greater attraction to London than they did head coach Al Groh, which isn't necessarily a knock at Groh. London was just that respected and that popular.
Virginia wasn't going to keep London, a Richmond alumnus, unless the Cavaliers came up with a financial package that simply overwhelmed him. They had nearly lost him to Old Dominion a year earlier, before bumping his salary to $240,000. Richmond was able to offer him a salary in the range of $250,000 to $275,000.
The Spiders already had raised that money in an attempt to keep four-year head coach Dave Clawson before he took the offensive coordinator position at Tennessee, and supporters apparently did not back off those pledges when the Spiders had the opportunity to get London.
The Cavaliers had top 25-rated defenses in each of two seasons with London as the coordinator, although it must be noted that Groh is very hands-on with the defense and even coaches the linebackers personally. London knew that when he returned in 2006 after a one-year NFL stint with the Houston Texans, but he felt he needed experience as a coordinator if he was ever to get a Division I head job.
Groh's history has been not to fill coaching vacancies until after the signing date, and it was March 2006 before he named a successor to offensive coordinator Ron Prince, who left to take the head job at Kansas State. Groh's decision to promote son Mike Groh to offensive coordinator was almost hidden in a rambling, 500-word news release that contained an assortment of changed responsibilities and job titles.
There was great resentment when Groh moved up his son, under whom the Cavaliers have had the 113th- and 101st-ranked offenses over the past two seasons. More than a few internet posters have wondered facetiously if Groh will hire his younger son or wife for the defensive coordinator position. Younger son Matt Groh, a former Princeton quarterback, is a law student who doesn't coach.
On the surface, recruiting has not been a consideration for Groh in filling jobs, particularly when he did not retain Danny Wilmer from the staff of predecessor George Welsh or offer a job to then-James Madison assistant Curt Newsome, who has been killing Virginia in the Tidewater and Hampton-Newport News areas after joining the staff at Virginia Tech.
Bringing back London in 2006 was a win-win situation because London knew what he was getting into. He wanted the title, so he was willing to accept the meddling that may have left former defensive coordinator Al Golden weary. Golden left in December 2005 to become the head coach at Temple.
London becomes the fourth Groh assistant to take either a I-A or I-AA head coaching job, following Prince, Golden and Danny Rocco (Liberty). Some would point to the exodus as a sign of instability, but Groh also can point to the chance for advancement. The fact that London left and came back before leaving a second time shows that disenchantment wasn't an issue in his case.
LEITAO RECRUITS NOT HELPING
A subpar performance by Sean Singletary at Florida State was a major factor in Virginia blowing a 10-point, second-half lead on Jan. 23, but Singletary is not the problem with the UVa basketball team.
Plain and simple, the Cavaliers are getting nothing out of their sophomores and freshmen, the first two full Dave Leitao recruiting classes. The sophomores did not have a point in a 70-69 overtime home loss to Virginia Tech, and they went scoreless at FSU before Jerome Meyinsse, the least heralded member of the class, scored twice in the final two minutes.