Hoping to squash speculation that his head football coach is on the hot seat, Virginia Athletic Director Craig Littlepage said in an interview Thursday that Mike London will return next year, regardless of how the rest of this season plays out.
“I don’t want there to be uncertainty about what I believe the future to be, which is with Mike London as our coach,” Littlepage said.
London’s job security has become a topic of discussion since the Cavaliers (2-4, 0-2 ACC) lost at home to Ball State, 48-27, on Oct. 5, part of a three-game losing streak the team brings into Saturday’s game against Duke.
Littlepage cited London’s recruiting ability and commitment to the university, in addition to past accomplishments such as being named the 2011 ACC coach of the year and winning the 2008 Football Championship Subdivision national championship at Richmond, as reasons for the support he’s receiving from the school’s administration.
“He’s done a lot of things that he thought were important for us in terms of adjustments to the coaching staff, some other things relative to the program that I think were important and will bear fruit for us,” Littlepage said. “I support him, and I have supported him. Nothing has changed in that regard. . . . If there was uncertainty, it isn’t because of anything other than somebody might have an agenda. I’ve been very clear.”
If Virginia’s administration were to consider a coaching change, it would carry a hefty price tag.
It would cost approximately $8.06 million to buy out the remaining three years of London’s contract this offseason. He signed a two-year extension and got a raise after the Cavaliers finished with an 8-5 record and earned a spot in the Chick-fil-A Bowl in 2011.
The university would also need an additional $3.12 million to pay for the contracts of associate head coach Tom O’Brien, offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild, defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta and special teams coordinator Larry Lewis, all of whom were hired last winter when London overhauled his coaching staff.
According to an amendment to London’s contract, which was signed Jan. 18 and obtained by The Post through a public-records request, he gave up $63,600 in supplemental compensation during the 2013 and 2014 seasons in order to increase the football program’s assistant coach salary pool in the offseason.
Littlepage declined to specify whether the pay cut was London’s idea or at the behest of administrators following his second 4-8 campaign in three years in 2012. Littlepage also admitted he did not know exactly how much money the school would owe London if he were fired after this season, because “candidly . . . I haven’t looked at it.”
The Cavaliers haven’t beaten a Football Bowl Subdivision foe since opening the season with a 19-16 win over BYU, and their last home game against Ball State featured the second-smallest crowd (38,228) since London took over the program before the 2010 season.
Littlepage conceded “attendance is, in part, a barometer of how the team is perceived to be doing,” but he asked for patience from fans as the staff changes continue to take effect.
“We knew this would be a process getting oriented toward some new elements of the program in terms of not only coaches and personalities but the things they were bringing to the program,” Littlepage said. “Yes, we feel as though we should be playing better and we can play better, and I think that we have seen some things that have improved. . . . But it is a process, and we knew this would be a year where we’d be watching that process unfold.”
London has vastly improved Virginia’s in-state recruiting efforts, and the Cavaliers are the only team in the country with commitments from two of the nation’s top 12 recruits in the class of 2014, according to Rivals. Safety Quin Blanding and defensive tackle Andrew Brown, both five-star prospects from Tidewater, have given non-binding oral commitments to the Cavaliers, and each has said London is the main reason they chose Virginia.
But several programs, most notably Alabama and Ohio State, have continued to recruit Blanding and Brown in recent months, trying to convince the two prospects that London could be gone next season, according to two people involved in the Tidewater recruiting scene who have spoken to college assistant coaches still pursuing Blanding and Brown. They were granted anonymity in order to speak freely.
“That’s the difficult part of coaching, that kids will make a verbal decision and rival recruiters will try to leverage anything they possibly can to create uncertainty in the minds of kids,” said Littlepage, a former college basketball coach. “So what I’ve done is to stop the uncertainty in terms of how I feel, if there was any to begin with, and I’ve stated it very clearly.”
This week, London was criticized for calling three straight running plays at the end of Virginia’s 27-26 loss at Maryland, settling for a 42-yard field goal that backup place kicker Alec Vozenilek pushed wide right. It’s the third time since the end of last season that the coach’s game management has been scrutinized after a loss.
During Wednesday’s ACC coaches teleconference, London told reporters “you can wring your hands . . . or you can turn and focus your energies on what’s ahead.” At least one important supporter agrees with him.
“He has a lot of the ingredients that you would look for,” Littlepage said of London. “I think he is a coach that day in and day out puts everything that he has into coaching his team, and he puts everything he has into representing the University of Virginia and everything it stands for.
“You can tell it on the sidelines. You can tell it when he’s out in the public. You can tell it when you meet with him in the office, that he believes in this institution and he believes in these kids and his coaching staff, and he shows that enthusiasm and passion for what he’s doing day in and day out.”
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