CHARLOTTESVILLE – When Coach Mike London first took over the Virginia football program before spring practice in 2009, he told assistants about his swear jar. Each time a coached cursed on the field or in the team’s facilities, a $1 donation would be made.
It was a practice London hoped would cultivate a family environment, and by last season, safeties coach Anthony Poindexter and former defensive coordinator Jim Reid were the only consistent culprits remaining on staff.
But the swear jar is no more, London confirmed one morning last week, as new defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta directed his unit in the background with a steady stream of expletives and playful insults. Or at least, the small fines are being ignored for now.
“That thing is overflowing right now,” London joked. “You’ll hear some things you might not want to, but it’s football. There’s a mentality and temperament that goes along with that. We’re a product of what the players want . . . and the expectations that we want to win and we want to win now.”
This renewed sense of urgency can be seen all over Virginia’s spring practice this year, the result of London’s second 4-8 campaign in three years as head coach and a meeting between London and the team’s returning veterans about what went wrong in 2012.
A tumultuous offseason led to the addition of four new coaches to London’s staff, and along with 67 combined years of experience as either a head coach or coordinator in college and pro football, they have brought new schemes on offense, defense and special teams. Practices, meanwhile, now feature more live tackling, greater competition and the sort of feistiness that has been “a breath of fresh air,” senior center Luke Bowanko said.
Tenuta is the loose cannon and the most visible on the practice field, with a penchant for not mincing words and not missing an opportunity to blitz opposing quarterbacks. Linebacker Henry Coley equated learning Tenuta’s scheme to another college class, calling much of what Virginia will implement this spring “a devil in a new dress” because the biggest change is simply different terminology.
“It’s intense, because that same attitude has to translate onto the field,” Coley added. “If he’s intense, we’re intense and we’re living through him. I always felt that’s how football needed to be.”
Tom O’Brien, Virginia’s new associate head coach for offense, tutors the team’s tight ends, but he’s also helping London with the nuances of being a head coach after spending the previous 15 years in that role at Boston College and North Carolina State. O’Brien doles out punishment in practice, and the hope is that it will carry over into games, where Virginia was the second-most penalized team in the ACC last year. On special teams, new coordinator Larry Lewis has already begun eschewing role players in favor of starters to improve that maligned unit.
Even though offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild is the least fiery of the new coaches and his scheme will rely on the same run-first principles that former offensive coordinator Bill Lazor favored – “You’ll see more of a commitment to the running game and not abandon it,” London explained — sophomore signal caller David Watford described Fairchild as “very critical of us, and there’s no ifs, ands, or between.”
Take, for instance, the new pecking order at quarterback ahead of Saturday’s spring game. Watford is atop the depth chart after redshirting last season, with redshirt freshman Greyson Lambert not far behind. Redshirt junior Phillip Sims, an Alabama transfer and the only returning quarterback who started games last season, is currently the No. 3 quarterback.
“It’s just an aggressive style of coaching,” said Poindexter, one of the holdovers from last year’s staff. “I think there’s a little more of an edge just because of the way last season went. It’s different personalities and everybody’s trying to feel each other out.”
This, though, is what Virginia’s administration had in mind when it prodded London to make changes to his staff. Athletic Director Craig Littlepage described the hiring and firing process as “collaborative” between he, London and executive associate athletic director Jon Oliver, who oversees the football program. Oliver declined multiple interview requests for this story.
But in doling out $5.19 million in salaries for Fairchild, O’Brien, Tenuta and Lewis, and adding home-and-home series with BYU, Oregon and Boise State over the next five seasons, Littlepage and Oliver have made it clear the goal is to raise sagging attendance figures at Scott Stadium and field a “consistently ranked program and a program that can consistently compete for division championships and therefore can play for an ACC championship and have a true playoff team.”
“We knew we weren’t gonna be able to do it on the cheap,” Littlepage added. “We knew we had to show the commitment.”
Even if that means suspending the swear jar for a while.