When Virginia Athletic Director Craig Littlepage hired Mike London to be the school’s next football coach in December 2009, he thought that one day London would put the program in position to compete for ACC championships. He hoped London would be able to turn the program around quickly, after the Cavaliers went 8-16 in the final two seasons of former Coach Al Groh’s tenure.
But on Tuesday, Littlepage acknowledged in a telephone interview that the degree of success the Virginia football team (8-3, 5-2 ACC) has experienced this season has left him somewhat astonished.
When asked if in August he thought Virginia’s 2011 regular season finale against Virginia Tech essentially would serve as a play-in contest for the ACC title game – as it will when the Cavaliers host the Hokies (10-1, 6-1) on Saturday – Littlepage said, “Honestly, I would not have been able to make that kind of prediction.”
Certainly, he is not alone in that regard. London himself acknowledged Tuesday that he has been pleasantly surprised by the expedited nature of the Cavaliers’ turnaround. Virginia went 4-8 in 2010 – London’s first season at the helm – and while Littlepage expected to witness tangible signs of on-the-field progress, he did not expect this much this quickly.
“The thought was that if we can put ourselves in position to compete every game, put ourselves in position where we have the opportunity to win every game, there was a feeling that, for any number of different implications, that the Virginia Tech game would be an important game,” Littlepage said. “Maybe it would have been an important game because it would have been the opportunity for us to win the sixth game and qualify for a bowl or some other sort of accomplishment or goal along the way.
“It just so happens that we’ve won eight games at this point, and we see ourselves certainly in a position for this game to have greater significance than just being the sixth win and getting us to a bowl. It’s the opportunity to get to the [ACC] championship game and play in an attractive bowl game as a result.”
Littlepage – who has been to every football contest, home and away, this season – said the game that stood out to him as an indication that perhaps London’s squad might exceed expectations was the Cavaliers’ 24-21 win Oct. 15 over then-No. 12 Georgia Tech.
Virginia had was coming off a three-game stretch in which it had lost at North Carolina, fell at home to Southern Mississippi and then needed overtime to defeat Idaho at home. In light of all that, Littlepage said he was impressed by the “tremendous amount of preparation, patience and confidence on the part of everybody in [the Virginia] locker room” that helped lead the Cavaliers to victory over Georgia Tech.
“At that point, I realized that if we can just continue to play with the same sort of confidence and competitive spirit, continue to learn week-in and week-out, that we certainly did have a chance to accomplish some things beyond quote ‘just getting to a bowl game,’ ” Littlepage said. “For me, it’s always been about more than just getting to a bowl game, but playing in games that are significant in the month of November and the chance to play for championships.”
Virginia – which prior to this season had not won a game in November since 2007 – is 3-0 this month entering Saturday’s contest. The Cavaliers are ranked No. 24 in the Associated Press top 25 poll, and Virginia Tech is ranked No. 6.
Littlepage said he didn’t know if there was a way to quantify how long he originally thought it would take for London to get the program into the position in which it currently finds itself.
“All that we were confident of is that we would see improvement in the 2011 season over 2010,” Littlepage said. “We haven’t accomplished everything that we thought we could accomplish, but certainly we have seen the kind of progress in year two that gives us the feeling that our best days are yet to come.
“With the continued hard work on the part of everybody associated with the program, we’re confident that we’re going to have the kind of program that is capable of winning championships.”