CHARLOTTESVILLE — Craig Littlepage scrapped Thanksgiving with family in his native Pennsylvania. He's delegating more to underlings and isn't nearly as conversant about early season college basketball as he'd like.
"We're trying to fix football, and that's it," said Littlepage, Virginia's athletic director. "This is important. I'm not focused on anything other than making sure that I'm doing everything that I can to get us back on that path to having a great program."
During an hourlong interview in his office Tuesday, Littlepage expressed profound disappointment in football's prolonged tailspin and uncertainty about the root causes. But echoing statements he's made throughout this season, Littlepage professed certainty that embattled head coach Mike London will return for a fifth year and that London is an essential element to long-term solutions.
Moreover, Littlepage said that ambitious future non-conference schedules, which many label delusional, will not be adjusted, and that the lieutenant who crafted those schedules, executive associate athletic director Jon Oliver, "is one of the absolute best in the country."
Littlepage's convictions are bound to anger what he acknowledged is a "very vocal" segment of supporters clamoring for London's dismissal and more measured scheduling.
That segment has considerable ammunition.
Entering Saturday's finale against Virginia Tech, Virginia is 2-9, 0-7 in the ACC. The Cavaliers haven't been winless in the conference since 1981, which also was their most recent 10-loss season.
Most troubling: 2013 is not an anomaly. This is Virginia's fifth losing record in six years, its third in four under London. The Cavaliers are 18-30 on London's watch, 8-23 versus the ACC.
Add annual quarterback drama and consistently puzzling game management — use of timeouts, accept-or-decline penalties, punt-or-go-for-it — and you have a stew of unrest.
So from the outside, and regardless of Saturday's outcome, London's football results — no one questions his unshakable commitment to academics and community service — inspire minimal confidence.
But Littlepage's faith is based on observations from the inside. From his third-floor perch in the McCue Center, he strolls down a flight of stairs to the football compound almost daily, meeting, encouraging, probing.
"I know our coaches and team have been through the preparation that allows for managing the type of situations to which you referred," Littlepage said. "Often in these cases, there are varying philosophies about how a team should handle things. …
"When you don't have success, there will be some second-guessing, and that's a part of all sports. …
"So I don't look at it just in terms of what happens in the game, but what is it that's happening on the practice field? What is it that's happening in the meeting room? What is it that's happening in the video/film sessions? I firmly believe that Mike London is going to be successful here at the University of Virginia."
On such internal matters, I defer to Littlepage, but if practices, meetings and video sessions were as efficient and effective as he says, the product would be much better.
Littlepage has been on the job since 2001, and in September the university's Board of Visitors voted him a five-year reappointment. He insisted that the decision to retain London was his alone, and that neither university president Teresa Sullivan nor the board has intervened.
Also, Littlepage said that the cost of dismissing London and the coaching staff did not influence his thinking. The full tab for buying out the remaining three years of London's contract, plus the contracts of his assistants, is more than $10 million, but that amount would have been reduced by salaries earned in subsequent coaching positions.
Delaying a coaching change for a year simply to trim $3 million-plus from the buyout would be the ultimate fool's errand. Another season like this would cost the athletic department far more in lost ticket revenue and donations.
Just look at this year's attendance. The average crowd for Virginia's five most recent home games was 41,271, more than 20,000 below capacity. That's 100,000-plus empty seats. Figure $50 a head, minimum, for a ticket and concessions and you get $5 million.
"I have not gotten to the point of trying to put pencil to paper and figure out what the cost implications are," Littlepage said. "It's always a consideration, but it's not going to be a factor that's going to tip the scales. I think it's all about whether there's a belief that Mike will get the job done, which I (have)."
Equally short-sighted would be to retain a coach based solely on a recruiting class. Acclaimed 2014 prospects Andrew Brown and Quin Blanding cited their trust of London in selecting the Cavaliers, but Littlepage said his support of the coaching staff transcends a recruiting snapshot.
A University of Richmond graduate, London guided his alma mater to the 2008 Championship Subdivision national title as a rookie head coach. He replaced the fired Al Groh at Virginia after the 2009 season and earned ACC Coach of the Year honors in 2011, when the Cavaliers went 8-5.
Virginia promptly awarded London a two-year contract extension and 23.5-percent raise, a curious decision for an institution that came to regret premature pay raises given to Groh and former basketball coach Pete Gillen.
"There were some situations that were brewing in terms of some (job) openings," Littlepage said. "There was some bonafide interest (in Mike). But as much as anything, (it was) the kind of season that we had. … I still feel as though that was a good decision, that it will bear fruit."
With considerable input from Littlepage and Oliver, London overhauled his staff following last season's 4-8 finish. The marquee hires were associate head coach for offense Tom O'Brien, a former big whistle at Boston College and North Carolina State, and defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta, a Virginia graduate and member of O'Brien's N.C. State staff.
Those moves bought London time.
"When we made changes last year," Littlepage said, "I think it was clear at the time, this was not looked at as a one-year, stopgap measure. We looked at the changes that were going to be made as being for the long-term."
Impeding the new coaching team this season was a non-conference schedule that included Brigham Young, Oregon and Ball State and ranked among the nation's most difficult. Next year is equally challenging with Brigham Young and UCLA, especially when combined with the ACC's Florida State and Louisville. And 2015 is harder still with UCLA, Boise State and Notre Dame.
Were Virginia positioned to challenge for the four-team national playoff coming to college football in 2014, such schedules might sway the event's selection committee. But for a program treading water, such ambition is a cement bodysuit.
"If we were performing better in the ACC and it was the non-conference schedule that was the hiccup, then I'd have more of an opinion that maybe we've overscheduled," Littlepage said. "But we've struggled both in the conference as well as out of the conference. So from that standpoint, I don't think the strength of the non-conference schedule has necessarily made it more difficult for us. …
"And here's another dimension of this: We've had seasons in which there's been some level of criticism that we've scheduled too soft in the non-conference. So you try to strike that balance, and it's not just at the University of Virginia, it happens at other programs, too. You're playing these … games that nobody wants to see. … So we scheduled Oregon, we scheduled Brigham Young and some other people down the road that (fans) want to see. And now it's, 'Did they overschedule?' I think that's just inherent in the job. You can't always thread the needle accurately unless you say we're going to schedule four wins without regard to how our fans feel."
Four games of the VMI/Eastern Michigan ilk would be excessive, but look at ACC Coastal Division leader Duke and the goodwill its 9-2 record has produced. Long bottom feeders, the Blue Devils are 4-0 outside the ACC against North Carolina Central, Troy, Memphis and Navy.
As the primary schedule maker and a visible presence on the sideline during games, Oliver is an inviting target for the program's disaffected supporters.
"People don't understand the job that Jon does, first of all," Littlepage said, "and the confidence that I have in him."
As this season has soured, Littlepage and Oliver have canvassed successful football programs at like-minded institutions such as Navy, Notre Dame, Stanford and UCLA to see what Virginia may lack in facilities, out-of-season programs and other support components. That process will continue during the offseason as the Cavaliers search for the progress that everyone, Littlepage included, will demand in 2014.
Irrelevant football was the norm at Virginia for much of the 1950s, '60s and '70s. But coach George Welsh, in concert with athletic directors Dick Schultz and Jim Copeland, built a program that authored 16 winning records in 17 seasons from 1983-99.
What in the name of the Barber twins has happened since?
"I don't have an answer right now," Littlepage said, "but it would be my goal to figure out what that answer might be. All I know is that we have tried very hard to provide the necessary resources in terms of everything that we do here (with) facilities, personnel.
"I don't have the answer, but there has to be something that we're not doing or we could be doing differently."
This much is clear: Absent tangible improvement in 2014, change will be unavoidable.
"Understanding the kind of disappointment that we share around the university and around the football program," Littlepage said, "it begins with the people directly affected, our players and coaches, and those of us that are shoulder-to-shoulder with them every single day."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun