Anyone who follows University of Virginia football anticipated and/or endorsed offseason staff changes. The Cavaliers’ fifth losing record in the last seven years and a ninth consecutive defeat to Virginia Tech could not be ignored.
But few expected the dismissals announced Sunday.
Tight ends coach Shawn Moore is a program icon, a former All-America quarterback whose son is a promising defensive end on the team.
Jim Reid coordinated a defense that ranked 31st nationally in yards allowed and is a mentor to head coach Mike London.
Defensive line coach Jeff Hanson coordinated recruiting that, from most all accounts, was upgrading the Cavaliers’ talent and depth.
Running backs coach Mike Faragalli oversaw a quality group, albeit one that slumped from 2011 levels.
None of which suggests the moves were not justified. What reporters, fans and other outsiders are not privy to is staff chemistry, within a specific team and also among the entire athletic department.
There is little doubt that firing Moore, Reid, Hanson and Faragalli – all except Moore are long-time colleagues -- pained London, as loyal and decent a gentleman as you will find. But we don’t know how any of the four interacted with their co-workers and superiors.
Moreover, it’s entirely possible, if not probable, that London’s bosses encouraged or mandated these specific changes.
Finally, as if often the case with statistics, there are numbers to spin this as absolutely necessary. Virginia ranked 70th in scoring defense, 97th in sacks and 96th in rushing offense while finishing last in the ACC’s Coastal Division for the third time in four years.
In the last three seasons, the Cavaliers were 113th, 64th and 102nd nationally in turnovers gained.
The paramount questions now: Whom might Virginia target as replacements? What is the ideal profile? And might more changes transpire?
Let’s address in reverse order.
Offensive coordinator Bill Lazor pursued the Georgia State head-coaching vacancy that went to Indiana State big whistle Trent Miles, and last offseason he interviewed for a staff position with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. His departure would not surprise, especially given that he and London often sent conflicting signals on the quarterback juggling of the last two seasons.
What London most needs is assistants with extensive Bowl Subdivision experience. The group he assembled in 2010 was essentially a Championship Subdivision group that had neither coached nor recruited at the highest levels.
Faragalli was Bowling Green’s offensive coordinator for eight years, and offensive line coach Scott Wachenheim worked 12 years at Rice under former Clemson head coach Ken Hatfield. But other than Anthony Poindexter, no one on London’s staff served more than two seasons at a power conference program.
An All-America safety at Virginia, Poindexter was the Cavaliers’ running backs assistant for five seasons under former head coach Al Groh. Poindexter tutors safeties now and Sunday was stripped of special teams coordinator duties, an obvious move given Virginia’s myriad issues there the last two years.
The candidate pool for London won’t be completely evident until the postseason concludes next month, but if he wants to move quickly for recruiting purposes, there are quality folks on the market.
Jon Tenuta is a 1982 Virginia graduate and former defensive coordinator at Marshall, Kansas State, SMU, Ohio State, North Carolina, Georgia Tech and Notre Dame. Most recently, he served as Tom O’Brien’s associate head coach for defense/linebackers at North Carolina State.
Tenuta’s blitz-first-ask-questions-later approach has thrived in many settings.
At Ohio State in 2000, his defense was the Big Ten’s stingiest, allowing 18 points per game, 12th nationally. The following year at North Carolina, his group led the ACC in total defense and was third in scoring defense.
At Georgia Tech in 2004, the Yellow Jackets were 12th nationally in total defense, 13th against the run and 21st in points allowed. In 2007, Georgia Tech led the nation in sacks.
Tenuta figures to have options, but returning to his alma mater might be a lure, more so because his wife, Dori Gamble, played basketball there. The flip side is, Tenuta and other candidates might view Virginia as risky if they’re not convinced London is secure long-term.
Keith Willis coached the defensive line for O’Brien the last dozen years, six each at Boston College and N.C. State. A Northeastern graduate, he played 12 seasons as an NFL defensive end and had a career-best 14 sacks for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1993, another 12 in 1996.
Fired by delusional N.C. State -- athletic director Debbie Yow said she wants Alabama-caliber talent -- for the unpardonable sin of going 9-4, 8-5 and 7-5 the last three seasons, O’Brien would be a great get as an associate head coach. London worked for him at Boston College, and he spent 15 seasons at Virginia (1982-96) as an assistant to George Welsh.
But O’Brien, 64, is in no rush to leap back in, particularly as an assistant. The Cavaliers will pitch him hard, but closing the sale will be difficult.
Joker Phillips was fired last month after his Kentucky teams went 12-23 in three seasons. But he’s considered an excellent receivers coach and recruiter and has also worked at Cincinnati, Notre Dame and South Carolina.
(A few hours after this post, reports emerged that Phillips will become receivers coach at Florida.)
After two seasons as a graduate assistant at Virginia, Marques Hagans could well be promoted. A Hampton High graduate and former Cavaliers receiver and quarterback, he has the personality, connections and determination to grow as a teacher and recruiter.
Those traits mirror London, who arrived at Virginia with only two years of head-coaching experience, both at FCS Richmond. Given his background, London’s original staff, in hindsight, needed more high-rent credentials.
The time for correction has arrived.
“This university and its fans deserve a program that competes for championships,” London said in a statement Sunday. “In order to do that we need to make improvements in every aspect of our football operation.”
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