Two unmistakable signs that your football season has veered awry: The program is poised to match its longest losing streak in 30 years; the coach and athletic director write a joint letter to fans addressing player misbehavior.
Welcome to Saturday’s Virginia-Wake Forest game in Charlottesville.
The Cavaliers (2-5, 0-3 ACC) have flat-lined since a 2-0 start and are one defeat away from equaling their longest skid since 1982.
The Deacons (3-3, 1-3) suspended six players before their most recent contest, a 19-14 loss to Maryland two weeks ago, and two more the following week. The discipline involved testing positive for marijuana (the first six) and possession of marijuana (the latter two), the Winston-Salem Journal reported.
So while third-year Virginia coach Mike London defends the direction of his program, 12th-year Wake coach Jim Grobe, in tandem with athletic director Ron Wellman, defends the character of his recruits. Not what either coach envisioned doing at midseason.
Yet London and Grobe understand that as CEOs making about $2 million annually, they must produce and be accountable when they don’t.
London insists that the losing streak that reached five games with Saturday’s 27-20 setback to Maryland has not curbed his enthusiasm.
“If I look at you, how devastated you are, and I don't have that positive energy, you don't see that reflected in me, then that's a bad situation for the young man,” London said at his weekly presser Monday. “So when I go in and I face you guys, the media, the questions, I don't run, I don't hide from anything.
“I'm still very humble. Still I try to give honest answers. Maybe I talk too much about the players, coaches. But I don't try to duck any issues or questions, things that go on. I try to be as up front and honest about it. I trust in the fact that as we build this thing the right way, that this program, people, our fans, administrators, will be proud.”
But fans are restless, and have every right to be, about a team prone to turnovers on offense, glaring lapses on defense and special teams, critical penalties in all phases and occasional sideline confusion. Lose Saturday, and the Cavaliers escalate that restlessness.
“It's one of those things that you have to show these young men that adversity is going to happen in life,” London said. “We've experienced our fair share of it. At the same time, on the other side, I've always said I feel we're a few inches from making a catch or making a play, tipping a ball, whatever it maybe, to start or ignite a spark.
“We always talk about the positive things. I'm always looking to the positive things, evaluate what you are, what you're doing. These 18-, 19-year-olds are looking to the leadership, seeing what type of positive influences we can provide. That's what we're supposed to do.”
Fine sentiment that will fall on deaf ears absent results.
Given the program’s history and limitations, Wake’s five bowls and one ACC championship under Grobe, a Virginia graduate, are nothing short of remarkable. But since opening victories over Liberty and North Carolina, the Deacons have dipped this season.
Injuries, especially along the offensive line and to top-flight receiver Michael Campanaro, contributed. Against Maryland, so, too, did the suspensions. Four of the six excused from that game — cornerback Merrill Noel, linebacker Mike Olson, guard Frank Souza and safety Daniel Mack — are starters and back on the depth chart for Saturday.
Conversely, safety Duran Lowe and offensive tackle Kevin Bolling are suspended indefinitely following their arrests last week on marijuana charges.
Wake Forest is hardly alone in having a weed issue within a team. But given the small, Baptist school’s sensibilities, Grobe and Wellman, wrote their joint letter.
“Parents understand that children do make mistakes and sometimes do things that are seemingly self-centered or amazingly thoughtless,” they said. “We can assure you that we never take a young man into our program without recommendations from coaches, teachers, counselors, and school administrators. Recruiting is certainly not an exact science, and we diligently try to bring student-athletes to Wake Forest who will try their best to do what is right both on and off the field. …
“Parents are most heartbroken when their children make foolish decisions, but coaches run a close second. We are disappointed in the behavior of a few of our players but feel that our team will grow from the experience.”
The Cavaliers probably are more talented than the Deacons — London was wise to stick with Phillip Sims as this week’s starting quarterback — and should win. But given the fragile states of both, the game could well be decided between the ears.
“You know that if you don't have some of your better players on the field — whether it's by injury or other problems — that you're not going to be as good,” Grobe told the Winston-Salem Journal’s Dan Collins. “But one of the things you always worry about is the mental state of your football team. You know physically who's in and who's out and how that might affect you, but you never really have a good handle on the mental state until you get out there on Saturday and start playing.''
London would concur.
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