CHARLOTTESVILLE,VA. — CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- As it rose quietly through the national rankings this season, the University of Virginia football team barely attracted more than a glance of interest outside the corridor that runs a couple of hundred miles north and south of the campus. But when the unbeaten Cavaliers became the No. 1 team in the country three weeks ago, the scrutiny of the program off the field intensified.
Skepticism reigns now on the eve of the Cavaliers' nationally televised game against 16th-ranked Georgia Tech at Scott Stadium tomorrow. And it might be there for a while, should Virginia continue its march through this remarkable season, one that is likely to conclude with the Cavaliers vying for their first national championship. It is a notion that some around here still find a little difficult to fathom.
The spotlight has brought some obvious, unavoidable questions. How did Virginia put itself in the position to be considered among the elite, and will head coach George Welsh be able to sustain this success for the long term? And, in the process of going from dormant to dominant, have the Cavaliers compromised themselves academically? Is Thomas Jefferson, the school's founder and its inescapable presence, leading the cheers or turning in his grave?
"We lost games for so long that people here came to think the reason we lost was because we were academically honest," university president John Casteen said yesterday. "But I believe this goes to show that you can do both equally well."
Consider how long, and how often, the Cavaliers had lost. Before Welsh's arrival from the Naval Academy in 1982, Virginia had endured 12 losing seasons in 13 years and had only two winning records in 29 years. In one particularly dismal stretch between 1958 and 1961, the team dropped 28 straight games; in the last eight years of Gene Corrigan's decade as athletic director, which ended in 1981, the school had three coaches.
Though most point to Welsh's hiring as the most important event in this turnaround, many say instead that it was Corrigan's report tothen-university president Frank Hereford in 1978. The 14-page report concluded that the university's athletic picture had become so bleak that one of the options might be to drop out of the Atlantic Coast Conference and become I-AA in football, similar to the Ivy League.
"There was such an attitude, such a struggle about anything that had to do with athletics," said Corrigan, who left Virginia for Notre Dame and is now commissioner of the ACC. "We needed to make a statement one way or the other. Hereford was not a fan of athletics, but he knew that the University of Virginia stood for excellence, and that athletics was part of that. It became a very big issue."
But unlike the early 1950s, when Virginia nearly de-emphasized athletics and considered disbanding the football program at the suggestion of former player-turned-academician Robert Gooch, the school began to think it could achieve a sensible and successful balance between the two. It hired Dick Schultz from Cornell to succeed Corrigan. In turn, Schultz brought in Welsh to replace Dick Bestwick. Neither thought it was going to be an easy job.
"When I came there, a lot of people said to me that we could never have a strong football program," said Schultz, now executive director of the National Collegiate Athletic Association. They said that we were too tough academically, and that we couldn't get the players we needed or the numbers we needed. I challenged that feeling by saying that we could use the academics to get an edge in recruiting."
Said Welsh: "I had no timetable. But it became obvious to me after we had been here a year that we better win quickly or we wouldn't have any credibility."
After Virginia finished 2-9 in Welsh's first season, the Cavaliers slowly began to improve: 6-5 in 1983, 8-2-2 in 1984. But when the team started going backward, sliding to 6-5 in 1985 and bottoming out at 3-8 in 1986, there were many who suspected that Welsh had run into the same obstacles that had befallen his predecessors. The team was having trouble on the field, and its players' academic performances were being criticized.
"A lot of the players who George inherited from the previous coaching staff thought they were here to play football and have a good time," said one athletic department official who wished to remain anonymous. "I remember one of the guys telling two first-semester freshmen that he didn't buy any books, and that he didn't need to."
In 1986, the university instituted more stringent rules for students to stay in good academic standing; as a result, a handful of football players were suspended from school. It was also around that time that the university began what is called "the transition program," which enables economically and educationally disadvantaged, mostly in-state students to be admitted each year. Beginning in 1987, the Cavaliers have put together four straight winning seasons and a record of 32-11.
Richard McGuire, who heads the university's academic-support unit for athletes, said there is a correlation between improved performances in the classroom and on the field. Eight players who have prominent roles on this year's team, including quarterback and Heisman Trophy candidate Shawn Moore, already have received their undergraduate degrees and are attending graduate school. In this recent stretch, beginning in 1987, the Cavaliers have lost only two players because of academics.
"The coaches do a very good recruiting job; they evaluate well in terms of athletic talent and academic potential," said McGuire, who came to Virginia the year after Welsh. "It doesn't mean that they all have high [Scholastic Aptitude Test] scores. The coaches look at non-academic factors, at character. Does the kid go to class? Do the teachers like him? Did their parents go to college? Certain kids take themselves out, because people will tell them, 'You have to work too hard at Virginia.' "
Said Moore: "I struggled in high school, and when I first got here, I was intimidated academically. But there is such a camaraderie among the guys on the team, and the younger guys look up to the older guys and try to take after them on the field and in the classroom."
At a school where the average combined SAT score for all students is better than 1,200 of a possible 1,600, the average score for prospective football players usually is 200 to 300 points less. According to McGuire, of the 200 students admitted each year to the transition program, about 20 are scholarship athletes. Half of those are football players. While special admissions often are the lifeblood of nationally ranked football programs, Virginia officials insist that this isn't the case.
"What should not be implied is that this program is a bin that we use to stash athletes," said McGuire.
Recently, Jack Scarbath, a former All-American quarterback at the University of Maryland, reportedly charged that Virginia was recruiting players who could not be admitted to Maryland, where the average board score has risen steadily in the past few years but still is not at the level of Virginia's. Scarbath later denied making the charges, but the shock waves already had gone through the ACC.
"I do resent it, because it hasn't happened," Jim Copeland, Virginia's athletic director, said. "We graduate our kids at a rate of between 80 and 90 percent every year. George's attitude is that you educate the kids when they get here, and I tend to agree with him."
Said Welsh: "I don't think they're able to say that. As far as I know, the academic and admission standards are the same as when I got here."
According to Alan Williams, a history professor and the school's NCAA representative, the average combined SAT scores of incoming freshman players have not varied greatly during Welsh's tenure -- between 920 and 1,030 since 1974, compared with the general student population's scores of between 1,180 and 1,220. The average combined board score for the 1989 freshman football class was 948.
Of the 26 players who entered Virginia in 1984, 22 have graduated from the university, two graduated after transferring to other schools and one, a former dean's list student, died. Williams said that since Maryland toughened its admission standards after the death of Len Bias in 1986, it is possible that some Cavaliers might not have been able to become Terps.
"But when you come into an environment in which people are expected to succeed academically, chances are that you will survive as well," said Williams. "When everyone expects to graduate, you expect to graduate as well."
Mike Smith, who has sent at least a dozen players to Virginia in 20 years as head coach at Hampton(Va.) High School, said yesterday that he believes the academic standards have been raised during Welsh's reign. "They've gotten a little rougher up there," said Smith, whose star player from last year's team, tight end Aaron Mundy, is now a Cavalier. "But I wouldn't send any of my players there if I didn't think they could make it academically."
Another key ingredient in Virginia's rise has been its ability to keep in-state high school talent at home. In 1983, Welsh remembers losing tailback D.J. Dozier of Virginia Beach to Penn State, and linebacker Robert Banks of Hampton to Notre Dame.
Just look at this year's team, especially at the offensive skill positions.
Moore and tailback Nikki Fisher are from Martinsville. Wide receiver Herman Moore is from Danville. Tailback Terry Kirby, the most heralded Virginia high school football player in recent memory, is from Tabb, as is the team's rising defensive star, Chris Slade. "When we started to close the gates around the state, things began to get better," said Welsh. "Before that, the good players in the state would not even visit the campus."
All that has changed. There are a lot of people visiting the historic campus this weekend. Reporters from as far away as Los Angeles will be among the 300-plus media members covering the game. Scouts and administrators from several of the major bowl games will be there, and Scott Stadium will be sold out again. It is certainly beyond Welsh's wildest dreams, and probably beyond Jefferson's as well.
Would the man who once wrote, "Games played with the ball and others of that nature are too violent for the body and stamp no character on the mind" be celebrating right along with the rest of these Wahoos?
"I don't know him that well," said Welsh. "But some guy who called my radio show said that [Jefferson] would be flying the team plane. I don't know about that."
It is a ride to unimagined heights.