Virginia athletic director Craig Littlepage is nothing if not thoughtful and effusive, so many of his remarks during our hour-long interview Tuesday about the Cavaliers’ football struggles are not included in my just-posted print column.
Ah, the beauty of blogging. Here is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Taking seats around a conference table in his office, we engaged in some holiday small talk before Littlepage said that football matters precluded any Thanksgiving travel.
Daily Press: That’s as good a place to start as any. Talk about the present and future of the program. Clearly this has not been the type of season anyone here envisioned.
Littlepage: You can start downstairs on the second floor with the coaching staff and the team. They are right in the middle of it. … They are dissatisfied as anybody might be, and rightfully so. They had high hopes and thoughts that this would be a very, very solid year. Understanding the kind of disappointment that we share around the university and around the football program, 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.
We’ve had penalties at inopportune times, we’ve made mistakes at inopportune times. We’ve been one of those teams that seems to have had every mistake blow up and become a big mistake. Third-and-21 at Maryland with the game on the line, the plays against Miami this weekend. …
Those sorts of things have been the story of the season. I think the acclimation of the team and the acclimation of the talent so to speak to new systems, offensively and defensively. We’ve played a lot of young kids, but there a lot of teams playing young kids. We’ve had some injuries, but every team has injuries. I just think it’s been kind of a combination of anything that could have gone south on us has gone south at one point or another … at critical times in the games.
DP: You have been very adamant in your support of Mike London and his staff throughout the season. Has anything you have seen over the course of the last couple of months given you cause to rethink?
Littlepage: No. I have been, as you said, consistent in my support of Mike. That continues. He is going to be our coach and he is going to be successful.
DP: Nothing you have seen this season gives you pause about game management?
Littlepage: I know our coaches and team have been through the preparation that allows for managing the type of situations to which you referred. Often in these cases, there are varying philosophies about how a team should handle things. Do you go with the onside kick or rely on your defense to come up with a stop? do you go for the PAT or do you go for the 2-point conversion? How and when are timeouts used? 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.
DP: How can you help him?
Littlepage: We’ll take a look globally. What is it that other similarly situated programs might be doing that might be applicable to our situation? Where are we in terms of facilities? Where are we in terms of out-of-season programs, and where are we in terms of other support services? Where are we in terms of what are we doing from a technical standpoint offensively and defensively? And just making sure that there’s not something that we’re missing that other programs that are performing … are doing.
DP: Even in good times, I’m sure your inbox overflows. What’s it like now?
Littlepage: I say one of the best parts of my job is I get a lot of free advice. I’d say there is a wide variance. There are those that understand what we’re going through. ‘We understand what these coaches are trying to do, these young people are good representatives and citizens.’ There’s a large group that’s kind of in the middle, that’s wait-and-see. ‘We’re hopeful. We trust that everybody knows what has to be done to get the ship on track.’ And then there’s a group that’s very vocal that is fed up, frustrated, etc., and I understand all three categories, and I hear from all three. That’s not all that unusual. …
Good things that come through in situations like this and the fact that people are expressing, even if they’re expressing displeasure, they care. And that’s a lot better than people that are just silent and walk away.
DP: How often do those above you, President Sullivan and the Board of Visitors, weigh in?
Littlepage: I talk to the president, and I’m in the vice presidents’ and cabinet meetings on a weekly basis. I have access to her whenever it might be appropriate. We talk, but I have not heard from her or anybody else that would be alarming to me in terms of what I think needs to be done. This is not a decision that resides anywhere other than the athletics department and the athletics director.
DP: What is your interpretation of President Sullivan’s view on football and athletics? She worked at schools with big-time programs, Texas and Michigan.
Littlepage: I would say that generally she is a fan of our program, of our athletics department and the football program, and she understands the value a top-performing department and a competitive football program can bring. So from that standpoint, I would say that her level of support is at a very good level, but not to the extent of trying to micromanage or make decisions or anything along those lines. She operates under the mantra, ‘No surprises.’
DP: Many have wondered whether finances, the cost of buyouts, played a role in staff retention.
Littlepage: When we made changes last year, 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. I have not gotten to the point of trying to put pencil to paper and figure out what the cost implications are. 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).
DP: Is it commonplace in the industry for buyouts to include all income rather than just base salary?
Littlepage: It’s pretty common, particularly among FBS schools. I wouldn’t try to suggest every single one of them because I think within FBS there’s a very wide range. But the schools in the major conferences are pretty common in that regard.
DP: Is there any second thought to any of your future non-conference schedules, and if not, do you think you’re being too ambitious?
Littlepage: 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. 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. I think we have to get to a point where our performance in the conference games is at a level that is where we want to be. It’s not that I’m focused strictly on the conference games, but certainly that’s where we’ve got to show that we’re a club that has something to offer.
DP: So there are no thoughts of paring back?
Littlepage: No, 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 guarantee games that nobody wants to see. … So we scheduled Oregon, we scheduled Brigham Young and some (others) down the road that people 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.
DP: What will your expectations be next season?
Littlepage: That’s part of what will be taking place as we have our conversations in the offseason.
DP: This is your fifth losing season in six years, the worst downturn since before George Welsh. What happened?
Littlepage: “I don’t have an answer right now, 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 in terms of 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.
DP: How much does poor attendance bother you, in terms of the impression it gives and it’s effect on the bottom line?
Littlepage: It bothers anybody in the seat that I occupy, but more so the fact that we’re struggling on the field, and I think it follows that the enthusiasm of the fans is going to be impacted when you’re having the kind of season we’re having. But these things don’t last forever. It is cyclical in many respects. … We will do everything that we can to reverse that trend and to build the enthusiasm again, but quite candidly, I think it’s going to rely on what happens on the field. Wins and losses, but also, how you’re playing, and quite simply, we’ve got to play better.
DP: There’s an impression among fans that the administration in general, and (executive associate AD) Jon Oliver in particular, has perhaps micromanaged the football program, that the staff changes were mandated. Jon has been the driving force in scheduling. A fair point? An accurate point?
Littlepage: People don’t understand the job that Jon does first of all, and the confidence that I have in him, based on what he has done here, based on his experience at Washington State as well. And here’s an example. Somebody was upset that Jon is on the sideline. You look at lacrosse, (senior women’s administrator) Jane Miller is on the sideline. You look at soccer, (associate AD) Valerie Richardson or Jane Miller, depending on if it’s men’s or women’s soccer, is on the sideline. That’s a micro look at the fans. They’re just trying to find something. I don’t respond to that other than to say Jon is doing his job, he’s doing it very well, and his job is to support our coaches and support our program and to be proactive in terms of a lot of the things will be doing in looking at the global situation around the country.
The things we’ve done in terms of facilities. Jon has been involved. We would not have the kind of facilities that we have right now whether it’s the indoor (practice complex for football), or Davenport Field, or the track, the work that was done on the John Paul Jones Arena, without Jon.
DP: Were the staff changes mandated?
Littlepage: Those are discussions and decisions that are made by mutual agreements and what is it that we have to do to get better.
DP: And Jon will continue to oversee football?
Littlepage: Yes. He plays a similar role with men’s basketball. … Again, I have a great deal of confidence. He’s one of the absolute best in the country and the work that he does not only for us, but the work that he does … in terms of NCAA work, he’s outstanding.
DP: Is he the heir apparent?
Littlepage (smiling): I don’t know.
DP: There’s no understanding?
Littlepage: I have a great deal of confidence in him and when the time comes, I will let my thoughts be known about it. I have not been focused on anything other than, we’ve got to get this going in football.
We’re trying to fix football, and that’s it. 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.
DP: You have mentioned looking globally at other programs. Can you expound? Looking from the outside, you wonder what else you all can do.
Littlepage: That’s the big question. Stanford probably would be the model. Notre Dame, Vanderbilt, UCLA, schools that would be regarded as top tier and rigorous academic programs that also are producing on the field. Northwestern in most (years), the academies, Navy, Air Force in most years. If there is a level of consistent performance at programs like that, we’re doing a lot of great things in our program, so we should not settle for anything less than a level of consistent performance as well. …
We also have to look at the ACC because that’s our bread and butter right there. So you go around the country, you look at facilities, you talk to administrators, you talk to football coaches. You see what they’re doing from a student services point of view. Is there something we’re missing? Is there something we could be doing differently in recruiting? Those are the kinds of things we’ve got to take a lot of time to study and make some judgments on how we’re operating.
DP: Mike’s very good at putting on a brave public face. He’s a glass-half-full guy. When you see him, is he still upbeat?
Littlepage: I can share with you that it’s tearing him up inside and that it bothers him that we haven’t had the kind of success that we would have wanted and that he feels he owes to us as a university community. … As you said, he’s going to be upbeat to the degree he can, and when I say upbeat, I mean he’s going to be positive in how he approaches his job, he’s going to be positive with his staff, he’s going to be positive with his kids, he’s going to be positive within the community. He’s not going to let us down in terms of lashing out and doing something that might cause greater concern about his ability to do the job in the way we want it done.
DP: Has he come to you and said, ‘I need this’?
Littlepage: I can’t think of any one thing that he has said he and his staff need. Certainly when we did not have the indoor facility, that was something that was important, not only for its value to the team on a day like this but for the message it sends in terms of institutional support. … It just takes one thing away from the ammunition that a rival recruiter might (use).
With high school prospects, a lot of it is based on what they see, and a lot of that is based on facilities. That’s one of the things you have to be proactive in addressing and making sure you’re not falling behind the competition.
DP: You’re a former (basketball) coach who was fortunate enough to experience ultimate highs (the 1981 Final Four as a U.Va. assistant) and who was in it long enough to experience the lows. What advice do you give to Mike?
Littlepage: In this kind of situation in sports, when things get off the rails, as the head coach you must isolate and understand the issue , then gather your staff and other resources, and develop your plan. The plan is based on values, beliefs, and philosophies of how you do things. You don't stray from those core values and beliefs or your philosophy. Instead you stick to your plan.
In sports, you're always faced with the need for Plan B. Plan B is needed because there will be injuries, foul trouble, suspensions, how the scoreboard reads and a host of reasons that you must adapt to changing circumstances. So 'sticking to your plan' shouldn't imply inflexibility from adapting. Sports teaches that you have to adapt, but by sticking to your plan, your core values, beliefs and philosophy are consistent.
DP: What haven’t I asked? What else is out there?
Littlepage: Well, there’s been some attention to recruiting, particularly when you look at a situation like Andrew Brown [the nation’s top-rated defensive lineman from Chesapeake’s Oscar Smith High]. Here’s one of the top kids in the country, and he wants to play for Mike London.
DP: What’s that tell you?
Littlepage: I think that tells me an awful lot about our coach, that he is widely respected, again we’re just talking about one kid now, but one of the best in the country and certainly one of the best in the state as well. They have gotten to know Coach London and they’ve gotten to hear all the naysayers and everything else, but he wants to be here and play for Coach London. He made a commitment and he will be here in a couple of weeks.
DP: You and Jon hired Mike. How vested are you in him? He’s your guy.
Littlepage: All of our coaches have to be my guys, if you will. But with Mike specifically, because of the type of person that he is and the way in which he wants to coach and develop his young men, the way in which he wants to represent this university, I have no problem at all committing myself to Mike London as our coach. Again, if he had been here prior to me becoming the athletics director, I would feel the same way.
DP: Prior to the Chick-fil-A Bowl (in 2011) you extended Mike’s contract and gave him a raise. Did you think you were going to lose him? Was it a reward?
Littlepage: Both. All of the above. There were some situations that were brewing in terms of some openings. … There was some bona fide interest. But as much as anything, the kind of season that we had. … I still feel as though that was a good decision, that it will bear fruit. You don’t get a chance to second-guess in our business, and I’m not inclined to second-guess. We made the best decision at that time, and I think it’s going to be something that in the long term is a positive thing.
DP: You have not wavered?
Littlepage: No. Have not wavered.
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