Major college football coaches’ stocks rise and fall with the sound of the final gun every Saturday, but scrutiny and pressure are constants, both for the men on the sideline and their employers.
The University of Virginia is a case in point. Two years ago, Coach Mike London was a hot commodity, fresh off an 8-4 regular season, a bowl berth and ACC Coach of the Year honors. That led to a contract extension. Then the tide turned.
Now in the fourth season of a seven-year, $15-million deal, London ended Saturday with an 18-28 record, which calculated to an average of $426,288 per victory, based on his total current wins and pay through the end of the season. The program that seemed full of promise in 2011 has tumbled to the bottom of the ACC Coastal Division standings, 0-5, 2-7 overall.
Still, UVa Athletics Director Craig Littlepage said last week that London remains right for the job guiding the school’s top money-making sports program.
“When we hired Mike, we then felt he was a great fit for the University of Virginia,” Littlepage said. “In that December 2011-January 2012 timeframe when we extended him, we knew that he was still a great fit and I believe, to this day, he’s a great fit at the University of Virginia .”
London was the ACC’s second-highest paid coach last season at $2.5 million, second only to Florida State ’s Jimbo Fisher, who made $2.7 million, according to a USA Today salaries database. Virginia Tech’s Frank Beamer, college football’s winningest active coach, made $2.4 million. Nick Saban, coach of national champion Alabama , became America ’s highest-paid coach in the spring when he signed an extension that pays him $5.62 million a year until 2020, according to ESPN.
This season, London is due to make slightly less than $2.2 million, according to his contract, obtained by The Daily Progress in an open records request.
Firing coaches who fail to deliver wins is commonplace in major college football — more than 30 teams entered this season with new coaches. But making a change with coaches in the middle of long-term deals isn’t cheap — the remainder of the contract usually must be covered in a buyout.
Littlepage said he hasn’t considered the amount in London ’s case.
“Hasn’t crossed my mind,” Littlepage said.
The cost of buying out the remaining three years of London ’s deal following this season would be approximately $8.06 million. Buying out London ’s assistants would cost UVa another $3.56 million.
Five assistants were hired over the offseason. That group includes defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta, who is under contract through 2017.
London signed an amendment in his contract in January to free up money for assistants, giving up $31,800 apiece this season and next.
London ’s original contract following his hiring in December 2009 ran through December 2014. He, Littlepage and UVa President Teresa A. Sullivan — who declined to be interviewed for this story — signed the extension in December 2011, shortly before UVa fell to Auburn in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. The Cavaliers haven’t made a bowl appearance since.
“I recall around the time of the Chick-fil-A Bowl, while in Atlanta and on the return trip where many of our UVa fans commented on how we should move to keep Mike London at the University of Virginia ,” Littlepage said.
The Chick-fil-A Bowl appearance was the Cavs’ first trip to the postseason since 2007. London was just three years removed from winning a Football Championship Subdivision national championship at the University of Richmond at the time.
His stock was high enough that he was rumored to be in the running for the top job at Penn State , which in November 2011 was mired in scandal over former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky’s arrest on charges he’d sexually assaulted boys.
London denied a Washington Post report that Penn State had reached out to him to gauge his interest in the post before firing legendary coach Joe Paterno.
The connection from that exposure to London ’s contract extension likely wasn’t a coincidence, said Mike Bellotti, an ESPN college football analyst who spent 36 years as a head coach and two years as the University of Oregon ’s athletics director.
“As soon as somebody becomes a coach of the year or has immediate success somewhere,” Bellotti said, “they also tend to become an interest or a draw for other schools looking for a coach. So sometimes, you’re bidding against future success. You’re not saying that you’re going forever, but you’re sort of warding off the other suitors, so to speak.”
Since signing his extension, London is 6-16 with just four wins over teams from the Football Bowl Subdivision — college football’s top tier.
Regarded as a talented recruiter, London entered this season facing a difficult schedule and middling expectations. The Cavaliers opened the season 2-1 before stumbling into its current six-game skid. The defeats came in wide variety with the offense a no-show at Pittsburgh, penalties and turnovers dooming the Cavs against Ball State, a last-second field goal miss finishing them at Maryland, the defense unable to hold a 22-0 lead over Duke and the offense unable to turn five takeaways into points against Georgia Tech.
Littlepage said there’s more to see than the final scores.
“I think if you look closely at the games this year, we’ve been within a possession of being tied or taking the lead in probably every one of the ballgames, except for the Oregon game, in the fourth quarter,” he said. “Now, that’s not our goal, to be within a possession or to be tied to be within striking distance. Our goal is to have success and to win.
“But our coaches, in my opinion, have done a good job preparing our players and the players, although there’s been some penalties and some mistakes along the way, they’ve continued to learn and they got out to win. Nobody has given up and I think that’s a reflection of how they’re coached. They work hard.”
London echoes that.
“We are committed to winning,” he said last week. “No one wants to win more than I do. No one wants to win more than the players.”
Those players make up a roster that’s among the youngest in the country. Only the University of Central Florida has fewer seniors than UVa’s eight. Thirty-five freshmen or sophomores, including four true freshman starters, appeared on the depth chart for the Clemson game Saturday.
“This year, there are some young players that have gotten a lot of snaps both in practice, as well as in live-action,” Littlepage said. “Really, the live-action is really what it’s all about in terms of guys being able to adjust, adapt, execute. Time is needed to react to things, but the idea that so many players are getting the experiences that they’re getting this year, it allows them to anticipate instead of react. I think that that’s critical in terms of whatever the sport that you might be playing.”
Even before the season began, administrators were urging fans to be patient, a message Sullivan shared during a January visit with the editorial board of The Daily Progress. When offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild was hired that same month, Executive Associate Athletics Director Jon Oliver said in a release: “We are in the process of implementing new systems on both sides of the ball. These types of changes take time and we will need to be patient as we seek to improve this football program.”
The numbers suggest fans have grown restless.
UVa’s 48-27 loss to Ball State last month drew just 38,228 spectators to Scott Stadium, the second-lowest in the London era. Two weeks later against Duke, the announced attendance was 39,071. Fans packed Scott Stadium, which seats 61,500, for UVa’s first two home games. School officials said after those games that the stadium had recorded $10.7 million in ticket revenues, including season ticket sales.
Improved results next season could bring the crowds back, Littlepage said.
“I think next year, certainly, will be a year where the fans will see the tangible results of the hard work that has gone in and the experience that these guys have gotten,” Littlepage said. “But I’m not ready to fast-forward to the ‘14 season because we still have four games remaining and we still have some opportunities to do some things that build the confidence of these guys in terms of what their abilities are as an individual, as a group and as a team.”
London has three games — including trips to lowly North Carolina and powerful Miami before returning home to face rival Virginia Tech on Nov. 30 — to build on his win total.
The pressure won’t go away.
“When you’re paying somebody anywhere from $2 [million] to $5 million per year, people say if they don’t win X-amount of games, whether that be 10-plus per year, they’re not getting their money’s worth,” Bellotti said. “The higher the salary, the lesser the patience toward turning things around.”