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Ratcliffe: Virginia football makes necessary upgrades

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Posted: Thursday, May 2, 2013 9:00 pm | Updated: 9:43 pm, Thu May 2, 2013.

Without question, Virginia has invested heavily in an attempt to raise the profile of its football program.

A brand new indoor practice facility named for its Hall of Fame coach George Welsh is a facility many coaches around the country would pine for. Restocking the coaching staff with experienced coaches didn’t come cheap but no one blinked at the expense. Upgrading the nonconference schedule with the likes of Oregon, BYU, Boise State, UCLA and Stanford, not to mention future ACC opponents like Louisville and partial member Notre Dame, have made UVa an attractive place for future recruits.

Now, all coach Mike London has to do is weave it all together and win.

All of the aforementioned additions should help London’s program to build into a consistent winner. Jon Oliver, UVa’s executive associate athletic director knows from personal history what happens when a program doesn’t respond to a losing season or conference expansion and it isn’t pretty.

“I’ve seen what that looks like and if you don’t do anything financially to address it …” Oliver said.

He didn’t finish his statement. He didn’t have to.

His first reaction during Virginia’s recent 4-8 season was to upgrade the coaching staff. In a two-part series earlier this week, Oliver documented his thinking on giving London the help needed in terms of new assistant coaches, veterans that included three former head coaches and another who had been a coordinator at a couple of college football powerhouses.

While some of the fan base might have raised its collective eyebrows over some of the new salaries, most who understood modern college football had no reservations.

UVa will pay $2.5 million (ballpark) for its assistant coaching staff in 2013, about $400,000 more than in 2012. Big money? Yup. But not the biggest.

“I would say that we rank fifth or sixth in the ACC in paying our assistant coaching staff,” Oliver said. “Clearly for what we got, we feel pretty good about it. We’re not paying outrageous in terms of what other people are paying, even in our own conference.”

Clemson, which pays SEC kinds of money to its assistants, by far leads the ACC in staff salaries at more than $4 million, while Florida State is somewhere around $3 million. Virginia Tech, Maryland and even N.C. State paid respective assistant coaches more in 2012 than did UVa.

Because Miami, Boston College, Duke and Wake Forest are private schools, no one outside really knows what they pay.

Oliver is hoping that it’s a big step in helping the Cavaliers rebound from a 4-8 campaign and returns London’s program on the proper path.

Oliver’s goal, as is London’s, is to compete for the Coastal Division championship every year, which puts the program in the hunt for the ACC title. There’s never conversation about a certain number of wins being acceptable, even though he mentioned 7 or 8 wins in the first part of the series.

“To me, success at Virginia, and I don’t care what anybody says, means seven or eight wins a year,” Oliver said. “You have to be realistic and if you get lucky and something great happens, then boom, that’s gravy.”

Oliver wasn’t trying to cap UVa’s win total at seven or eight. He expects more. Seven or eight, he believes should be the minimum wins.

Realistic Wahoo fans understand what he’s talking about. As great as Welsh was during his 19-year reign, his 134 wins averaged out to 7 wins per season over that stretch. Throw out his first year of transition, a 2-9 season, and the average jumps slightly from 7.05 to 7.33 wins a year.

Those are minimum 11-game seasons, some 12-game and some 13-game seasons thrown in via postseason or special preseason games.

Before Wahoo Nation goes on the warpath on Oliver’s comment about a minimum of 7 or 8 wins a year, everyone should take a short dose of history.

Over the 28 seasons prior to London’s taking over the team (the Welsh and Al Groh eras), Virginia enjoyed only one 10-win season (1989), the only 10-win season in school history. There have been a total of five — count ‘em, five — 9-win seasons (three by Welsh, two by Groh); and a total of six 8-win seasons.

If my math is right, and don’t count on it, that’s 12 seasons in 28 years of eight or more wins.

While that doesn’t lower Oliver’s or London’s expectations, those numbers do reveal the challenges ahead. Certainly the influx of veteran coaching knowledge will help as will the new indoor facility and the attractive schedule.

All those things catch the eyes of recruits and as longtime ACC coach Bill Dooley used to recite over and over again, “Recruiting is the lifeblood of any program.”

We sportswriters used to give Dooley grief about over-using the statement, but he was right.

When the nation’s No. 1 safety prospect, Virginia Beach’s Quin Blanding, committed to UVa not long ago, he was blown away by what the Cavaliers had to offer. The first to set foot on the new practice field outside the Welsh indoor facility, Blanding raved over the commitment Virginia had made to football improvement, including the new practice building and coaches, not to mention the academics.

“Do we need to recruit better?” Oliver said. “No question. And some of our kids we have here now have to step up and not get used to losing.”

Overall, he likes the direction of London’s recruiting effort and pointed out that some of the new coaches have already given the program a boost in that area.

“A kid comes in to look at us and asks, ‘Who is my position coach going to be?’ then sees that this assistant or that assistant has put people in the pros, and he has to say ‘hmmm,’” Oliver said.

While some fans worry if Virginia can compete against such a challenging nonconference schedule, Oliver believes that playing big-time competition is only one piece of the puzzle.

“The scheduling approach isn’t just about upgrading the schedule,” Oliver said. “We have coaches going out west and talking to players and players are listening. We’ve received some calls from kids out there.

“Today’s world with the TV contracts, it’s a national thing and if you’re playing high-profile games, kids will look at you,” Oliver said. “Plus we have the Virginia degree to sell. Parents get that.”

Not everyone can go to Stanford, so Oliver believes that Virginia can attract those kinds of athletes after the program gets its fill of state and regional players. The Stanford model certainly is a good one.

When recruits visit schools, they usually come in looking for negatives first, so Oliver is trying to eliminate negatives so that when those kids check the pros/cons boxes, UVa will have a chance with all of them.

“Kids know they’re playing against big-time competition every single year of their career and they get excited about who they’re playing over a four- or five-year career,” Oliver said. “Big-time competitors look for those things. We’ve got to attract better kids and more of them.”

All part of the strategy of turning Virginia back into a winner.

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