Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series. Coming Thursday: Sleepless nights, and UVa’s Western invasion.
The McCue Center was fairly empty on Sunday, Nov. 25 of this past year.
Virginia’s football operations are headquartered there along with the athletic department’s administration offices, so two of the few inhabitants of the building that day were Cavaliers’ head football coach Mike London and Jon Oliver, UVa’s executive associate athletics director.
London’s team had just finished the season the day before, a dreary day in Blacksburg when his Cavaliers had come their closest to beating state rival Virginia Tech in what has become a lopsided rivalry. With rumors flying about potential staff changes in the wake of a disappointing 4-8 season, London was to meet with Oliver, the man charged with making sure that the coach has everything he needs to compete.
Many coaches would dread such a season-ending meeting. However, these two men meet regularly, have open conversations about what needs to be done, so it wasn’t one of those meets where the coach knocks on the administrator’s door and winces.
“When you go 16-17, you look at things a little differently,” Oliver said about the first three years of London’s era as head coach. “When Mike walked into the office, it wasn’t like, ‘Oh my, here it comes.’ Instead, he was prepared to talk about all that was wrong and what needed to be done. He wasn’t defensive, wasn’t just down, but had the attitude of ‘How do we get better as a football program?’”
Clearly there were going to be some staff changes, which is never an easy thing for a head coach or an administrator to do because it impacts families.
Still, both men realized that after seasons of 4-8, 8-5, and 4-8, that the program couldn’t afford to go 4-8 for the next three seasons.
“We had to do everything we could to change our fortunes,” Oliver said.
The meeting didn’t really dwell on the record, statistics, personalities, but Oliver was quick to remind London of what the head coach had stated was his vision for Virginia football when he was first interviewed for the job. Over the course of three seasons it appeared that London’s vision had strayed away from that initial intention and Oliver only wanted to remind him of those early goals.
From that point on, everything that followed including firing some assistant coaches, hiring new ones, was focused solely on the goal of returning Virginia football to London’s desire to establish an identity for his program.
Oliver and London worked together to identify coaches that could help the program get back on track. London was reminded that he couldn’t do everything by himself, which was too much of a burden for any coach.
Not only would some staff be fired, but some reshuffled, leaving London to hire a new defensive coordinator, a new special teams coach, a new running backs coach, a new defensive line coach. Little did he or Oliver suspect that they would also have to hire a new offensive coordinator as well or look twice for a special teams coach.
From the get-go, Oliver liked what he saw in North Carolina State linebackers coach Jon Tenuta, who had a rich background as a defensive coordinator at more high-profile programs such as Notre Dame and Ohio State. Not only did Oliver admire Tenuta’s experience and success at the highest levels of the college game, but his intensity, tenaciousness and aggressiveness, qualities Oliver believed were part of London’s vision of what Virginia football should be.
Oliver believed that convincing Tenuta to return to his alma mater was a major key in getting Wahoo football turned in the right direction. As an administrator, Oliver believed it was important to follow the model of UVa coaching legend George Welsh, a Hall of Fame coach who put the program on the map during the 1980s and ‘90s.
“To me, success at Virginia, and I don’t care what anybody says, means seven or eight wins a year,” Oliver said, knowing that a large portion of his fan base might not agree. “You have to be realistic and if you get lucky and something great happens, then boom, that’s gravy.”
Oliver is a huge fan of Welsh and has studied what Welsh did to become successful. We’re talking old school, and that’s part of what he went looking for in new blood for the coaching staff.
“In order to [average] seven or eight wins a year, you’ve got to have a great defense, which gives your offense a chance to get things done,” Oliver explained. “And you need a quarterback who can manage the game. If you get a quarterback like a [Matt] Schaub and the pieces fall together, you can make some things happen.”
A solid quarterback, not necessarily of Schaub’s quality, solid skilled people, an ability to run the football and a great defense was part of the Welsh formula, in addition to recruiting kids who could make it academically.
Once Oliver and London were confident that Tenuta was on board, the search intensified for the right pieces. Little did Oliver know that N.C. State would make another move that would help shape UVa’s gridiron future even more and cause Oliver a series of sleepless nights.
While London and Oliver were content with the Virginia offense and felt that coordinator Bill Lazor was starting to come into his own, Oliver believed there was something missing.
“I just felt like that having another wise old dog in the room, someone who could share some wisdom, would be helpful to our offense,” Oliver said. “When N.C. State let Tom [O’Brien] go, I was like, ‘No way … but, we have to ask. All he can do is say no.’”
When the Wolfpack fired O’Brien as head coach, Oliver saw it as a potential boon for UVa’s program. O’Brien was a well-respected head coach for 16 years, having built a model of consistency at Boston College before moving to State. He also knew all about winning at UVa, having been a key member of Welsh’s staff.
Oliver knew O’Brien had options on whether to remain a head coach somewhere else or retire, so the key was arranging an opportunity for London to go to Raleigh and sit down with O’Brien and his wife and map out what London wanted his program to be and how O’Brien could become a major player in returning Cavalier football to glory.