Sept. 15, 2009
By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The 2008-09 academic year was a memorable one for UVa athletics, and not only because the baseball team advanced to the College World Series for the first time.
It would take much more space to list the programs that fared well in 2008-09 than those that struggled. Virginia won six ACC titles — in men’s cross country, men’s swimming and diving, women’s swimming and diving, men’s tennis, men’s outdoor track and field, and baseball — and placed eighth in the Learfield Sports Directors’ Cup competition for Division I, matching the University’s best finish in the program’s 16 years.
With a new academic year under way, VirginiaSports.com’s Jeff White sat down with UVa’s director of athletics at the McCue Center to get Craig Littlepage’s thoughts on the strengths of his department and the challenges facing it.
JW: As well as 2008-09 went for the ‘Hoos, it’s over. How have you addressed that within the department?
CL: Everybody was happy with the season-long results of the program, and certainly with the kind of finish that we had with the spring sports. It was a perfect exclamation point to a year when we had season-long success, although with men’s basketball and football, we didn’t have as much success as we wanted.
But the idea was: We’ve taken the time to celebrate all the successes and everything. Now it’s time to ramp up again, and it’s a new year. We all, in terms of 25 teams, have to remake those teams. There are going to be some new faces, some new contributors, etc., and it’s now about the moving forward and the tough business of trying to exceed what we did a year ago, and in some cases the challenge of doing more than we did with less, relative to resources, etc.
JW: Football is a hot topic these days, obviously. What’s your message for fans who are frustrated with the 0-2 start and the state of the program under Al Groh?
CL: I would say that certainly we have established goals for our program, in all 25 of our sports, and it’s my strong desire to make sure that we have a chance in every one of our sports to be able to accomplish the goals that have been established.
I understand that there is a lot of concern from people from different areas, and believe me that there’s no one that’s more concerned than I am about making sure that the program is on track and does perform. Certainly the coaching staff, and Al in particular, is concerned, and our players are concerned, but everybody is committed to continuing the hard work to get things to the point that we can see positive results.
Two games into a season [is not a long time], particularly given the number of new things that have been incorporated into the program, everything from new staff to new techniques and schemes, relative to the Xs and Os, and I think that the players and coaches deserve the opportunity to show that these changes can be successful. It’s very important that in order for our team to be successful, the support of everybody is needed. I know how difficult that is at times, but again, to look at the situation after two games certainly is not, in my opinion, a barometer for what kind of team this can be in the 2009 season.
JW: At what point will you have a good read on this team?
CL: I don’t know that there’s a specific point, but I want to make sure that these guys are supported.
JW: Fans booed UVa’s coaches and, in some cases, players during each of the two games at Scott Stadium. What’s your reaction to that?
CL: The players and the coaches, we’re all part of the team. So I can understand where the players might be impacted by that as far as hearing it. But this is a group of young guys that are focused and are going to continue to work as hard as they possibly can to bring about the results that they want and all the fans want.
JW: Do you have a sense of whether UVa athletics can be as strong in 2009-10 as in 2008-09?
CL: A lot of it is just on the basis of who’s returning and the quality of kids that are coming in, and the competitive success of all of our teams is going to be impacted also by how much better our opponents, particularly those in the ACC, might be. But I feel that this year can be a year that we do even better than we did last year, because I think that we are going to be better in a sport like wrestling, which has come in the last two years so close to winning an ACC championship. I think women’s basketball is poised to continue to advance even further in the tournament.
In [men’s basketball coach Tony Bennett’s] first year, it’s hard to predict what kind of impact he’s going to be able to make in terms of postseason play, but obviously the hope is that football will do a little bit better. We have some other sports, such as women’s lacrosse, that we think can improve in. We think field hockey may be able to advance more. A number of sports — rowing, for example, which missed out on an ACC championship last year for the first time — we feel as though can do even better. I feel like, as well as we did, there’s room for improvement.
JW: You mentioned Tony Bennett. What do you think of the job he’s done so far here?
CL: My early impressions have been that he is, before coaching his first game, more than I expected him to be in terms of a coach, educator and a colleague. He seems to be the complete package. He has a very good understanding of how to be successful in this sort of environment, and not only successful in terms of what I think that we’ll see him and his teams achieve competitively, but from the standpoint of academic achievement, and in terms of character.
He’s shown an understanding of how to put a staff together, and certainly the early results seem to be that this staff does understand how to leverage the assets of this university and the program to get good kids in the program. So I think there’s been nothing but pluses, as I view it, relative to what Tony has brought to the program in just six or seven months.
JW: How has the economy affected UVa athletics?
CL: There’s been nipping and tucking, if you will, to address some of the things, from an operational-budget standpoint, that give us a balanced budget. We’ve made some adjustments to sport program budgets with the review and input of the head coaches, and with them taking an active part in adjusting competitive schedules, adjusting maybe their recruiting philosophy and adjusting other components of their program to be able to meet the budget that our senior administration came back to them with.
I think that these adjustments should not have an impact on the competitiveness of the teams. And our goal over the past couple of years, when we had to make these adjustments, was to do so in ways and in areas that were not going to have a visible and immediate impact on the experience of the student-athletes. In other words, in areas like sports medicine and student services, academic affairs, dining, etc., we want to make sure that we are providing the same level of service as we had previously.
But it could [affect] how many recruiting trips a coaching staff makes or how many days they are away on a team trip, or the quality or level or scale of a hotel or the scale of a pregame meal, things like that. We made some cuts in our operational budget, which is going to be a little less this year. We did not fill positions in, for example, some marketing areas. There may be positions that weren’t filled in what we would consider to be non-critical areas.
JW: Not every UVa fan cares passionately about the Directors’ Cup competition. Do you find it frustrating that the struggles in football and men’s basketball often overshadow the accomplishments in Olympic sports?
CL: Frustrating wouldn’t be the right word. It bothers me from the standpoint that these coaches and student-athletes across the board are doing so much and doing so well. They’re working equally as hard as the coaches and student-athletes in [football and basketball]. And one of the statements that I think I’ve made on a couple of occasions is, if there’s one thing I would hope could come out of a review of what our department does on an ongoing basis, it’s an apprecation for just how difficult coaching is. Whether it’s coaching at Virginia or Texas or Notre Dame or anywhere. It’s a tough, tough profession, and I think that we have a group of women and men that do so well in all facets of their coaching responsibilites and their leadership responsibilities.
I understand the focus and attention that’s given to football and basketball, and we’re certainly committed to making sure that we do what needs to be done in our programs, all 25 sports, to be successful. But [there should be an] appreciation for what all these coaches do and how well they do it. They make it look easy.
JW: What’s the biggest challenge facing the athletics department?
CL: I would say it would be the revenue-generating component. It ties back to football and basketball, the economy. I think there are a number of different elements that can impact our ability to sustain our operations and how we provide what student-athletes and teams need to be successful.
JW: Given the state of the economy, this is probably not be an ideal time for UVa to upgrade existing athletic facilities or build new ones. But are any such projects being discussed?
CL: Some people would suggest that the time to at least brainstorm on some of these things is at a point when, for example, the economy might be slowing down a little bit, so that on the other side of that, in the mode of recovery, you’re ready to move. If you’re not talking about things, then you’re behind the curve, so to speak.
We are talking about a couple things. We’re talking about some things that we would like to be able to do for track and field. We’re also talking about the field house, the concept of either a bubble or an inside facility where we could take the lacrosse, football, baseball teams in January if it’s snowing or there’s inclement weather or it’s particularly cold. So those are probably two things that we’re going to continue to keep in mind as we go through the next, maybe, 12 months or so. I want to emphasize that it doesn’t mean that we have a project, but in a down economy, you’re better off talking about what you want to do, so when things start to improve, you’re ready to mobilize, you’re ready to go, you know what you need, and you have an idea as to put what the plan is to put the necessary pieces together.
JW: Have you been able to gauge to impact of UVa’s appearance in the College World Series?
CL: The feeling is that it has certainly built up a level of interest in baseball in this community. I think that’s probably the most obvious thing. And when I say community, not the generic Charlottesville/Albemarle County, but the University community. So there’s a much greater awareness of who Brian O’Connor is and what he has done in the six years that he has been our head coach, much more than ever before. Greater acknowledgement of that.
Brian is a very much sought-after speaker and representative of our program, and I think the way in which he talks about, not only the baseball program and the athletics department, but the way that he talks about the University and the respect that the players have in wearing the University of Virginia uniform, does indeed build the goodwill for the University overall that I think is particularly important.
So whereas I think that with a basketball Final Four or with a football major bowl game or a particularly successful postseason event of some type, it may have impact in terms of increasing numbers of applications and maybe a bump in terms of fund-raising. I think the baseball College World Series has built more on the goodwill, the publicity and the exposure and has built the anticipation for the coming season. I think what we’re going to see is increasing numbers of people that are coming out to the ball games and taking advantage of a great facility and a top-performing team.
JW: How important is continued success in the Directors’ Cup competition to the athletics department?
CL: I would say that it’s important as well to the University. In fact, in 2001, in the months following the aftershock of the task-force report [that recommended dividing sports into tiers], when the Board of Visitors was making its decisions and statements about the future of Virginia athletics, the idea was to be excellent in everything that you do, and to generate and provide the necessary resources to be good across the board in all 24 sports, soon to be 25 sports. We added women’s golf shortly thereafter.
So I think we’ve been able to do that, to make our program one that has been competitive virtually across the board. What we have been trying to accomplish is the consistency in both football and basketball, and that’s the immediate challenge, to make sure that we are in a position to not just have a top-10 program, but a top-10 program that includes consistent success for the marquee sports.
JW: In this economy, the Virginia Athletics Foundation’s job is that much more difficult. How important is the VAF to the University’s mission in athletics?
CL: They have done such a good job in recent years of, A, allowing us to fully fund scholarships and, B, helping us to realize the goals of building the kind of facilities that we have and the kind of facilities that we’re going to need in the future. The nuts-and-bolts work of generating the funding through private philanthropy is something that has to be a part of everything that they do. Certainly going into this year, and looking at the increases we have seen from the University in tuition and everything else, every time there’s an increase in the cost of education, it hits the bottom line of our budget and the VAF fund-raising goal. They do a great job. They are truly one of the top fund-raising organizations in Division I athletics, and we will have a championship-level challenge in that regard in this academic year, 2009-10.