By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The gates opened Wednesday afternoon, and for the sixth and final time this spring, the public was allowed in to watch UVa’s football team practice on the fields behind University Hall.
About three dozen fans showed up. Attendance at most of the other open practices was similarly underwhelming.
Maybe that’s not surprising. In three of their final four seasons under Al Groh, the Cavaliers finished under .500, and a significant chunk of the fan base drifted away during the decline. Alumni and fans grew weary of the team’s inability to move the ball on offense, weary of Groh’s autocratic ways, weary of being asked to open their wallets and give to the Virginia Athletics Foundation.
“I understand exactly,” said Jon Oliver, UVa’s executive associate director of athletics. “I would have been there, too. You’ll never hear me say, ‘I don’t understand why the fans just don’t support us.’ “
To make matters worse for the athletics department, the men’s basketball program was struggling at the same time.
“That made it tough for the fans,” Oliver said. “There was no reason to feel good about us in the revenue sports. We understand that, but that’s why we ultimately made changes.”
Tony Bennett replaced Dave Leitao as men’s basketball coach last spring. In late November, after UVa lost yet again to Virginia Tech and finished 3-9 in football — its fewest wins in 23 years — Groh was dismissed.
About two weeks later, the University hired Mike London, a former UVa assistant who guided Richmond to the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision title in 2008 and back to the FCS playoffs in ’09.
London’s charge? Rebuild a program that under George Welsh, Groh’s predecessor, consistently ranked among the ACC’s best.
“Now is the time when we kind of stake our claim to say, ‘Hey, Virginia is gonna be back on the map with football,’ ” Oliver said. “We want to be relevant again.”
And, yes, that means beating the team from Blacksburg.
“It starts with getting our state back,” Oliver said. “I’ve said it on the radio, and I’ll say it again: I have a lot of respect for Virginia Tech and what they’ve done. That doesn’t mean I have to like it.
“I’m tired of losing to them. We don’t want to lose to these guys anymore. There’s no one here that enjoys losing to Virginia Tech or doesn’t care about it.”
The fans have a role to play in the rebuilding process. Many would like to see tangible evidence of a turnaround before they come back on board, Oliver knows, but London needs their help. Now.
“It requires that they be involved and engaged,” Oliver said. “That doesn’t mean you have to buy a ticket, but wear your Virginia stuff with pride and say this is your team. Because it is your team. Mike, his staff and the student-athletes will do a great job representing the University of Virginia, but they can’t do it alone.
“Our goal is to get people excited about the process of rebuilding the program. There will be no quick results, just like there were no quick results in basketball. The building of a program takes time. And that transformation — to be part of that as a fan — that’s pretty fun.
“I went from 3-8 and 5-6 at Washington State to a Rose Bowl year. There’s nothing better than that, but a lot of what made that special was the fans hanging in there and supporting their team.”
UVa sold a school-record 39,876 season tickets for football in 2006. The total dipped to about 35,500 two years later — in part because of the economy, but also because of the controversial reseating policy at Scott Stadium.
The ‘Hoos finished 5-7 in 2008. UVa sold only about 30,500 season tickets in ’09.
“I understand why fans walked away from this football program,” Oliver said. “We’re charging them a lot of money for tickets, we made them increase their [VAF] donations, and then the product dropped off.
“I think we were viewed as being too transactional. It’s easy for a fan to think, ‘You give X number of dollars, you get a football ticket in a better location.’
“I think we have to do a better job of showing people that when you give a donation to buy a football ticket, it’s supporting a lot of things, most notably scholarships and operational expenses for 25 sport programs, and we want to compete for championships in all of them. The economics of intercollegiate athletics require that we do it this way, but it’s risky if we don’t perform consistently at a high level in the revenue sports.”
UVa is trying to win back those who left. Outside the Rotunda, Virginia shot a TV commercial this month featuring London, his coaches and current and former players. Fans were invited to take part, and about 250 showed up for the shoot. London personally thanked most of them for doing so.
The remaining practices in Charlottesville this spring are closed, but fans are invited to attend the Cavaliers’ intrasquad scrimmage Saturday afternoon at Old Dominion University in Norfolk.
“We’re excited about getting down there and trying to show that Virginia is a little different now,” London said. “We’re trying to be accessible and available, trying to get out there to people and let them see who we are and how we practice and things like that, and hopefully all this pays off.”
UVa’s spring game is April 10 at Scott Stadium. That will be the last opportunity for fans to see the team before training camp opens in August.
Oliver said he wants to expose fans “to what I believe is something pretty special: a new guy that cares about them as much as he wants them to care about the team.”
London “wants to put caring about the right things first. He’s hired a great staff that thinks the same way,” Oliver said. “He wants to put the right kind of kids out there representing Virginia, and they will play hard and with a great deal of passion. You’re going to see chemistry amongst the staff. He’s going to require that of his team, and that’s going to be fun to watch as we build it.”
To think the Wahoos will contend for the Coastal Division title in London’s first year is probably unrealistic.
“But come along,” Oliver said. “See these young kids grow up. Watch them get coached and develop. Watch what the coaches do to engage the community. Experience Mike’s passion for the whole thing.”
London’s goal this first year?
“I want to make sure that we play hard and that we compete,” he said after a recent practice. “That’s one thing that we can control. Help guys know they’re going in the right spots, they’re doing the right things, and then let the recruiting aspect of it take care of whether we’ve got better players than the other team.”
The first 1,500 fans Saturday at ODU will receive a free UVa Football t-shirt. The first 250 youths to visit Fan Fest there will receive a mini-football, courtesy of the event’s sponsor, Virginia Beach-based STIHL Incorporated.