By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In 2008, ’09 and again in ’10, football season ended at UVa in the same numbing fashion: with a late-November loss to Virginia Tech. While other teams spent December preparing for bowl games — many, many other teams — the Cavaliers were stuck on the outside, ineligible for postseason play.
“It’s not a good feeling,” junior linebacker Steve Greer told reporters Monday at John Paul Jones Arena.
Defensive coordinator “[Jim] Reid even said after last year, ‘Next year, we’re not going to be home for Christmas.’ It’s just not a good feeling when you’re sitting at home and you know everyone else is playing. You just feel kind of left out.”
That’s among the many reasons the Wahoos are pumped to have another game this season. After a week of waiting, the ‘Hoos learned Sunday night that will face Auburn in the Chick-fil-A Bowl in Atlanta. That prompted some of second-year coach Mike London’s players to begin preparing immediately for the New Year’s Eve game.
UVa (8-4) will meet Auburn (7-5) at the Georgia Dome at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 31 in a game ESPN will televise.
“As soon as I found out it was Auburn, I checked out the [Tigers’] receiving stats and who caught the most balls, how many yards per catch, and then I YouTubed some videos to see what he looked like,” All-ACC cornerback Chase Minnifield said Monday.
Greer said: “Guys were just kind of anxious to find out, and now that we know, we’re ready to go. Kind of like Chase, as soon as I found out, I YouTubed it, jumped on their website and checked out some stats. I think guys are really excited. LaRoy [Reynolds] already hit me up. He’s like, ‘Let’s go watch film.’ “
Before they knew their postseason destination, the Cavaliers gathered Sunday afternoon for a light practice at which the mood was upbeat.
“I think guys were kind of just ready to get back together and start running around,” Greer said. “When you don’t have football, you start losing track of the days of the week and what’s going on.”
The Cavaliers closed the regular season Nov. 26 with a 38-0 loss to Virginia Tech at Scott Stadium, a defeat that still stings. Had the ‘Hoos beaten Tech, they would have represented the Coastal Division in the ACC championship game.
“It feels good that we have another opportunity to right the end of our season,” said Greer, UVa’s leading tackler. “It would have been a long offseason if that was the end.”
In 2008, as head coach at his alma mater, London led the University of Richmond to the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision national title, so he’s familiar with the challenges of postseason play. Moreover, as a UVa assistant during Al Groh’s tenure as head coach, London helped the team prepare for four bowls: the Continental Tire in 2002 and ’03, the MPC Computers in ’04 and the Gator in ’07.
The Cavaliers went 2-2 in those games, with one of the losses (to Fresno State in ’04) coming in overtime, and the other (to Texas Tech in ’07) by three points. Virginia was well-prepared for each bowl, and London said Monday that Groh taught him valuable lessons about how to approach December.
“One of the things I learned from Coach is that the practice and the preparation that you put into it while you were here at Virginia was very, very important,” London said. “Because you can get down to the bowl site, and you can get lost in the activities and the different things and the transportation back and forth, and all the obligations that you have. So the opportunity to game-plan and practice your plan is critical as we start moving forward here, while we’re here on Grounds.”
During the regular season, the team practiced in the morning. With final exams starting this week, London has revised his practice schedule.
“It’s very important for all of [the players] to do well,” he said. “I want them all to do well, to raise the team GPA. Some guys need to do well. Whatever time, study skills, study hall opportunities that can be afforded to them, I’ll make sure that I do that, and then build practice around that. So if it means practicing in the early evenings up until 7:30, 8 o’clock at night, we’ll do whatever it takes to make sure that they can fulfill their first obligation of being a student.”
London said he plans to devote several practices to developing the young players who redshirted or saw little game time during the season.
“This becomes like an extra pre-spring practice for them,” London said.
“These practices will be dictated towards assessing their skills, where they are, strength, agility, athleticism and all those things. Again, the great thing about going to bowl games is, it gives you those opportunities to do that, and then you go into spring practice, and you get a chance to do that again.”
About 15 practices will be devoted to preparing for Auburn, an SEC team whose losses were to Clemson, Arkansas, LSU, Georgia and Alabama, all of which are ranked among the top 16 teams in the latest Associated Press poll.
“It’s a big game,” said senior wideout Kris Burd, Virginia’s leading receiver. “[The Tigers] won the national championship last year, so you can’t take anything from them. But at the end of the day, we put in the same work. We put on our pants the same way as they do. We acknowledge the challenge, and we’re looking forward to it.”
As excited as the ‘Hoos may be about the upcoming bowl, London said, they can’t stray this month from what made the regular season so successful.
“I think what happens sometimes is, you open your [bowl] practices up to everybody,” London said, “and then it turns into kind of a little bit of a circus, or guys doing things out of character that they normally wouldn’t because there’s cameras all over the place. I think you take [the bowl practices], and you devote it to just the nuts and bolts and the meat and potatoes of playing the game. Treat it like it’s an in-season game. Prepare like it’s an in-season game.
“Sometimes what happens is then you go to the bowl site and you think you’re going to get very productive, intense, focused practices, and … sometimes you lose that. You just don’t have that focus and attention that you desire. You think you will, but there’s too many things that cause distractions. The in-house preparation prior to leaving, I’ve learned, is key.”
London took questions from reporters for about 25 minutes Monday, after which Greer, Minnifield and Burd replaced him in front of the cameras and tape recorders. It was a special day for Minnifield, who before the press conference learned, along with everyone else in the room, that he had received the second annual Pop Warner National College Football Award.
Jon Butler, a UVa alumnus, broke the news to Minnifield on speakerphone in a call from the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Fla., site of the 55th annual Pop Warner Super Bowl.
“It’s kind of awesome,” Minnifield said, “because Pop Warner, that was a big part of my upbringing. I’ve been playing football since I was 4, tackle since I was 7. I really, truly believe you learn a lot growing up with your coaches and just being around your players. Some of the players I played with when I was 7, they’re my best friends today. It’s a great honor, and I really appreciate it.”
Butler, who said he did not vote on the award, is executive director of Pop Warner Little Scholars, Inc. The award, Butler said, recognizes “a Pop Warner alumnus who has made a difference on the field, in the classroom, and in his community.”
Minnifield, who earned his bachelor’s degree from UVa in December 2010, is competing as a graduate student this season. He’s from Lexington, Ky., where his Pop Warner coach was his father, former NFL cornerback Frank Minnifield. The elder Minnifield phoned in Monday to congratulate his son.
A longtime participant in UVa’s Athletes Committed to Community and Education program (A.C.E.), Chase Minnifield volunteers at Walker Upper Elementary School each week.
“Every time I get a chance,” he said, “I try to grab a few kids to the side and just ask them how they’re doing in their academics, because being in the position that I’m in, I know that they look up to what I do and who I am, and I can have an impact on how they feel or how they see things, because when I was younger, I looked up to kids like myself.”
Minnifield will receive his award Wednesday in Orlando during the semifinals of the Pop Warner Super Bowl.