By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Among the cars on the road Thursday night were two that earlier in the day had left Raleigh, N.C., bound for this college town.
In one vehicle was Tom O’Brien and in the other Jon Tenuta, the newest members of head football coach Mike London’s staff at the University of Virginia. Already at work in the McCue Center were Jeff Banks, the Cavaliers’ new special teams coordinator and running backs coach, and Marques Hagans, whom London promoted from graduate assistant to a full-time position as wide receivers coach.
Neither O’Brien nor Tenuta needed directions to Charlottesville.
O’Brien spent 15 seasons as an assistant at UVa, the final six as offensive coordinator, before leaving in December 1996 to become head coach at Boston College. Tenuta is a former Virginia defensive back who was a graduate assistant at his alma mater in 1981 and ’82.
They later worked together at NC State, where O’Brien took over as head coach after the 2006 season. The Wolfpack finished the 2012 regular season with a 7-5 record, and both coaches expected to be back in Raleigh in 2013. But in late November, NC State dismissed O’Brien, and suddenly he and his assistants, including Tenuta, had to explore other options.
That Tenuta, who coached in the Wolfpack’s bowl game Monday, ended up back at UVa, where he’ll be defensive coordinator and associate head coach for defense, was no shock. But O’Brien, the Wahoos’ new associate head coach for offense and tight ends coach, is 64 years old and wasn’t sure initially that he wanted to continue coaching.
Friends and colleagues advised him, O’Brien said Thursday night, that “you didn’t want to jump at anything, and at the same time you didn’t want to close any doors. I spent a couple weeks just thinking about where I was going and what I wanted to do. In that time frame Mike had approached me a couple times.”
London drove to Raleigh one night to see O’Brien and his wife. Over dinner, they discussed potential roles for O’Brien at UVa, where four assistants had been fired in early December. The Cavaliers, who finished 8-5 and played in the Chick-fil-A Bowl in 2011, slumped to 4-8 this season, their third under London.
“The more that Jennifer and I talked about it, the more excited we got about the opportunity,” said O’Brien, who compiled a 115-80 record as head coach at Boston College and NC State.
“I felt that I wasn’t finished coaching, and I wasn’t sure that I wanted to be a head coach again. I’ve had my chance. I spent 16 years doing it. I had a great time, both at Boston College and State, but what’s presented right now is just so appealing: the opportunity to go back to Charlottesville.
“We have so many great memories and still have so many friends there from the 15 years that we were there before was just an opportunity I just couldn’t pass up. So I was really excited that Mike thought about me and thought that I could come help, and I’m ready to do whatever he wants me to do to help get Virginia an ACC championship.”
O’Brien and London have been colleagues before, for four seasons (1997-2001) at Boston College. O’Brien was London’s boss then. That their working relationship would be different at UVa didn’t deter O’Brien.
“I was trained at the Naval Academy and as a Marine,” he said. “I understand how to be a good assistant. I think we’re trained for those things. We understand what we have to do, and as I said before, whatever Mike wants me to do, that’s what I’m going to do.”
For seven seasons at his alma mater, O’Brien coached Navy’s offensive tackles and tight ends for head coach George Welsh. When Welsh moved to UVa after the 1981 season, O’Brien joined him in Charlottesville. At various times during his tenure at Virginia, O’Brien coached guards, centers, quarterbacks and the offensive line, as well as serving as offensive coordinator from 1991 to ’96.
Tenuta was not defensive coordinator at NC State, where he oversaw the linebackers in 2010 and ’11 before adding the title of associate head coach for defense in 2012. But he’s been coordinator at Marshall, SMU, Ohio State, North Carolina, Georgia Tech and at Notre Dame, and his defenses have always been known for their blitzes and attacking style of play.
UVa fans “can expect a very aggressive defense,” O’Brien said. “Jon likes to pressure, and it’s been great on third down when he’s been with us.
“He’ll be very tough on the guys on defense, but they’re going to be disciplined, they’re going to play hard, and they’re going to get after the quarterback.”
Out of the 120 teams in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision, UVa ranked 99th in sacks this season and forced only 12 turnovers.
Tenuta, 55, said his philosophy has changed little over the years.
“Part of it is: Never let the offense dictate to you,” he said. “You make them have to adjust to you. The other part of that philosophy is: Stop what people do. You gotta take away their bread and butter, and if you can do that, then you’ve got a chance.”
Tenuta, who transferred to UVa from the U.S. Military Academy, is married to the former Dori Gamble. She played basketball at UVa.
“It’s full circle,” Tenuta said. “It’s your alma mater. That’s where I met my wife. We both enjoyed that aspect of it. Thirty-some years later, you come back in a full circle and you get an opportunity to coach at the same place you played at.”
He takes over a defense that returns, among other players, ends Jake Snyder, Eli Harold and Mike Moore, tackles Brent Urban and Chris Brathwaite, linebackers Daquan Romero, Henry Coley, Kwontie Moore and Demeitre Brim, cornerbacks Demetrious Nicholson, Drequan Hoskey and Maurice Canady, and safeties Anthony Harris, Brandon Phelps, Rijo Walker and Anthony Cooper.
“Everybody has opinions [about personnel], but I like to meet the kids and get to know them better,” Tenuta said. “That’s how I go forward. I gotta see what guys can do. It’s tough on both of us. It’s tough on me, but it’s tough on them too. They’re going to have to learn how I am, and I have to learn how they are.”
Hagans, who starred for the `Hoos as a wideout, punt-returner and quarterback, was a graduate assistant on London’s staff in 2011 and ’12. He worked closely this season with the wide receivers, a group that included no seniors and only one junior, Tim Smith. Virginia’s other wideouts were sophomores Darius Jennings, Dominique Terrell, E.J. Scott and Miles Gooch and true freshmen Adrian Gamble and Canaan Severin.
“I think with that group, there’s a lot of potential,” Hagans said. “With everybody being past their freshman years, now it’s time for production … I know that it will all come together, and when it does it’s going to be a beautiful thing to watch.”
Hagans, a 2005 alumnus of UVa, said his two years as a GA convinced him he belonged in coaching.
“The interaction with the players you get, that’s priceless,” he said. “And just watching players mature, grow and develop, and to have that interaction with them every single day, I truly love that, just being able to be a part of that whole process.
“That’s my passion. I love it. So I knew that that this was exactly what I wanted to do.”
Also Thursday, London announced that Chip West will take over as recruiting coordinator. West, who’s widely considered one of the nation’s top recruiters, will continue to coach the Cavaliers’ cornerbacks.
Banks’ ties to UVa are not as strong as those of O’Brien, Tenuta and Hagans, but he knows Jon Oliver and Jim Bauman well. Oliver, Virginia’s executive associate athletics director, and Bauman, Virginia’s sports psychologist, worked at Washington State when Banks played football and, later, was a graduate assistant there.
“And so it wound up being a great reunion that way,” said Banks, who spent the past nine seasons on Mike Price’s staff at UTEP, where he coached running backs and punters and coordinated special teams.
The Miners finished 3-9 in 2012, but not because Banks’ special teams underachieved. Among FBS teams, UTEP ranked seventh in punt-return defense, 11th in net punting, 26th in kickoff returns, 41st in punt returns and 44th in kickoff-return defense.
Virginia, by contrast, ranked 84th in punt-return defense, 72nd in net punting, 70th in kickoff returns, 110th in punt returns and 119th in kickoff-return defense. The Cavaliers allowed two kickoff returns for touchdowns.
“The thing at UTEP that we’ve been able to do is consistently make big plays in the kicking game,” Banks said. “We’ve had six blocked kicks in the last two seasons. We’ve had four kickoff-return touchdowns in the last three seasons. We’ve had an opportunity to make big, game-changing plays, and schematically we’ve been able to learn from other people, and our coverage has gotten better and better and better every season, and the last couple years of punt coverage we’ve been in the top 10 in the country.”
Banks’ mentors include two NFL special teams coordinators: Dallas’ Joe DeCamillis and New Orleans’ Greg McMahon.
“I’ve just always thought you have to continue to meet with people and grow as a coach professionally,” Banks said. DeCamillis and McMahon have “been able to influence my career schematically, which has given me the opportunity to get that to our players.”
Price retired in November, but Banks could have remained at UTEP and worked for its new head coach, Sean Kugler. Banks said the opportunity to work with London and coach in the ACC “was just too much to pass up.”
Banks and London have the same agent, and Banks said he followed London’s career at the University of Richmond, which won the FCS national title in 2008, and at UVa.
As a running backs coach, Banks said, he has focused “on recruiting the right kids to our system and then managing those kids when they get there and making sure that they do a couple things: take care of the football and protect the quarterback. Those are the two things that as a football coach that you have to stress to them, as a running back coach, especially. So that’ll be where our emphasis is. That’s where my emphasis has been my whole career.”
He won’t hesitate to use starters on special teams, Banks said.
“I think it’s important that you take one or two and use your best players on those special teams or in impact places,” he said. “If you can block a punt and if you can return a kick for a touchdown, and those guys are really dynamic at those skill sets, then I think that’s where you gotta use `em, because then they’re going to make a difference. But I think you gotta be careful. You gotta be smart on how you use your starters.”