The trouble with tradition
The University of Virginia is a school with a rich tradition of traditions. Some, like Easters, have passed by, whereas others, such as the nomenclature — “Academical Village,” “first years,” “Grounds” — have persisted through the years. Recently, the University’s emphasis on tradition carried over to the athletic department.
For those hibernating from news during winter break: The Virginia football program recently made some staff changes. Jon Tenuta and Tom O’Brien highlighted the team’s hires and will serve as Mike London’s associate head coaches. Tenuta also became the new defensive coordinator, while O’Brien will coach tight ends.
At first glance, these hires pay homage to Virginia tradition. Both have connections to the George Welsh era. Tenuta was a graduate assistant during Welsh’s first season in 1982, and O’Brien joined Welsh’s staff the same year and coached under the Virginia legend for 15 years, including six seasons as Welsh’s offensive coordinator. O’Brien in particular is a throwback to the glory days of Cavalier football. He coached the explosive offense led by quarterback Shawn Moore that split the 1989 ACC championship and the Tiki Barber-led attack that did the same in 1995.
Bringing back faces from the heyday of Virginia football seems the perfect way to recapture old glories, right?
Perhaps. But then the question becomes: Do we want to recapture old glories or forge a new legacy of success? Should we try to recapture the greatest era of Virginia football, or do we try to top it so that future generations look back to the London era, not the Welsh era, as the purple patch of gridiron glory for the Cavaliers?
O’Brien is an accomplished offensive coach. Even though he will not directly coach the quarterbacks or coordinate the offense — Bill Lazor returns in both of those capacities for 2013 — his work with Russell Wilson at NC State inspires hope that he can have a positive effect on Philip Sims, Greyson Lambert and any other Virginia quarterbacks during his tenure here. I also hope Tenuta’s longtime coaching experience can improve upon last year’s often-shaky defensive performance.
But something about bringing back two figures with previous Virginia connections, especially connections to “the good times,” still screams “safe hires” to me.
I get it. London is entering his fourth year at Virginia unsure whether he’ll get a fifth. A coach on the hot seat is not exactly in the position to make risky hires and bring in young, comparatively unproven coaches with an eye toward developing those coaches in the long term. Those hires are the domain of long-tenured fixtures such as Mack Brown at Texas or brand-new coaches with natural leeway, such as Kevin Sumlin at Texas A&M. London fits neither of those descriptions. His 8-4 2011 season and bowl trip seems fluky when sandwiched by 4-8 seasons. Even though he took over a program in shambles, London’s clock may be ticking.
Still, I would have liked to see a bit more boldness in the new hires. Maybe the next Kliff Kingsbury or Will Muschamp — bright minds who eventually parlayed their success as coordinators under Sumlin and Brown, respectively, into head coaching jobs — were out there to be found. Maybe Virginia missed out by looking to the past instead of the future.
Of course, maybe I’m completely off-base. I’m neither the head coach making the hires nor the athletic director approving them. The program may truly believe bringing back a piece of the Welsh era can show the current team that, despite popular belief, there is some tradition of excellence associated with Virginia football. When announcing the hires, London highlighted that “three of [the coaches] have strong ties to Virginia and they have firsthand knowledge and experiences of what makes our university a special place.”
Maybe London decided that the best way to get the Cavaliers to play up to the high bar of the ‘80s and ‘90s was to expose them to men who were part of those same teams. But I hope the athletic department did not just bring back recognizable faces from Virginia’s past to appease present fans while sacrificing the program’s future.
More importantly, no matter the reasons for their hiring, I hope O’Brien and Tenuta’s historical ties provide the shot in the arm the current Virginia football program needs.