Virginia football introduces new hires
Coaches O’Brien, Tenuta, Lewis bring combined 102 years of experience
Just as perennial roster turnover typifies college sports, overhauled coaching staffs are predictable when teams fail to meet expectations. After the Virginia football team won four fewer games in 2012 than the year before, change on coach Mike London’s staff inevitably followed. The Cavaliers retooled its staff after London’s third year at the helm, headlined by the hires of Tom O’Brien as associate head coach for offense and tight ends coach and Jon Tenuta as associate head coach for defense/defensive coordinator.
In total, London added three coaches — O’Brien, Tenuta and new running backs coach and special teams coordinator Larry Lewis. He also promoted Marques Hagans from a graduate assistant to wide receivers and designated cornerbacks coach Chip West as the new recruiting coordinator. The staff’s chemistry remains untested, but its experience is undeniable. The three newcomers bring 102 years of combined coaching wisdom.
By hiring O’Brien, London adds one of his own mentors to his staff. London was an assistant under O’Brien for four years when the two coached at Boston College.
“There is an understanding that I am the head football coach of this team,” London said. “But there’s also an understanding that with the experience you surround yourself with and the people you surround yourself with, there are opportunities to gain some insight that otherwise you wouldn’t have.”
After leading N.C. State to a 40-35 record since 2006 and taking the Wolfpack to three straight bowl games, O’Brien was fired following a 7-5 season in 2012. Perhaps O’Brien’s most important shortcoming was an 11-19 record against ACC Atlantic division opponents, including a dismal 1-14 mark on the road. After inheriting a mediocre program, O’Brien believed he moved the Wolfpack in the right direction both athletically and academically, but he failed to meet the less patient ambitions of athletic director Debbie Yow.
“I went there with the goals of being champions in the classroom, champions in the community and champions on the football field,” O’Brien said. “There’s a lot of good things we did… Forbes magazine came out with this article in December that for bang for buck, Kansas State, Stanford and N.C. State did a better job of winning games for the money invested in the programs.”
Despite disappointment at leaving his work in Raleigh unfinished, O’Brien relishes his return to Virginia, where he coached under George Welsh during the program’s heyday in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Since leaving the University in 1996, O’Brien has led two other ACC teams, N.C. State and Boston College — which transitioned to the conference from the Big East behind O’Brien’s leadership — to a total of 115 wins, including eight in bowl games.
O’Brien could play a pivotal role in the development of the tight ends, with whom he will work closely as their position coach. With rising junior All-ACC honorable mention Jake McGee in the fold at tight end, O’Brien could make the team’s strength even more formidable.
Perhaps the most intriguing part of the O’Brien package, however, is his ability to help rising redshirt junior Phillip Sims and the other quarterbacks. O’Brien’s résumé includes developing two current NFL Pro Bowl quarterbacks. The Seattle Seahawks’ Russell Wilson played at N.C. State before transferring to Wisconsin for his final year of eligibility in 2011, and the Atlanta Falcons’ Matt Ryan played for O’Brien at Boston College.
Just as O’Brien is a familiar face in Charlottesville, Tenuta is no stranger to the University, where he played college ball and earned his degree in 1982. Tenuta has spent 16 of his 32 years in college coaching as a defensive coordinator and built a reputation for preaching an aggressive style of play.
“My philosophy is play fast, play physical, play smart — [it] always has been,” Tenuta said. “You have to keep is simple, stupid, and the stupid part’s not for the players. It’s for the coach.”
Following a season in which Virginia forced only 12 turnovers, Tenuta faces a difficult task in changing Virginia’s defensive mindset. But he is accustomed to installing his scheme at numerous prior schools and London believes he can produce a much-needed turnover turnaround.
“It is important to get sacks; it is important to get turnovers; it’s important to limit teams scoring points,” London said. “I think those are the things Jon has done a great job of in his career.”
Tenuta’s last landing spot was under O’Brien at N.C. State, but he has also been the defensive coordinator at Notre Dame, Georgia Tech, North Carolina, Ohio State and Kansas State. His recent protégés include Wolfpack cornerback David Amerson and Fighting Irish linebacker Manti Te’o, both projected as high picks in the upcoming NFL draft. After coaching nationally prominent teams such as the Fighting Irish and Buckeyes, Tenuta has inside experience with the type of program London strives to build.
The arrival of Larry Lewis is the pleasant conclusion to an unexpected twist in finding a special teams coordinator and running backs coach. The Cavaliers first hired Jeff Banks, but just days later Banks bolted for the same position at Texas A&M.
“On the other end of [Jeff Banks reneging], Jeff had to learn his schemes and system from somebody,” London said. “We’re very fortunate that the guy who taught him those schemes and systems is Larry Lewis… Although we lost the pupil, we gained the teacher.”
Lewis is charged with re-energizing a special teams unit that appeared out of sync at times last year and produced little explosiveness. After spending much of his career coaching further west, Lewis believes he can also bring a new perspective to a running back group which under-performed last season after breaking out in 2011.
Questions about the coaching changes will likely linger until September. O’Brien and offensive coordinator Bill Lazor could mesh well or the offense may struggle with too many voices in players’ ears. Virginia’s defensive personnel may fit Tenuta’s defensive wizardry or over-aggression might result in more big plays for opposing teams.
For Virginia to rebound, all the parts must work well together. With National Signing Day drawing near, West will have the first opportunity to prove himself, while the trio of newcomers must immediately help snag a strong recruiting class. London, who will work more with the defensive line under the new arrangement, must keep the coaching hierarchy in smooth operation. London just added a wealth of coaching experience, but he also knows helping these moving parts coalesce will make or break the 2013 season.