What recruiting?

London's recruiting prowess more fiction than fact

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National signing day came and went last Wednesday without much hype at all for the Virginia football team. According to top recruiting experts, the Cavaliers signed somewhere between the 44th and 55th best class in the nation, which doesn’t seem too bad considering Virginia has finished last place in the ACC Coastal for three straight seasons. For me, however, the news is the most damning piece of evidence yet against the case for Virginia coach Mike London, who will enter his sixth season with the team this fall.

For the past couple seasons, I have been one of Mike London’s biggest critics. No one can argue with the abundance of losing seasons, but the boneheaded game management, questionable play calling and general incompetency on offense make the London era all the worse.

Let’s take a quick look at his “accomplishments.”

Virginia football’s 125 year history has featured 40 head coaches, and London is only the second to return to the program after three straight losing seasons. He has as many losing seasons in five years — four — as previous coach Al Groh had in nine. In London’s one winning season, five of the eight wins were decided by one score or less, which I believe proves beyond a doubt that losing is the norm rather than the exception. After that one “good” year, we got blown out in the team’s only bowl game of the past seven years.

But we all knew this. Last week’s recruiting performance and a reflection on London’s total recruitment resume put my frustration over the top.

Whenever I complain about Mike London, the two most common rebuttals I get are these: first, that he’s a great team motivator, and second, that he’s one of the best recruiters in the country. To the first, I respond just by noting motivation doesn’t much matter when you can’t win games. The recruiting argument, however, is a little trickier to debunk.

Sure, I could counter by arguing that recruiting, much like motivational speaking, isn’t of much use if the team can’t amass victories. But the thing about recruiting is that dividends pay off down the road. A great recruiting class isn’t often likely to come in and make an immediate difference, though of course there are some exceptions on an individual level. So after a losing season, it’s very reasonable to argue that everything could turn around a year or two later, once the young talent matures.

It’s officially time to call malarkey on that claim.

Between 2011 and 2013 — the first three years London pulled the classes together himself — recruiting website Rivals.com consistently ranked the Cavaliers’ commitments in the top 30 nationally. In 2014, the class slumped to No. 41, but still featured five-star recruits Quin Blanding and Andrew Brown.

Where has all that talent taken us? Take a look below. I pulled FBS rankings from Ken Massey’s site — which account for record, margin of victory and strength of schedule — and compared those rankings to the Rivals.com recruiting class rankings.

Year |Rivals Rank |FBS Rank that Year |FBS Rank 1 Year Later |FBS Rank 2 Years Later
2011256386121
2012278612153
20132812153?
20144153??

While there was certainly an uptick in the past year, I think it’s been long enough to safely say London’s recruiting classes aren’t taking us anywhere near where they should be. To be clear, I’m not arguing that these recruiting classes are overrated. The more likely explanation is that the Virginia coaching staff has consistently failed to develop the talent. I wouldn’t be surprised if Rivals overrated the team one year, but it seems less likely that the classes were that highly overrated for three straight years.

Simply put, Virginia football is vastly underperforming. In fact, pop statistics website FiveThirtyEight posted a column last week showing how programs in Power 5 conferences performed relative to what they would be expected to do based on recruiting class rankings. Compiling recruiting and game results over the past decade, the Cavaliers come in at No. 60. Virginia was found to be the most underperforming team in the ACC and ahead of just four Power 5 conference teams — Maryland, Illinois, Indiana and Colorado. It’s scary to think that ranking would likely be lower if it only looked at the past five years.

I would say the argument of “all we need to do is wait for the players to develop and we’ll start winning” is sufficiently debunked. We’ve waited, and the team hasn’t gotten much better.

But last week put the entire premise of the argument into question. After some recent adjustments, Rivals has notched London’s 2015 class at No. 43 in the nation, and this year there aren’t any five-star recruits to make it look better than it is. In a press conference last week, London called the class “blue-collar.” I call it mediocre.

If you want evidence of how good Virginia can be at recruiting, just look to our last coach, Al Groh. In 2002, his first recruiting year, Groh notched the No. 12 class in the nation according to Rivals. Across his nine classes, he had four in the top 25 — something London has done once — and never had back-to-back years with classes that didn’t break the top 40, something London triumphantly accomplished last week.

So even after ignoring how the recruits perform — which is absurd in itself — can we really call London one of the top recruiters in the country?

The ironic thing is having had season tickets to the last few seasons under Groh’s tenure, I saw first-hand how the fans couldn’t wait to see the former New York Jets head coach get out of town. If only they knew what was to come. At least Groh had more winning seasons than losing and led the team to three bowl victories. London would have to string together four straight winning seasons to build up a nine-year resume comparable to Groh’s.

At this point I’m baffled by the athletics department’s decision to keep London for another year. If the past is even remotely prologue, we’re in for yet another disappointing season.

And if all this hasn’t put a damper on your entire day, just remember that all but one of the 11 FBS teams the Cavaliers will face next year went to a bowl game last season. Your move, Mike London.


Matt Comey is a weekly Sports Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at m.comey@cavalierdaily.com. Follow him on Twitter @matthewcomey.

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