ELDER: Evaluating Jon Oliver as Littlepage's successor


Athletic Director Craig Littlepage continues to run an elite sports program at Virginia, despite its many changes in the past few years. 

Courtesy Virginia Athletics

On Oct. 18, Virginia announced Athletics Director Craig Littlepage would take a leave of absence from Oct. 24 until Jan. 2 to attend to family matters. Executive Associate Athletics Director Jon Oliver assumed the role of acting director of athletics during Littlepage’s leave. No other staff or operational changes occurred.

“[Oliver] is prepared to step into this role while I’m away and I know everyone in the athletics department is prepared to pitch in and help,” Littlepage said in the Oct. 18 release.

But three months later on Jan. 18, the athletics department announced that Littlepage’s leave of absence would extend indefinitely as he continued to attend to family matters.

“I have full confidence in [Oliver], our administrative team, staff and coaches to continue to manage the day-to-day operation of the department in my absence,” Littlepage said.

Clearly, Littlepage has tremendous trust in Oliver, who has been his right-hand man since Littlepage was tapped as athletics director in August 2001 after serving as interim athletics director since June that year. As Executive Associate Athletics Director, Oliver was responsible for day-to-day oversight of the athletics department and served as administrative liaison for football, men’s basketball and men’s tennis.

It has long been rumored that Oliver would succeed Littlepage whenever he decided to step down. And now over three months into Oliver’s role as acting athletics director, it seems fair to evaluate the plausibility of this theory.

To be clear, this discussion is purely speculative. By all indications, Littlepage, 65, still has plenty of gas left in the tank and a desire to lead the athletics program. But this conversation will be held among donors and University administration sooner rather than later; perhaps it already has been.

Although sometimes overshadowed by the football program’s struggles, Littlepage has guided Virginia though tremendous success during his tenure. The Cavaliers have secured 12 NCAA championships and 73 ACC team titles since the spring of 2002 — the most of any ACC school during that time.

Oliver has been by Littlepage’s side for that success. And despite his role in hiring Mike London following Al Groh’s dismissal after the 2009 season, he was responsible for bringing in Tony Bennett in March 2009. The success of new football coach Bronco Mendenhall — after a 2-10 opening season — is still to be determined.

Still, even with the ups of men’s basketball and the downs of football, Oliver has seen it all with Littlepage, including the construction of John Paul Jones Arena in 2006 and the George Welsh Indoor Practice Facility in 2013. With renovations soon coming to Davenport Field and potentially the McCue Center as well, that experience is valuable.

Additionally, Oliver would have a similar background to Littlepage when the latter took the reins of Virginia athletics. Littlepage spent over 10 years within the athletics department administration, serving as senior associate athletics director from 1995-2001. Littlepage twice served as interim athletics director.

Likewise, Oliver has spent the past 16 years in Charlottesville and now has a three months and counting stint as acting athletics director.

But perhaps the most important consideration is how Oliver has handled his job since Littlepage left Oct. 24. During that time, he has already faced some challenges, arguably none more important than his handling of the volleyball program.

After a 7-25 season, Dennis Hohenshelt resigned from his post as volleyball coach Jan. 19. His contract was set to expire Jan. 25.

While it seems safe to assume Littlepage had some input in Hohenshelt’s dismissal, the announcement was made a day after Virginia revealed Littlepage’s absence would continue indefinitely. It was Oliver, not Littlepage, who was quoted in the press release.

“I would like to thank Dennis for his contributions to Virginia volleyball,” Oliver said. "He recorded three winning seasons in his five years with our program and brought many talented student athletes to the University.”

The search for the next volleyball coach is still ongoing, but the fact that Oliver is even in charge during the search is notable. Just like a president with a Supreme Court nomination, it provides Oliver the opportunity to make his own lasting stamp on the program.

Certainly, how Oliver handles his current duties will play a large role when deciding whether he is fit for the full-time athletics director job. His popularity among fans is low — largely due to his role in the football team’s struggles — but after hiring Littlepage internally in 2001, a similar move could make sense in the future.

Assuming no disaster strikes, Oliver’s case looks as strong as ever to succeed Littlepage. When it will happen might be the bigger question.

Robert Elder was the 127th Sports Editor for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at r.elder@cavalierdaily.com or on Twitter at @R_F_D_E.

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