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COMEY: Does Craig Littlepage hold on to unsuccessful coaches for too long?

<p>Coach Joanne Boyle needs a strong finish from her team against tough teams&nbsp;to have a chance at making the NCAA Tournament.</p>

Coach Joanne Boyle needs a strong finish from her team against tough teams to have a chance at making the NCAA Tournament.

Virginia Athletics Director Craig Littlepage announced yesterday that women’s basketball coach Joanne Boyle would be returning for a sixth season. Boyle, who has only posted one winning record in ACC play during her tenure, has not led a team to an NCAA tournament bid since 2009, when she was still at California.

In an email to The Daily Progress, Littlepage wrote, “One of our goals for the athletics department is to win conference and national championships. No one wants this more than Coach Boyle. I believe that winning is a process so after the season we will continue our discussions about how we can improve and achieve at those levels.”

The statement sounds eerily like the one he made in November of 2014, when he announced football coach Mike London would be returning for his sixth year in the 2015-16 season.

"It's important for each of our sports programs to continue to show progress and follow a plan to compete for conference championships and in postseason competition to support the department's goals," Littlepage said in that statement. "I trust the plan Mike has in place and believe his leadership provides the best opportunity for Virginia football to be successful in the future.”

That announcement came near the end of a 5-7 season for the Cavaliers, and as we all know, London followed that up with a 4-8 campaign that led to his mutually agreed upon resignation.

While the University has one of the strongest athletics programs in the country, it certainly is not without its weak spots. In addition to football and women’s basketball, softball and volleyball have similarly struggled to meet Littlepage’s expectations of being competitive for conference championships in recent years.

Softball, which has only finished with a winning ACC record once during the past 10 years, fired its last coach, Eileen Schmidt, following the 2013 season. Schmidt began her six-year tenure at the beginning of the 2008 season and finished her U.Va. head coaching career with a 38-81 record in the ACC. She posted a 13-7 conference campaign in 2010, but failed to finish above .400 in the conference in each of her other five seasons. In those six years, she won one ACC Tournament contest.

Volleyball has found relative success in the past three years, but the program struggled from 2008 to 2012, a five-year stretch where it did not post a single conference winning record and just one overall winning record. Head coach Lee Maes headed the team from 2008 through 2011, and never once posted a winning record.

So teams coached by London, Boyle, Schmidt and Maes — who were all hired between 2008 and 2011 — have played 21 seasons, only nine of which ended in winning records and only three of which ended in winning conference records. Only Schmidt and London earned spots in non-ACC post-season competition, each doing it only once.

So if Littlepage’s expectation is for his coaches to be competitive for ACC and national championships, why did these four coaches average over five years of tenure — with Boyle still slated to come back at least another year? I’m sure part of the answer is that winning isn’t everything, and that Littlepage also looks at a coach’s ability to manage a program, recruit and have a positive moral impact on the student athletes. But that might add a year to the contract of an unsuccessful coach — I doubt much more.

Considering Littlepage’s high standards for success, ultimately, I think he waited about a year too long to move on from London and Schmidt, and I don’t think he should have brought back Boyle for next season.

When it comes to London, Boyle and Schmidt, the most difficult factor to suss out is what to do with one year of mild success. For London, it came in his second year when he posted an 8-4 record and took a bid to the Chick-fil-A Bowl, for Schmidt it came in 2010 when the softball team went 34-23 and earned its only NCAA Tournament bid of the last decade, and for Boyle it came in her first season when she went 25-11 and finished sixth in the ACC.

Personally, I don’t think you can give these seasons too much weight. There is inherently a lot of variability in sports, and a handful of lucky shots and bounces can add a couple wins onto a season. Unless you’re finishing in the conference’s top two, I don’t think one season can prove success. However, I think two or three top five finishes certainly prove success.

Littlepage himself was pretty quick to fire former men’s basketball coach Dave Leitao after four years, despite a mildly successful season in 2006-07 that included winning a share of the ACC regular season and earning an NCAA Tournament four seed. The Cavaliers finished 21-11 that season, but Leitao followed that up with 17-16 and 10-18 seasons and finishing 10th and 11th in the ACC, respectively, before seeing the door. I don’t see this track record as particularly better or worse than London and Boyle in the years following their one successful year, but those two coaches stuck around at least four years after that one successful campaign.

When it comes to Maes, however, I think Littlepage got it right in moving on after four years. All coaches should have at least four years — getting to the point where your program consists almost completely of your own recruits. But if after that four-year period is up and you have zero or one seasons with a plus-.500 ACC record and not a single promising post-season outing, I can’t see that coach ever being competitive for ACC and national championships.

That said, I’m not completely convinced Littlepage’s high bar for competitiveness is the right standard. I don’t want to get too deep into philosophies behind college athletics, but maybe we value winning a bit too much. If the athletes are enjoying themselves, improving athletically, working hard, succeeding in class and winning some games every year, might that be all we need? Serving as a coach at a high-caliber program seems too stressful for its own good, knowing your job is always in the balance. Is that really something we want to subject our coaches to, even if they’re doing everything right except winning? I’m honestly not sure where I come down on that, and it’s probably a discussion for another column.

But if Littlepage is serious about what he claims his expectations to be, he’s proven himself to be a bit too optimistic with his least successful coaches in recent years.

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

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