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MULAY: We are witnessing Virginia Athletics’ golden generation of head coaches

Across all sports, Virginia’s current set of coaches has had tremendous success during their tenures

<p>Tony Bennett (top left), Michele Madison (top right), Julie Myers (bottom left) and George Gelnovatch (bottom right) are just a few of the many coaches who have achieved historic results at Virginia.</p>

Tony Bennett (top left), Michele Madison (top right), Julie Myers (bottom left) and George Gelnovatch (bottom right) are just a few of the many coaches who have achieved historic results at Virginia.

Virginia Athletics has had several legendary head coaches throughout its history. From former football Coach George Welsh to former women’s basketball Coach Debbie Ryan, Virginia fans have seen some terrific leadership over the years. However, the Cavaliers’ current coaching staff — spread across 27 varsity sports — represents arguably the greatest collection of head coaches that all happened to be at Virginia at the same time. 

National championships

Of Virginia’s 20 varsity coaches, six have won national titles during their tenure at Virginia and 11 have won at least one conference title. Throughout Virginia history, 13 coaches have led their respective teams to one or more national championships, so the fact that almost half of them are on the current staff is remarkable.

With a pair of NCAA titles each since taking over their teams, men’s soccer Coach George Gelnovatch and rowing Coach Kevin Sauer have both produced staggering results. Gelnovatch is the longest-tenured coach in team history and has won more games than any other Virginia men’s soccer coach, while Sauer has elevated Virginia rowing into a national powerhouse that has won 19 of the 20 ACC championships ever held.

Similar to Gelnovatch and Sauer, women’s lacrosse Coach Julie Myers, who won a national title in 2004, has also coached at Virginia for over two decades. She has never missed the NCAA tournament as Virginia’s head coach, is third all-time in NCAA Division I tournament victories and has won more than twice as many games as any other coach in program history.

More recently, baseball Coach Brian O’Connor, men’s basketball Coach Tony Bennett and men’s lacrosse Coach Lars Tiffany have all helped their team ascend to the national stage and win NCAA titles in the last few years. O’Connor — a three-time National Coach of the Year —  has turned Virginia baseball into a household name. Bennett has led Virginia men’s basketball to numerous titles at every level as well as seven NCAA tournament appearances — the Cavaliers only reached the tournament twice in the 15 years before Bennett was hired. Tiffany has never had a losing season at Virginia and helped the Cavaliers win their first national and ACC championships in about a decade.

Virginia’s current group of head coaches has produced eight national titles in total — almost a third of all of Virginia’s team championships.

Sustained success

Even if they didn’t add to Virginia’s long list of national titles, many coaches have nevertheless had long, prosperous careers as head coaches in Charlottesville. Virginia has nine current coaches who have worked for the athletics department for over 10 years and four for over 20 years — a testament to their enduring success. 

Women’s soccer Coach Steve Swanson has been at the helm of the Virginia program since the 2000 season. In the last 20 years, he’s amassed two ACC titles and has never missed the NCAA Tournament nor had a losing season. Beyond his collegiate coaching career, Swanson is also renowned for his experience with the U.S. Women’s National Team, for which he was an assistant coach during the team’s World Cup victories in 2015 and 2019.

Like Swanson, field hockey Coach Michele Madison has also led her team to a pair of ACC championships during her Virginia tenure. Madison is an iconic figure in Division I field hockey. She not only has more wins than any other Virginia head coach, but she also helped the Cavaliers win their first-ever ACC title in 2016. Most importantly, with 412 total wins over her career, Madison ranks eighth all-time amongst head coaches in number of victories.

Wrestling Coach Steve Garland and men’s golf Coach Bowen Sargent also join Swanson and Madison as coaches who have seen years of positive results at Virginia. In 14 years, Garland has won two ACC titles, secured more dual victories than all but one other coach in school history and guided numerous All-American wrestlers. In 16 years, Sargent has won 21 total tournaments, qualified for postseason play 12 straight times and helped a number of Cavaliers compete professionally.

Virginia’s current group of head coaches have held their position for an average of nearly 10 seasons. This shows how many Virginia coaches have found long-term success with the Cavaliers — in other words, as the saying goes, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’

Rising stars

Many individuals have yet to be a Virginia coach long enough to truly leave their mark on the program. That being said, what these coaches have accomplished in such a short amount of time, especially given the situations some of them inherited, is noteworthy.

An exemplar of a recent coaching hire who has exceeded expectations is football Coach Bronco Mendenhall. After Mendenhall replaced Mike London four years ago, Virginia football’s record has improved each season — from two wins in 2016 to nine wins in 2019, the most games Virginia has won since 2007. Mendenhall also guided Virginia to a series of firsts last year — first Coastal Division title, first ACC Championship game appearance, first Orange Bowl bid and first win over in-state rival Virginia Tech in 15 years.

Beyond Mendenhall, Athletics Director Carla Williams recently hired two high-profile figures as head coaches. Women’s basketball Coach Tina Thomspon and Director of Track and Field and Cross Country Vin Lananna are iconic figures in their respective sports. Thompson is one of the greatest players in WNBA history and won four championships during her Hall of Fame Career. Lananna, who also serves as USATF President, led Stanford and Oregon to 11 combined NCAA team championships. Both coaches will look to replicate their past success at Virginia.

Moving to the tennis courts, men’s tennis Coach Andres Pedroso and women’s tennis Coach Sara O’Leary were both named Virginia head coaches within weeks of each other in 2017. Both Pedroso — the 2019 Men’s Tennis ACC Coach of the Year — and O’Leary — who led Virginia back to the postseason in just her first year — previously worked with USTA Player Development as coaches and have brought their experience to Charlottesville. 

Similar to Pedroso and O’Leary, men’s and women’s swimming and diving Coach Todd DeSorbo has a history of developing talent. In 2020, 31 swimmers and divers under his guidance were named All-Americans. Volleyball Coach Aaron Smith has also made strides with a relatively young team, including gradual improvement in a number of statistical categories and coaching the first Cavalier to play professionally since 2014.

Last, but not least, softball Coach Joanna Hardin, women’s golf Coach Ria Scott and men’s and women’s squash Coach Mark Allen all deserve far more attention than they’ve been given so far. Hardin already has the third-most ACC wins in Virginia history after just three full seasons, Scott was named the VaSID Coach of the Year in her first year and Allen’s teams have won three Mid-Atlantic Squash Championships in the last two years.

Whichever way you look at it, Virginia’s head coaches have been nothing short of exceptional since arriving on Grounds — from the established luminaries to the fresh-faced up-and-comers. Many of Virginia’s current head coaches — like Madison and Swanson — are clearly the best to ever coach at Virginia in their respective sports. Several others — like Gelnovatch and Myers — are, at the very least, amongst the top two. These coaches have all performed well by excelling in a number of ways such as recruiting top prospects, developing players into standouts and formulating winning strategies.

Admittedly, it’s common for high-profile college programs to have elite coaches. However, it’s a far more rare sight for one program to have so many elite coaches all employed at the exact same time. And, notably, we’ve only discussed head coaches and haven’t even touched on their world-class staffs — including assistant coaches and athletic trainers.

Moreover, Virginia’s head coaches don’t simply decide starting lineups and set up tactics. They also build positive team cultures, instill strong values into their young players and encourage student-athletes to excel in both athletics and academics. From Bennett promoting his “five pillars” of success to Mendenhall pursuing “unbroken growth,” Virginia coaches are clearly more than coaches. They’re leaders, teachers and role models.

Given the impressive titles, records and statistics, the U.Va. athletics department has done a tremendous job of identifying, hiring and supporting head coaches over the last few decades. Players come and go every year, but Virginia’s coaches have been a pillar of stability and excellence. While it's impossible to predict the future, Virginia fans should sit back and relax — the program is in good hands.

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