I had the pleasure to meet a former UVa football star at a cocktail party recently. He was an iconic figure from the salad days of Virginia football. A George Welsh recruit and player. A football warrior and a very nice guy who laughed when I asked him if he had any eligibility left because we sure could use him next year.
I have no doubt that he has endured the same conversation a hundred times with UVa fans looking for insight and inside scoop on the state of football affairs in Charlottesville. He was engaging, patient, insightful, and generous with his time. His perspective was thought-provoking at best, distressing at worst.
I asked if he thought Virginia was going to be better this year, if we were heading in the right direction. I hoped for a big smile and confirmation that indeed football at UVa was emerging from its 10-year funk. Instead I got a dose of reality that made me wish I’d gotten a double scotch before I started the conversation. The facial expression was one of concern, from someone who clearly wants UVa to get back to its winning ways. The net of his comments – we don’t have enough athletes. I rattled off a few of names of kids I viewed as top notch players…no confirmation, no bright smile, no “yes, that kid is a player”. Just sincerely held concern that we don’t have enough athletes.
I was taken aback, but who was I to argue about talent levels with someone who had been there and knew first hand? How could I question what it takes to win in the ACC with one of the many star players who had won in the ACC through his entire career under George Welsh?
So, after I got home, before I changed, I poured another drink and spent an hour or so looking at some of the rosters from the George Welsh days. The days when Virginia won a lot of football games. When Virginia was clearly the best team in The Commonwealth and one of the best teams in the ACC. A scan of the rosters of the late 1980s &1990s yielded the same conclusion – there was a lot of talent in the program in those years. I needed to pick a point of comparison for the current roster, so I picked one outside of my conversation and settled on the 1998 team. While a little bit of a “cherry pick” this was not the No. 1 team in the nation nor the team that featured the Barbers of C’ville in the final years in orange & blue.
The 1998 team was a good one, however. They went 9-3 overall, 6-2 in the ACC, and lost a heart-breaker to a good Georgia team in the Peach Bowl. As I looked at the roster, my heart sunk a bit, as did my expectations for the 2017 football season.
Let’s bounce around a few names from the Cavalier roster in 1998:
Aaron Brooks, Thomas Jones, Antwoine Womack, Anthony Poindexter, Terrence Wilkins, Casey Crawford, Billy Baber, Chris Luzar, Monsanto Pope, Noel LaMontagne, John St. Clair, Antonio Dingle, Patrick Kearney, Wali Rainer, Byron Thweatt, Donny Green, Antwan Harris, & Maurice Anderson. If you are keeping score at home, that is a count of 18 players…all of whom played at least 1 season in the NFL. Several had exceptional NFL careers. At least 2 had exceptional careers in the NFL cut short by injuries they sustained at UVa. There was also a pack of players who were borderline NFL talent that played big roles for UVa in the late 1990s. Guys like Anthony Southern, Kevin Coffey, Ahmad Hawkins, Brad Barnes, Tyree Foreman, & Tim Spruill.
Wow! Anyone want to send George Welsh a heartfelt thank-you note for all he and his staff did for Virginia football? Recall before Coach Welsh arrived, Virginia was a joke program, de-emphasized by design by the big dogs in The University administration. Virginia lost to good teams. Virginia lost to bad teams. Virginia lost to a mediocre Wake Forest team by 50 points not long before coach Welsh arrived. Yet there we were in 1998, with 18 future NFL players on the roster, playing toe-to-toe with the SEC (Virginia went 1-1 versus the SEC in 1998 beating Auburn on the road before losing to UGa in the Peach Bowl).
With all due respect to Kurt Benkert, Daniel Hamm, and Jack McDonald, the comps to Aaron Brooks, Thomas Jones, and John St. Clair are not encouraging. So where does that leave Virginia football with the 2017 season only 3 months away and counting?
Scanning the 2017 roster, it is not void of NFL talent. Quinn Blanding and Andrew Brown are solid NFL prospects and likely low to middle round picks in next year’s draft. After that, it gets hard to find kids destined to play on Sundays. My guess is Bronco will develop a few, but if the comparison for talent & depth is the 1998 roster, there are not 18 NFL players on the 2017 roster. Virginia might be fortunate if there are half that number.
This talent reality leaves Virginia fans pinning their hopes and guarded optimism on Bronco and his system. Going back to his BYU days, Bronco never had herculean high school players on his roster. However, during his tenure at BYU he sent 25+ players to NFL careers which shows his eye for undervalued talent and his talent for player development. I think this works for Virginia. At least it works for Virginia right now.
Virginia football needs stability. It needs discipline. It needs to learn how to win. It needs coaching grounded in fundamental football that results in strong player development. Bronco can deliver these things. I think Bronco can consistently deliver 5-7 wins a season. That might be good enough for Virginia football. It is certainly an improvement.
That said, Virginia is never going to be truly and consistently competitive if Clemson and Florida State have 25 or more players on their teams who are a step faster and push-up stronger than Virginia – discipline and player development be damned. It is hard to consistently win against teams that not only have better athletes, but that have a lot more better athletes.
I would never have thought this absent my recent conversation, but maybe Branco is a transitional coach for Virginia. Maybe he stops the bleeding. Maybe he brings discipline and a culture of winning more than losing to Virginia football and then hands the keys over to the next young hotshot coach who can build on Bronco’s foundation by recruiting 18 NFL caliber players on the same roster.
In this context, I think Bronco is the right guy for the Virginia job. Certainly, he’s the right guy for right now. If 5-7 wins a year with an occasional bump to 8 wins is good enough for Virginia fans, maybe he is the long-term answer too. I still think it is a coup that Craig Littlepage and Jon Oliver brought Bronco and his staff to Virginia. At some point however, Virginia is going to need “the athletes” to win consistently in the ACC and beat top-shelf SEC opponents on the road. Maybe winning will allow Bronco to ramp up his recruiting, though winning at BYU didn’t change his recruiting results dramatically over time. Maybe that is a function of BYU. Maybe unfettered by BYU’s strict college experience, Bronco can compete with the national programs and close on 4 and 5 star recruits. Maybe.
I wish I’d had more time to ask more questions about the progress of Virginia football to someone who knew about winning and player development, but I had probably intruded too much already and as noted before, due to my short-sightedness, my drink was glass was empty. After the brief conversation and doing a little homework afterwards, I might want to keep a full drink glass for the coming season.