Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: UVa coach restoring relevance to team, rivalry

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Virginia coach Mike London spoke for more than 40 minutes at his weekly news conference Monday.

Very little of what he said had anything to do with Virginia Tech.

That, folks, is progress.

Granted, you can attribute some of this to the reporters who were there. We asked the questions, and we had a million of 'em.

About the big win over Florida State.

About exceeding expectations this season.

About getting players to believe and improve.

About what this team's four-game winning streak has meant to London and his staff.

And that's really the point here: As much as we're going to hype this matchup against the Hokies (and, brother, we will), there's actually some other stuff to talk about for once.

For the previous three years, the Tech game has represented UVa's last-ditch opportunity to redeem a lost season. And that's pretty much all it's meant here in Charlottesville. The Cavaliers have framed it in nothing-to-lose, everything-to-gain terms — then gone out and gained nothing.

Not this year. This year, thanks to the success UVa has already achieved — twice as many wins as last season, with at least two more chances to add to the total — London can set the agenda however he pleases. And he's set it by using the same talking points he has all season long to get his players to this opportunity.

"We should be in every game that we play," London said. "We should expect to win every game that we play. It hasn't always been like that, but that's the mindset now."

London is a near lock to take ACC Coach of the Year honors, but then again, Al Groh won that award twice. What they want around here isn't a superstar coach. They want sustainability, and that's what London is chasing with his philosophy of daily improvement.

UVa's stated goal this season, paraphrased, was to strip away the here-we-go-again mentality of Cavaliers past. That starts in games, fighting through adversity on a play-to-play basis, and carries over into game-week preparation.

And just as the Cavaliers have done with other albatrosses — the November losing streak, the struggles against Duke, the lack of competitiveness in Tallahassee — they are trying to do this week against a Tech team that's beaten them seven years in a row.

"You have an opportunity to do something about it," London said. "Change the way you behave, change the way you study, change the way you prepare ...

"You have to draw the line in the sand a little bit and say that this is what we're going to do better; either be with us or not."

They're with him. How could they not be? Just two years into his tenure, London has his players on the cusp of a Coastal Division championship. They have the Hokies at home on national TV in front of a sold-out crowd.

Clearly, what he's doing is working.

"I'm not a football guru," London said. "I'm not, get on the board, Xs and Os and things like that. But I think I can relate to what young men are going through and tap into that.

"This is what you need to do to turn your situation around. And we can be successful if you're part of it."

The Cavaliers enter this game with a healthy sense of perspective. The season's not made if they beat the Hokies; it's not lost if they don't. A bowl game and a bright future await under either circumstance.

"It's great to know that in November, we're still talking about Virginia football as being relevant," London said. "It's great to know that on this game, there's a lot at stake here."

Yep. It really is.

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