CHARLOTTESVILLE,VA. — CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- As it rose quietly through the national rankings this season, the University of Virginia football team barely attracted more than a glance of interest outside the corridor that runs a couple of hundred miles north and south of the campus. But when the unbeaten Cavaliers became the No. 1 team in the country three weeks ago, the scrutiny of the program off the field intensified.
Skepticism reigns now on the eve of the Cavaliers' nationally televised game against 16th-ranked Georgia Tech at Scott Stadium tomorrow. And it might be there for a while, should Virginia continue its march through this remarkable season, one that is likely to conclude with the Cavaliers vying for their first national championship. It is a notion that some around here still find a little difficult to fathom.
The spotlight has brought some obvious, unavoidable questions. How did Virginia put itself in the position to be considered among the elite, and will head coach George Welsh be able to sustain this success for the long term? And, in the process of going from dormant to dominant, have the Cavaliers compromised themselves academically? Is Thomas Jefferson, the school's founder and its inescapable presence, leading the cheers or turning in his grave?
"We lost games for so long that people here came to think the reason we lost was because we were academically honest," university president John Casteen said yesterday. "But I believe this goes to show that you can do both equally well."
Consider how long, and how often, the Cavaliers had lost. Before Welsh's arrival from the Naval Academy in 1982, Virginia had endured 12 losing seasons in 13 years and had only two winning records in 29 years. In one particularly dismal stretch between 1958 and 1961, the team dropped 28 straight games; in the last eight years of Gene Corrigan's decade as athletic director, which ended in 1981, the school had three coaches.
Though most point to Welsh's hiring as the most important event in this turnaround, many say instead that it was Corrigan's report tothen-university president Frank Hereford in 1978. The 14-page report concluded that the university's athletic picture had become so bleak that one of the options might be to drop out of the Atlantic Coast Conference and become I-AA in football, similar to the Ivy League.
"There was such an attitude, such a struggle about anything that had to do with athletics," said Corrigan, who left Virginia for Notre Dame and is now commissioner of the ACC. "We needed to make a statement one way or the other. Hereford was not a fan of athletics, but he knew that the University of Virginia stood for excellence, and that athletics was part of that. It became a very big issue."
But unlike the early 1950s, when Virginia nearly de-emphasized athletics and considered disbanding the football program at the suggestion of former player-turned-academician Robert Gooch, the school began to think it could achieve a sensible and successful balance between the two. It hired Dick Schultz from Cornell to succeed Corrigan. In turn, Schultz brought in Welsh to replace Dick Bestwick. Neither thought it was going to be an easy job.
"When I came there, a lot of people said to me that we could never have a strong football program," said Schultz, now executive director of the National Collegiate Athletic Association. They said that we were too tough academically, and that we couldn't get the players we needed or the numbers we needed. I challenged that feeling by saying that we could use the academics to get an edge in recruiting."
Said Welsh: "I had no timetable. But it became obvious to me after we had been here a year that we better win quickly or we wouldn't have any credibility."
After Virginia finished 2-9 in Welsh's first season, the Cavaliers slowly began to improve: 6-5 in 1983, 8-2-2 in 1984. But when the team started going backward, sliding to 6-5 in 1985 and bottoming out at 3-8 in 1986, there were many who suspected that Welsh had run into the same obstacles that had befallen his predecessors. The team was having trouble on the field, and its players' academic performances were being criticized.
"A lot of the players who George inherited from the previous coaching staff thought they were here to play football and have a good time," said one athletic department official who wished to remain anonymous. "I remember one of the guys telling two first-semester freshmen that he didn't buy any books, and that he didn't need to."