Nations: London, McGee take the high road

Sometimes in sports, you wonder what ever happened to the high road.

Or maybe you imagine it as a sort of tumbleweed-strewn, cracked-pavement stretch of forgotten asphalt unmarked and untended through lack of use.

I suppose that’s just cynicism creeping in, just too many stories of bad breakups between athletes and coaches, or coaches and schools, or schools and coaches — happens all the time, the acrimony spilling out for all the world to see.

So it was refreshing — really — when I read about standout tight end Jake McGee’s decision to transfer from the University of Virginia’s football program following his graduation from the school in May.

Typically, these things go something like this — a school announces an athlete’s intention to transfer, or withdraw, or otherwise vacate the premises — and the coach says something along the lines of, “We appreciate so-and-so’s contributions to the program and wish him the best.” That’s it, move on, nothing more to see here.

That’s just standard stuff from the coach’s quotation playbook — after all, it’s never a positive reflection on a program when one of your players decides they’d be better off playing somewhere else.

Cavaliers coach Mike London broke out that time-tested phrase in a statement released by the school, but his embellishment makes all the difference.

“I want to thank Jake for his contributions to the Virginia program and wish him the best,” London stated. “When I came to UVa, he was one of the first players we recruited because he had committed to play for me at Richmond. I am very proud of the fact he will graduate from the University this spring. I hope he finds a program that fits his desires for his final season as a college player.”

London could have left it at the bland opening, but insisted on expressing pride and continued well wishes to a player that meant a lot to Virginia football. It was more than McGee’s contributions on the field, which were plenty — this past season, he led the Cavaliers with 43 catches for 395 yards and two touchdowns. London’s comment alluded to McGee’s personal loyalty in following the coach that recruited him — originally to the University of Richmond — to a new school, a personal flourish of appreciation despite what can only be bad news for his team.

McGee’s decision to transfer arose during spring practice, when he was shifted from tight end to wide receiver. McGee, a 6-foot-6, 250-pounder who undoubtedly has designs on a professional career, obviously felt this wasn’t a good move for his final collegiate season and likely said so to his coach. London, to his credit, apparently didn’t lie or try to mollify McGee with false promises about his role. That might have been tempting — Virginia is coming off a 2-10 season, and the Cavs obviously can use as many playmakers as possible.

Here’s McGee’s take on the split, in a statement released by the school: “I am very thankful for my time at UVa and I will always consider myself a Wahoo. I have tremendous respect for Coach London and this football team, but I have decided to pursue my future career elsewhere. This is a personal decision and in no way should reflect on this team or its coaches. I want to thank my teammates, coaches, and especially the Wahoo fans for the endless support. Go Hoos.”

That hardly sounds like a disillusioned or embittered player, despite the decision to leave. London believed McGee would best help the Cavaliers in a sort of hybrid tight end-wide receiver role — McGee thought it would hurt his professional chances. Both were honest in that disagreement, both were gracious when a compromise could not be reached for next season.

The impression is clear — London went the extra mile to praise a player whose departure unquestionably hurts his program, and McGee took the added measure of specifically excluding the coaching staff, his teammates or the current low fortunes of the football team as the impetus for his decision to leave. You get the feeling, this time, that coach and player shook hands, looked each other in the eye and said their goodbyes as friends.

Huh, the high road — almost forgot that was there.

Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or jnations@nvdaily.com>