By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — When UVa introduced Tony Bennett as men’s basketball coach at an early April news conference at John Paul Jones Arena, it was the first time many in the room had ever seen him in person.
The scene was different Monday afternoon at JPJ. The room was the same, as were many of the media members scattered around it, but the man in the spotlight needed no introduction.
Mike London is back at UVa, this time as head football coach. For a program that’s had three losing seasons in the past four years, the return of this favorite son was cause for celebration.
“I can’t wait to really get to know Coach London and can’t wait to play for him,” said defensive end Matt Conrath, who’ll be a junior in 2010.
London, 49, spent the past two seasons as head coach at the University of Richmond, his alma mater. He went 24-5 and won a national title — in the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision — with the Spiders.
His first game as UVa’s coach, coincidentally, will be against UR at Scott Stadium on Sept. 4.
“He’s ready for this,” athletics director Craig Littlepage said. “We’re ready for it. I know that our players are ready for it. Our former players … and so many different stakeholders have applauded this decision and Mike’s decision to be with us at the University of Virginia.”
London said he was happy at UR, and it wasn’t easy to leave.
“It’s just that I had been here and spent six years of my life,” he said, “and this is a fit. So when the opportunity came about, then it made the decision easy.”
London’s daughter Kristen played basketball at and graduated from UVa. His brother Paul, also a UVa alumnus, was a standout defensive back for George Welsh.
Mike London’s professional association with UVa dates to 2001. That’s when he joined the staff of Al Groh — who’d succeeded Welsh after the 2000 season — as defensive line coach.
After the 2004 season, London left to coach the Houston Texans’ defensive line. He returned to UVa after one year in the NFL, however, and spent the 2006 and ’07 seasons as Groh’s defensive coordinator.
And now he’s back at Mr. Jefferson’s University — this time, all parties hope, for a long and successful stay.
“I’m so thankful to be given this privilege,” London said. “I’m a caretaker, and I’m a servant, because I serve the student-athletes I’m in charge of and the coaches and their families.
“I’m a caretaker of this university’s reputation, in the academic and athletic arenas, and that’s a challenge I’m looking forward to.”
London called UVa “a school that’s produced some great, great players … some great coaches … some great people.” He singled out Bill Dudley and Welsh and Chris Long and Shawn Moore and Chris Long, then stopped himself.
“I could go on and on,” London said, “and I would be remiss in not remembering everybody’s names or mentioning everybody’s names, but this is a special place.
“Special people have walked the Grounds here. It’s a privilege and honor to be here as the head coach that can hopefully provide some energy, some passion, get involved with what’s going on in these guys’ lives, get involved in the community.”
Welsh, a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, didn’t attend the news conference, but Monday morning at University Hall he talked about London.
“I think it’s an excellent hire,” Welsh said. “I think he knows the University, and he knows the state.”
London has coached at UR, William and Mary, and UVa (as well as at Boston College). He played football at Bethel High in Hampton and then at UR. He worked as a police detective in the city of Richmond.
“He will be able to recruit very strongly in the state,” said former NFL great Howie Long, who lives in Ivy. “I’m of the belief that if you win the state of Virginia, you win on the football field. It’s pretty simple.”
After guiding Richmond to the FCS national title, London had “a number of opportunities, I know, to go back into the pro game right after last season,” said Howie Long, whose son Chris spent three seasons with London at UVa.
“He made, I think, the right decision in sticking around. I thought opportunities for this type of position would pop up this year, and I think Virginia is fortunate the timing was right … I think it’s a good day for Virginia, and he certainly has the support of the Long family.”
Howie and Chris Long were out of town Monday, but London’s audience at JPJ included numerous former UVa players, including Dudley, Slade, Aaron Brooks, Ray Savage, Charles McDaniel, Monsanto Pope and Wali Rainer.
“I don’t think it was intentional on Coach Groh’s part,” said McDaniel, who lives in Fredericksburg, “but we certainly felt a lot closer [to the UVa program] during Welsh’s era. And I can almost guarantee you, just knowing Mike and knowing his DNA and what’s made him successful, we’re going to be a bigger part of it now.
“Al had his ties to the NFL. Mike has ties to college and high school football.
“You look at the guys who’ve come back here today. Some guys hopped on planes and just came in because they thought it was that important. I think that in itself says an awful lot and speaks an awful lot about the excitement of past players with the hiring of Coach London.”
London’s parents were home in the Tidewater area, where he grew up, and his brother Paul was back in Hampton at work. But London’s wife, Regina, and their children Ticynn, Jaicyn, Madicyn and Korben were seated in the front row.
The other members of London’s family, the players who make up the UVa program, met with their new coach later in the afternoon. At an earlier meeting — on Nov. 29, the day Groh was dismissed — those players had talked to Littlepage and executive associate AD Jon Oliver about the qualities they wanted in their next coach.
“We just put it in their hands to make the right decision, and I think they did,” said safety Rodney McLeod, whom London had recruited before leaving for UR in January 2008.
London agreed to a five-year contract that will pay him $1.7 million annually.
In addition to his time as UVa, London has been an assistant under Jim Marshall, Jimmye Laycock, Jim Reid, Tom O’Brien and Dom Capers. He worked longer for Groh, though, than for any of those coaches.
To those who worry that his coaching philosophy might too closely resemble Groh’s, London said this: Don’t worry.
“I have a tremendous amount of respect for Coach Groh,” London said. “He allowed me to grow within this system, this university. But I’m my own man. I’m my own person … I’m looking to do my own things and make my own way.”
His base defense, London said, will be the 4-3. Groh favored the 3-4.
London will allow his assistants to speak to the media. Groh had a Bill Parcells-inspired “one-voice policy.”
Groh earned a reputation as a micro-manager. London’s management style is different.
“You hire good people to do their jobs, and you allow them to do their jobs,” London said. “The situation I just came from” — at UR — “I hired good people that did a great job of doing their jobs.
“Now, it’s my job to make sure that they do their jobs, but I was very satisfied in how they were doing it … I think the coaches have an appreciation that when you allow them to coach their players and do the job, because they were accountable to you, then you get the desired results. That’s been my experience so far.”
As at UR, London said, he’ll have three rules for his players at UVa: Go to class, show class in everything you do, and treat people with dignity and respect.
UVa’s academic reputation should be an asset to the football program, London said, not a negative. He’s not looking for players who are overly interested in football, at the expense of schoolwork, or vice versa.
“But if you want the best-of-both-worlds opportunities,” London said, “this is the place for you. You’ll have a head coach who is going to foster an environment that’s conducive to you achieving academically and make sure that you get the type of coaching and have a relationship that’s going to be able to at least help you achieve athletically also.”
Assembling his staff is a priority, said London, who declined to identify which coaches interest him. He’s likely to retain at least one member of UVa’s 2009 staff — Anthony Poindexter — and is expected to import several of his UR assistants.