By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — When Mike London left in January 2008 to become head football coach at the University of Richmond, it wasn’t far-fetched to believe he might one day return to the University of Virginia.
That day has come.
London, who in two seasons at UR went 24-5 and won a national championship, will be introduced as UVa’s head coach Monday afternoon at John Paul Jones Arena.
He knows the University well. His daughter Kristen, a women’s basketball player, graduated from UVa, as did his brother Paul, who played football for George Welsh.
London, who turned 49 in October, had two stints as a Virginia assistant, the second as defensive coordinator.
“He’s going to be a guy that I think can really take the program to new heights,” former UVa great Chris Slade said Sunday night. “With his early success at Richmond and his upside in coaching, you knew he was going to be at a major university. I’m just glad and honored that we were able to get him back at UVa, where he already has a great reputation.
“I think he’s going to bring that extra dimension and that energy to the program. He comes with instant credibility from his past. When he was defensive coordinator here, he did a great job. He won’t have to sell himself, because people know his pedigree, they know who he is, they know what he stands for, and that’s going to mean a lot, for players to believe in him right from the beginning.”
London’s second season as coach at UR, his alma mater, ended Saturday night in Richmond. In the quarterfinals of the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision playoffs, the Spiders lost 35-31 to perennial power Appalachian State.
UR won the FCS national title in 2008, London’s first season as a head coach at any level.
London’s teams at Richmond excelled in the classroom as well as on the field. That’s part of what makes him attractive to UVa. All four schools at which he’s worked — UR, William and Mary, Boston College and UVa — have sterling academic reputations and expect their athletes to be diligent students.
At UVa, London replaces his former boss Al Groh, who was dismissed late last month. Groh went 59-53 in nine seasons at Virginia.
London is the first African-American head coach in a football program that dates to 1888. In the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision, he becomes one of only nine black head coaches.
The others are at Miami (Fla.), Miami (Ohio), Houston, Buffalo, New Mexico, New Mexico State, Eastern Michigan and Western Kentucky.
London inherits a UVa program that finished below .500 in three of the past four seasons. The Wahoos were 3-9 this season.
“Any time there’s a big change, it’s tough for an alum to go through it,” former UVa star Chris Long, a second-year defensive end with the St. Louis Rams, said Sunday night.
“You’re nervous. You don’t know if the program’s going to be turned over into the right hands, but in this situation I think we’re lucky to have this guy leading our football nation, so to speak, Cavalier Nation.
“I feel really excited. I feel like they couldn’t have turned it over to a better guy. I just feel like we’re going to get a fresh start here and Coach London is a guy that can recharge our battery.”
Word of London’s hiring started to spread Sunday night.
“Anybody on the inside’s going to be excited, because they know Mike,” Long said. “I don’t really need to expand much on that, because what’s said has been said, and everything that’s been positively portrayed about Mike London is true.”
London’s first challenge at UVa will be to assemble a staff, but don’t expect every assistant’s slot to be filled immediately. Some coaches who interest London have obligations to fulfill with NFL and bowl-bound college teams.
London’s first stay at UVa lasted from 2001 to ’04. He coached the defensive line for all four of those seasons and also served as recruiting coordinator for the final three.
After a year on the Houston Texans’ staff, London returned to UVa as defensive coordinator in 2006, and he held that position in ’07, too.
His pupils in 2007 included linebacker Clint Sintim and ends Jeffrey Fitzgerald and Long, the ACC’s defensive player of the year and a consensus All-American. Long’s guests in the New York City at the 2008 NFL draft included London, who was then at UR.
“Coach L — and this is going to serve him really well as a head coach — has great communication skills,” Long said. “People are able to bounce things off him. He’s able to communicate back. He can communicate to [college] coaches and to players, and he can communicate to high school coaches, high school players.
“I think recruiting is going to be definitely one of his strong suits, but he’s not just a recruiter. Some coaches are kind of just recruiters. This guy can coach with the best of them. It’s obvious. He knows how to coach, he can communicate, he’s a great motivator, he relates to players, and he’s from the state of Virginia.”
London was raised in the Tidewater area — now known in football circles as the 7-5-7 — and graduated from Bethel High in Hampton. He played defensive back at UR, from which he graduated in 1983. He worked as a police detective in the city of Richmond before moving into coaching in 1989 at UR.
He had two stints as a Richmond assistant, first under Jim Marshall and then under Jim Reid. London’s other mentors include Groh, Jimmye Laycock, Tom O’Brien and Dom Capers.
London was an assistant under Laycock at William and Mary, under O’Brien at Boston College and under Capers with the NFL’s Texans.
“I’m very proud of him,” Paul London said of his brother. “He’s gone about the whole transformation the right way. He’s stayed humble. He’s treated people with dignity and respect, and he’s getting an opportunity of a lifetime.
“In my mind, Mike is the type of coach that I would want to play for. He’s passionate, he’s personable, he’s enthusiastic, and I think you have to have those attributes in today’s coaching world, because you have to get your kids excited. They have to know you care about them as people and citizens, not just as players, and I think he does that. He embodies that.”
Like Slade and Long, Paul London says his brother must raise the talent level in the UVa program. All believe he’s well-equipped to do so, especially in the Commonwealth, where Mike London has myriad connections.
Former UVa players “understand it’s about recruiting in general and recruiting the state of Virginia specifically,” Paul London said. “And I think they all recognize that my brother is a good recruiter and can get us back into the Tidewater area and maybe make some inroads into some areas in the state where we haven’t been as successful during Groh’s tenure.
“And I think hopefully if he’s able to do that, then you’ll start to see a turnaround in the program, because ultimately you have to be able to recruit the state of Virginia in order to be competitive, and I think that’s where Virginia Tech has had their success. They’ve maintained their philosophy since Coach [Frank] Beamer has gotten there. They’ve had some solid recruits from the state, and obviously it’s translated into wins on the field.”
Long said: “I think high school coaches are going to appreciate his personality, and obviously having coached at Virginia before and having dealt with a lot of these high schools before, he has that reputation already. And I think everybody’s probably a little nervous at other schools that he’s going to take some of their recruits, because he’s a heck of a recruiter.”
Many of the greatest players in UVa history — Slade, Long, Shawn Moore, Herman Moore, Terry Kirby, Tiki and Ronde Barber, Thomas Jones, Anthony Poindexter, James Farrior, Jamie Sharper and Heath Miller among them — are from this state.
In the latter stages of Groh’s tenure, UVa’s in-state recruiting struggles contributed to the program’s decline.
“We gotta get people from in-state,” said Long, a graduate of St. Anne’s-Belfield School in Charlottesville. “If we’re going to revive this thing, it’s with the people. It’s great to have people from out of state, and we’ve had some great contributors from out of state over time at Virginia. But I think when you assemble a team that’s largely made up of guys who are from the state that they’re representing in their college uniform, that’s something special.”
Slade, who starred at Tabb High with Kirby, noted that London “knows the Tidewater area, which is an area that we need to get back in and recruit and start getting some of the top players from again.”
Seniors on Groh’s final team included running backs Rashawn Jackson and Mikell Simpson, quarterback Jameel Sewell, wide receiver Vic Hall, offensive tackle Will Barker, linebackers Darren Childs, Aaron Clark and Denzel Burrell, cornerback Chris Cook and all-ACC defensive lineman Nate Collins.
All made significant contributions, and London faces a major rebuilding project at a school where winning seasons and bowl appearances were once the norm. UVa’s three victories this season were its fewest since 1986.
“I know he won’t win a conference championship next year at Virginia, but hopefully he’ll start to rebuild that program, and who knows?” Paul London said. “Two or three years down the road, hopefully we’ll be competing for conference championships and then maybe be able to break onto the national scene again as a program that can be reckoned with.”
Long said: “It just seems like a good fit. I’m excited about that. I know that some people, when there’s a new hiring, want to see some hot new coach they’ve never really heard of, some hot new coordinator. They want the sexy pick.
“But I think you’re getting the best of both with Coach London. He’s an up-and-coming coach, and he’s a coach that knows the area and has been here and has won at Virginia.”