By Jeff White
GREENSBORO, N.C. — It seems like an eternity ago, but in 2004 UVa’s football team was picked to finish third in what was then an 11-school Atlantic Coast Conference.
Six years later, the outlook for the Cavaliers is bleaker. Media members at the ACC Football Kickoff this weekend picked UVa to finish sixth in the six-team Coastal Division, behind first-place Virginia Tech and, in order, Miami, Georgia Tech, North Carolina and Duke.
“Got ’em exactly where I want ’em,” Mike London quipped Monday afternoon at the Grandover Resort.
A program that under Hall of Fame coach George Welsh often ranked among the ACC’s best had some good seasons under his successor, Al Groh. But the Wahoos declined dramatically late in Groh’s tenure, finishing below .500 in three of his final four seasons, and London was hired to head the rebuilding project.
Virginia finished 3-9 in 2009 and, if prognosticators are correct, may well suffer a third straight losing season for the first time since the early 1980s.
“It is what it is,” London said of the preseason poll. “Obviously, you try to take things like that and you try to use them as motivators, but I don’t think I need to use that as a motivating factor for our team. All I’m worried about is what we think about ourselves and then how we do on the field.”
So far, London said, his players’ work ethic and attitude have been outstanding, and he’s confident the ‘Hoos can surprise some opponents this fall. Recruiting has gone well, and UVa’s coaches and players have spent untold hours in the community, trying to win back a fan base that tired of Groh’s leadership style.
“But this is a work in progress,” said London, who had two stints as an assistant under Groh at UVa. “I want our guys to be competitive, and I think we will be, but we’re not going to do miracles out there on the field.
“This is a process that’s going to take place. This is not an overnight quick fix, an ‘All right, let’s go, we’re going to win 21 straight games’ type of thing.”
In two seasons as head coach at the University of Richmond, his alma mater, London went 24-5 and won a national title. Since leaving UR in December to return to UVa, he’s spoken “to the Boys Club, the Girls Club, the Rotary Club, the Hair Club for Men,” said London, only partly in jest.
He’s started more races and eaten more chicken dinners than he can count, London said, but he’s not complaining.
“I think it’s necessary,” he said, “given the fact you say, ‘We want to be open, we want to be accessible, we want to be available.’ Well, if you’re going to start down that road, then you better make youself open, available and accessible and include the fan base.”
COUNTING THE DAYS: The Cavaliers open training camp Aug. 6. In the spring, they practiced 15 times, the maximum allowed by the NCAA.
“Our goal is when we go in on Aug. 6, that practice 16 is practice 16 and we’re not redoing practices 3, 4, 5,” London said.
In the summer, he and his assistants aren’t allowed to work with UVa players until training camp begins. London has received good reports, however, from the team’s strength-and-conditioning staff.
“From what I hear about how the players are working, the leadership of the captains, there’s a lot of positive things about where we are, both physically and psychologically with the team,” London said.
“It’ll be interesting to see when they come in on Aug. 6 what these guys have done and how far they’ve advanced. But I look at them now from where they came out of spring, and there’s guys whose bodies have changed, who cut body fat, who increased their strength, who are running much better. So you’re excited about that part of it.”
DIFFERENT PHILOSOPHY: In his final season at UVa, Groh played 14 true freshmen, only three of whom were in for more than 98 snaps. London’s teams at Richmond were loaded with fourth-year juniors and fifth-year seniors, so he appreciates the value of redshirting.
“When I put somebody out there [as a true freshman], I want to make sure that they’re going to play a significant amount of reps for us,” London said.
It’s not likely that all of UVa’s newcomers will redshirt this season — mammoth offensive lineman Morgan Moses, for one, seems likely to crack the two-deep — but if “I had my druthers,” London said, “I’d rather find out, assess them and then turn them over to Brandon Hourigan, who’s our strength-and-conditioning coach, or turn them over to Adrien Harraway, who’s our academic coordinator, and then let them build their muscles academically and athletically.”
RING IN THE NEW: Groh’s offensive schemes changed throughout his tenure at UVa, but his base defense always was the 3-4.
Like most college coaches, London favors the 4-3, and the Cavaliers switched to that scheme in the spring.
“I was with Coach Groh when he implemented the 3-4, and at times they were very successful at it,” London said. “It’s a good defense provided that you have the stand-up outside linebackers and the defensive linemen that can play and two-gap in it. When you have that, it’s a beautiful thing.
“But over the years, and the last two years particularly, being at Richmond, you find that getting that high school lineman that’s big enough to fulfill the role of being a two-gap tackle or defensive end is somewhat difficult. It’s not necessarily for linemen a defense they find very attractive.”
UNSETTLED SITUATION: Under London, Richmond had powerful running games, and he wants the same to be true of his teams at UVa.
“I believe you have to be able to run the ball to win,” he said.
UVa will have no shortage of options at tailback this season, including Dominique Wallace, Perry Jones, Torrey Mack, Keith Payne, Raynard Horne and, perhaps, newcomer Kevin Parks. Still, none has established himself as a clear leader in the battle for the starting job.
“I’m looking to see how that’s going to turn out myself,” London said. “We got very good running backs. We’re talented at the running back position. It’s [a matter of] who’s going to be the guy right now.”
OFF AND RUNNING: NCAA rules prohibit London from commenting on high school players who have not signed letters of intent, but Virginia is assembling an impressive class of recruits for 2011.
“I feel real good about recruiting, where we are right now and the type of young men that are interested in the University of Virginia,” London said.
“The message is an academic message, plus an athletic opportunity. That’s the message, and so far I think things are resonating with a lot of young men and parents. We’ll continue to do that. Virginia has had an academic reputation for a long, long, long time, and the opportunity to come here and play and be a part of something and build something is what we have to sell. And so far it seems like it’s working.”
CHANGE AT THE TOP: London has yet to meet Teresa Sullivan but said he’s eager to do so. Sullivan succeeds John Casteen as UVa’s president Aug. 1.
“I understand that her vision of athletics and things like that are very positive,” London said, “so I’m looking forward to sitting down and meeting her and talking to her about what her vision for the University is. And hopefully I can help that by attracting the right profile student-athlete.”