By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — His second head job, at least on the surface, bears little resemblance to his first.
The University of Virginia, like the University of Richmond, is a highly regarded academic institution about two hours from the D.C. area. But when Mike London took over as UR’s football coach in January 2008, he walked into an enviable situation.
Sixteen starters returned from a team that in 2007 won the Colonial Athletic Association title, advanced to the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision semifinals and finished 11-3.
At Virginia, where London’s debut comes Sept. 4 against Richmond, of all teams, recent years have not brought similar success.
In three of the Cavaliers’ final four seasons, they finished under .500. In 2009, the Wahoos’ last season under Al Groh, they went 3-9 — their most losses since 1982 and fewest victories since ’86.
“It’s going to take time for us to be successful,” said Jon Oliver, the University’s executive associate director of athletics.
So as London, 49, rebuilds a program that once ranked among the ACC’s strongest, patience will be required of fans and alumni.
At Richmond, London went 24-5. The Spiders won the FCS national title in his first season and reached the FCS quarterfinals in his second. He believes he can win consistently at Virginia, too, but he’s realistic.
“This is a work in progress,” London said. “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.”
The ‘Hoos have new uniforms, a new coaching staff, a new defense, a new offense, a new commitment to recruiting in the Commonwealth, and, London hopes, a new attitude.
“Guys are going to have to do it the way I want to get it done,” he said. “We’ll end up recruiting the kind of guys that we want, that have the makeup we want. As I tell the team, you do it right on the field, off the field, in the community, then you’re going to be around here. If not, then you won’t be part of the program.”
London has three rules for his players: Go to class, show class in all you do, and treat people with dignity and respect.
“Coach London is a guy who believes in relationships — relationships with his staff, with his players, relationships with the academic circles of our university and relationships with the community,” senior quarterback Marc Verica said.
“He understands that building those strong relationships with people is important, especially in a transition like this. You have to get everybody to be on board with what you’re doing, and you’ve got to get everybody to conform to the new culture you’re trying to establish. From the get-go, he’s made it very clear to us that we need to start forging stronger bonds with everything: with the school, with the community and everything. And when you do those things, it kind of gets the ball rolling, and winning will take care of itself eventually. It’s just important to establish that new culture.”
UVa’s new defensive coordinator, Jim Reid, left the NFL to work with London again. London coached under Reid at Richmond.
“It’s going to be a great adventure,” Reid said. “I know what Coach London’s vision is. In every phase of our program he articulates the message, every staff meeting. He expects us to carry that message and to fulfill this vision. And the vision goes beyond football. It goes to academics and social life [and the] community.”
London grew up in Tidewater, attended the University of Richmond, worked as a police detective in the city of Richmond, coached at UR and William and Mary, among other schools. He’s the brother of a former UVa football player, the father of a former UVa women’s basketball player. He had two stints as a UVa assistant coach.
He knows the state, and he knows the University. Since his hiring, he has worked tirelessly to repair relationships — with high school coaches, with UVa fans and alumni, with current and former UVa players, with UVa’s academic side — that frayed during Groh’s tenure.
“I make the joke that I’ve spoken to the Boys Club, the Girls Club, to Rotary Clubs, to the Hair Club for Men,” London said in July.
“I’ve done all those things from Rhode Island to Florida, but that’s necessary right now, I think. When there’s change, it’s necessary so people can see you. If you talk about being available and accessible, I’ve got to travel and I’ve got to do things like that.”
On Grounds, London’s first tasks included making sure his players understood that they were student-athletes, and not just athletes. His message sunk in. The team’s GPA in the spring semester was its highest in about a decade.
“My personal belief is, if I can I trust you over there” — in the classroom — “then I can I trust you over here,” London said in his McCue Center office.
“It’s easy when you’re over here, because you have people looking at you, when you’re lifting, when you’re eating, when you’re practicing. But when you’re over there, if you can do the things in the classroom when people aren’t looking at you, and you’ve got to turn a paper in and you set aside study hours and utilize the academic support system, that shows me something.”
Recruiting has gone well for the ‘Hoos, and London, whose passion for his job is palpable, has been well-received in the community. There have been a series of triumphs, some big, some small.
“So now the next step,” London said, “is to be successful on the field and make sure that we play to our best ability. That’s how I look at it.”
How successful UVa will be on the field this fall is difficult to predict. In the media’s preseason poll, the ‘Hoos were picked to finish last in the ACC’s Coastal Division, and they’re dangerously thin at several positions.
“Someone asked me, ‘What would you consider a success this season?’ ” London said.
To some observers, that would be five wins. To others, six wins. To still others, seven wins and a bowl bid. London has his own criteria.
“The building of a program, or the process of it, is taking the things that need to be addressed and trying to improve them,” he said.
He’s done that with academics, with recruiting, with the installation of new schemes, with the coaches’ and players’ outreach to fans and the community.
“And now we’re dealing with the season,” London said. “Instead of looking at how many wins or things like that, I’m just looking at the process of putting the team together.”
Under Hall of Fame coach George Welsh, the ‘Hoos had a run of 13 consecutive seasons with seven or more victories, and that was in an era when an 11-game regular season was the norm. Welsh’s stars included quarterback Aaron Brooks and safety Anthony Poindexter, and both are convinced London can revive the Cavaliers.
“This is something our program yearned for,” said Brooks, who guided UVa to victories over Virginia Tech in 1997 and ’98. “Not taking anything away from Al Groh, but we have a coach here that understands the players, understands the program, understands the things that need to happen in order to have the alumni support, in order to have the crowd support, the school support, for all that support to be there.”
Of London’s full-time assistants, Poindexter is the only holdover from Groh’s staff.
“Obviously I [played] here in a time when this place had great success, won a lot of games,” Poindexter said. “It’s a tough feeling to see our program in the state it had gotten to. So it’s very important to me to get our program back to being the No. 1 program in the state and competing every year for a title and going to bowl games every year.”
That, of course, is London’s goal, too. Along one side of UVa’s practice fields he installed a large sign. Its message is straightforward:
Think Like A Champion, Act Like A Champion, Play Like A Champion.