By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Mike London’s debut as the University of Virginia’s football coach offers irresistible angles for the news media, almost too many to count.
London, a University of Richmond graduate, spent the 2008 and ’09 seasons as head coach at his alma mater, compiling a 24-5 record and winning a national championship.
His second game as UR’s coach was against UVa, at Scott Stadium.
His first game at UVa’s coach? It’s against UR, at Scott Stadium, on Saturday night.
He had two stints as a UR assistant and two as a UVa assistant. His daughter Kristen is a UVa graduate, as is his brother Paul. The university president who hired London at Richmond, Ed Ayers, previously worked at UVa.
London’s links to both schools are hopelessly tangled, and he understands the media’s fascination with his story as the 6 o’clock kickoff nears.
“But I have to look at it and approach it with the team as being another game and being another opportunity, first and foremost, for our fourth- and fifth-year seniors to win a home opener, regardless of who the opponent is,” London said.
London doesn’t need to be reminded that several members of his staff, including defensive line coach Jeff Hanson, linebackers coach Vincent Brown and running backs coach Mike Faragalli, were with him at Richmond in 2008 and ’09. Or that several members of the Spiders’ new staff, including head coach Latrell Scott, offensive coordinator Wayne Lineburg, defensive coordinator Bob Trott and defensive line coach Chad Wilt, were at Virginia last year. Or that another UR assistant, Byron Thweatt, is a former UVa linebacker.
“That is part of the storyline,” London said. “But when the game starts, the storyline is, ‘Hey, listen, we’re trying to win a football game, irregardless of the opponent, and we’re trying to start off on a positive note here.’ ”
That would be a welcome change for the Wahoos. Not since 2005, when they beat Western Michigan 31-19 at Scott Stadium, have the ‘Hoos won a season-opener. No players on London’s roster were in the program then.
Since London’s hiring in December and through the offseason strength-and-conditioning program, spring practice and training camp last month, he and his players have been pointing to the 2010 season.
“And now it’s here,” London said. “I keep trying to tell the players, particularly the fourth- and fifth-year guys, that it’ll be over before you know it. It’s the last home opener for the fourth- and fifth-year guys, the last of a lot of things for them, so enjoy the moment.”
Those UVa seniors include cornerback Ras-I Dowling, an all-ACC candidate.
“We’re just humble and hungry right now, just waiting to get out there and perform,” Dowling said. “The last time we suited up and played another team was Virginia Tech last year, so it’s been a while.”
It’s also been a while — nearly a half-century, in fact — since a new UVa football coach won his debut. That was Bill Elias in 1961.
On paper, London would appear to have a excellent chance of joining Elias on that list. Virginia has won seven straight over Richmond, and UVa competes in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision, a higher level than the Football Championship Subdivision to which UR belongs.
But the Wahoos were among the worst FBS teams last year, finishing 3-9 after losing their final six games. UR, meanwhile, went 11-2, winning the Colonial Athletic Association title and reaching the FCS quarterfinals.
As London noted this week, UVa lost last season to Duke, a team the Spiders defeated.
“I know that the mindset they have is, ‘Coach, we can play and win and be in any game,’ ” London said. “Our challenge here is to exceed — definitely exceed, not match — exceed the level of energy and passion that they’re going to come out and play with [Saturday night].
“That’s a very, very good football team, with very, very good players, because I know them.”
The Spiders have won 12 straight road games.
“It’s just a mindset that that program has there, that they expect to win,” London said. “And that’s what you want. You want players like that, that have been around it and expect to win. And that’s what we’re trying to do here.”
When he left UVa for Richmond in January 2008 — he was Al Groh’s defensive coordinator in 2006 and ’07 — London took over a program that had won big under Dave Clawson.
At Richmond, London said, he was “surrounded by a bunch of players that have won a lot of games, and it kind of carried over in 2008 and last season, just kind of the mindset that those guys had.”
Virginia, by contrast, finished below .500 in three of its final four seasons under Groh.
“Here, you’ve got to change the mindset, try to change the culture, the expectations of what you think are important to the development of a program or building a program,” London said. “But you’ve got to get used to trying to win. You’ve got to get used to trying to do things from a positive standpoint.”
Fortunately for the Cavaliers, they’re not facing the powerhouse that London led in 2008 and ’09. The Spiders lost 15 starters from last year’s team, though they’ve also added two significant transfers: quarterback Aaron Corp and offensive tackle Richard Muldrow.
Corp came to Richmond from Southern California and Muldrow from Rutgers. Both are expected to start Saturday night.
For Virginia, the opener will also mark the debut of their new Nike uniforms. The players will wear orange jerseys and blue pants, a color combination not seen during Groh’s nine seasons as coach.
Also new is the 4-3 defense that London and coordinator Jim Reid installed, along with the pro-style scheme that offensive coordinator Bill Lazor put in. The goal is a balanced attack.
“Someone asked just recently, What does ‘balanced’ mean?’ ” Lazor said. “The key is, you want to be able to do both, run and pass, whenever you want. The situation won’t always allow you to do that, but as often as you can keep the defense unsure of whether you’re going to run or pass, I think you’ve got a better chance to be successful at both.”
The quarterback throwing those passes for UVa will be Marc Verica, who started nine times in 2008 but only once last year.
Verica is a fifth-year senior who has struggled with consistency. Virginia’s other quarterbacks are freshmen.
“Marc, he’s got to play his best football,” London said. “He’s got to distribute the ball, he’s got to make the reads, he’s got to make the throws. If our wide receiver can’t catch it, then make sure that no one else catches it, by throwing it on the mark.
“That’s what a fifth-year guy, a guy that’s been in the games before, has to do. And hopefully we can provide opportunities for him to be efficient, provide opportunities to protect him … It’s time for him now to step up and be a leader of this team and be the quarterback of this team.”
Verica said: “It’s a tremendous opportunity to be able to come back and play my fifth year as the starting quarterback. There’s no doubt about it. I’m very excited to take advantage of this opportunity, and so are my teammates. There’s definitely a heightened level of anticipation because of all the things that have happened in our program in the past couple years, specifically the last year or so, with the coaching transition and stuff like that. But we really can’t get caught up in all that stuff.”
London said three true freshmen are likely to play in the opener: offensive tackle Morgan Moses and, on special teams, cornerbacks Rijo Walker and Drequan Hoskey. Like most teams this time of year, UVa has several players dealing with nagging injuries, but London isn’t complaining.
“I’ve been in places where you’re decimated by injuries,” he said. “I can’t say we’ll be at 100 percent, but I know we’ll be close to it.”
Teresa Sullivan, UVa’s new president, will be at Scott Stadium on Saturday night. So will London’s parents and many other relatives and family friends. His wife, Regina, is in charge of ticket requests.
“I’m just trying to get the team focused on ready to play,” London said.
It’s not just another game, London readily admits. “That’s my alma mater. Dr. Ayers gave me an opportunity there, and now I’m here. I’m with Dr. Sullivan, and we’re wearing orange and blue, so I’m trying to do everything I can now for the University of Virginia to be successful.”
In the end, though, London said, “it’s not Mike London against Latrell Scott or Mike London against Richmond. It’s the University of Richmond football team against the University of Virginia.”
The Wahoo Walk will follow a new route to Scott Stadium this season, as detailed in this article. That’s just one of many things related to the program that have changed since London took over.
He’s worked tirelessly to reconnect the student body and the football program and to rejuvenate a fan base worn down by losing.
That’s meant untold speaking engagements on Grounds, in the community and around the state, a responsibility London happily took on.
“It’s part of just the whole process to reach out to everybody in the Charlottesville community and those that travel a distance to come and see us,” he said. “I realize that all of that doesn’t make a difference [once the game starts] — you’ve still got to block and tackle and perform and execute. But it’s just another part of the process when you try and create an atmosphere and get your fan base back and do some things that will get people back interested in us.”