By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — On the night of his greatest triumph as a football coach, Mike London reflected on the road he had traveled to reach that peak, then broke down and cried on national television.
It was December 2008, and the University of Richmond, London’s alma mater, had just won the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision national title.
Displays of emotion are not uncommon for London, whose second game as UVa’s coach comes Saturday against 16th-ranked Southern California (1-0) at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Kickoff is at 10:30 p.m. Eastern time.
London often tears up when talking about his daughter Ticynn, whose life he saved with a bone-marrow transplant in 2003, and his passion for family and life — and football — is palpable.
It’s easy to tell when he’s happy, or angry, or choked up, or disappointed, or excited. He makes no attempt to mask his emotions, and that’s a major reason why the young men London has coached — at Richmond, at William and Mary, at Boston College, at UVa — have always played so hard for him. There’s nothing contrived about London, and people know it.
Witness his inspired turn on stage at the Charlottesville Pavilion during the annual “Paint the Town Orange” pep rally, or the dance he broke out, as promised, last weekend at Scott Stadium after Virginia opened the season with a 34-13 rout of Richmond.
“Coach London, it’s not very difficult for him to get the team all charged up,” senior quarterback Marc Verica. “He’s a very emotional, engaging presence when he’s up at the podium talking to the team, and then the players are very responsive to whatever he’s saying.
“It’s really not hard to buy in or endorse anything that he’s saying, because he’s so passionate about what he’s doing. It’s just kind of contagious. And he’s really not that big of a talker. He doesn’t talk that long. When he says something, it means something. He’s not just talking for the sake of talking.”
London’s approach might not work as well for a head coach in the NFL, where the players are older and the game is more of a business. But at the college level, his message resonates.
As the Richmond game approached, London asked his players to write down for whom, or for what, they played when they took the field. Then, in a poignant scene shown in the finale of the “Virginia Football: The Building of a Program” series, London read some of the responses:
“I play for my grandfather.”
“I play for my dad. He taught me everything in the world and taught me how to be a man.”
“I play for everyone that doubted and said I can’t do it, I won’t do it and I wasn’t good enough.”
“I play for my teammates. I don’t have family. They are my family.”
“I play for myself. I know I can be great. I know I can be great. Every effort I give is a reflection of myself.”
“All of us are a sum total of our life experiences, and sometimes you can tap into or draw into situations that these young men have gone through,” London said.
Sophomore tight end Colter Phillips’ father died in a plane crash in Alaska lost month. Sophomore cornerback Chris Broadnax lost an uncle recently.
“That’s real, and those are raw emotions, raw feelings,” London said. “And you think about who you play for. You think about why you do things.
“Everyone knows my story about my daughter. You just have to find something that is compelling to you as to why you do things. And if you can address that with players, and they understand that whether it’s for Mom, Dad, Uncle — whatever the reasons may be — that that’s part of an emotion, part of a feeling, part of a passion that you can tap into that’s going to help them. It’s going to help them play better and help them deal with whatever they’re dealing with.
“So that’s important to me. Sometimes you have players that are athletic, but they don’t play their best game. You take a player that plays with passion and energy and does it all the time, then he has a chance, and I’ll take [that player over a more skilled player] a lot of times.”
Not every successful coach gives fiery speeches. Virginia offensive coordinator Bill Lazor, for example, is known more for his analytical skills and attention to detail.
“There’s actually a nice kind of contrast between Coach Lazor and Coach London,” Verica said. “Coach Lazor, he’s almost like ice-cold: ‘This is your job, this is what you’re expected to do.’ Really, not too much emotion there at all.
“And then Coach London, he obviously knows the X’s and O’s of the game, he’s a very smart guy, but he’s also very, very, very in tune with the emotional aspect of playing this game, the emotions of players and the emotion of coaching the game. I think there’s a nice balance. And [defensive coordinator Jim] Reid is the same way. They’re all football-savvy guys, but Coach Reid and especially Coach London, they also have kind of an emotional edge to them. So I think there’s a nice balance there.”
By all accounts, London’s pregame remarks inspired his team last weekend. His players are eager to hear what he has to say before the USC game.
“There can never be too much of that,” defensive tackle Matt Conrath said. “It was great. He definitely got us ready for the game.”