Mike London answered questions from the media following his introduction as UVa’s new football coach.
At 10:30 p.m. Saturday night, Mike London walked out of Richmond Stadium after coaching the University of Richmond in a heartbreaking loss against Appalachian State in the FCS Quarterfinals. Roughly 12 hours later, Virginia by Athletics Director Craig Littlepage offered him the head coaching position at UVa. Shortly after that, London had the sobering task of notifying the Spiders that he had accepted the position with the Hoos. By 1 p.m. Monday, London was sitting in the John Paul Jones Arena in front of everyone from the media to “Bullet” Bill Dudley being welcomed in as Virginia’s new coach.
London – the 2008 FCS National Championship coach at Richmond, and a former defensive assistant under Al Groh at Virginia – was officially pronounced the new head coach at Virginia on Monday afternoon, just more than a week after UVa fired Groh following a season-ending loss to Virginia Tech. With the hiring, London becomes the first-ever African-American head coach since the program began in 1888, and just the ninth current African-American coach at a BCS school.
“He’s somebody that for a long time has been on my mind,” Littlepage said. “He’s ready for this. We’re ready for it. I know that our players are ready for it. Our former players, and there’s so many different stakeholders, that I think have applauded this decision and Mike’s decision to be with us at the University of Virginia.”
London has agreed to a five-year contract with an annual compensation of $1.7 million – the same total salary and tenure given to Groh in August of 2006. Of course, Virginia also must pay Groh a gross amount of $4.33 million to pay off the final two years of his contract, as well.
“One coach, just one, stood out among the many excellent coaches as the search was in progress,” Littlepage said. “This coach stood out as a leader, teacher, and coach. He stood out with his insight and respect for this great institution. He stood out as a winner, and as one around whom we can, and must, all rally. Finally, he stood out on the strength to his character. That coach is a special man, and is the best person and the best fit to be our head coach, and give the University of Virginia football program an exciting jumpstart. I’m pleased that that coach is seated next to me this afternoon.”
London decided to begin his coaching career two decades ago, after he had a near brush with death in his former occupation as a detective for the Richmond Police Department; he is only alive today because of the malfunction of a criminal’s handgun. (Read about it here.) A Richmond football alum, London broke in as the outside linebackers coach for his alma mater for two seasons beginning in 1989. In 1991, London accepted a position with William & Mary under long-time coach Jimmy Laycock; four years later, he returned to Richmond to become the outside linebackers coach and recruiting coordinator. He then made his lone college coaching stint outside of the state of Virginia, assisting Tom O’Brien at Boston College from 1997-2000. He also met Groh during that period, when he spent time as an intern with the New York Jets.
Mike London served as an assistant coach under Al Groh from 2001-04 and from 2006-07.
In 2001, Groh hired London as his defensive line coach; one year later, London also inherited the role of recruiting coordinator. Serving in that role from ’01-’04, London spent one year with the NFL’s Houston Texans as the defensive line coach in 2005, before he returned to Virginia as the defensive coordinator for 2006 and 2007.
In London’s second stint as a UVa assistant, he worked as the defensive coordinator for two of Groh’s best defensive units, which ranked 18th and 23rd in total defense in back-to-back seasons; defensive end Matt Conrath , a redshirt during the Hoos’ nine-win 2007 season, said, “We had a great defense that year, and I think he was a very vital part of that.” But, in January of 2008, London became another name on the long list of Groh’s assistants who moved on to head coaching jobs, when he accepted the head coaching position at Richmond.
London’s subsequent success with the Spiders was one of numerous factors that caused Littlepage to hire the 49-year old head coach. London is familiar with UVa. He has experience coaching at highly touted academic institutions. A former Richmond police detective turned college football coach, he can serve as a role model to his players. And, as an assistant at Boston College under O’Brien, he has been apart of a coaching staff that helped turn around a previously struggling program.
“Mike has always been somebody that has been highly regarded nationally,” Littlepage said. “I can say that having participated in any number of different conferences and discussions with other athletics directors, conference commissioners. And many times we had meetings at which we talk about the talented people that are coming up through the pipeline, if you will. And I know for the last four or five years that Mike is someone whose name was on the minds of many athletic directors and conference commissioners.
“So the fact that he’s been here, we’ve been blessed to know his work in the two stints that he was here at the University, to hear others talk about him that have had long success in college football that know the kinds of things that make successful college coaches. Mike was always on that short list of coaches. ”
Perhaps the most appealing part of London, though, is his well-recognized ability to recruit the so-called “7-5-7,” the talent-rich area in which he was raised, and an area where UVa struggled to recruit as the Groh era went on. London has numerous connections within the state as a result of his roots in his hometown of Hampton and his prior recruiting work in the Commonwealth. And, looking forward, London has a commitment to in-state recruiting and a well-grounded respect from high school coaches.
“There was a high school coach that I had an opportunity to speak with who talked about Mike’s abilities to recruit, and to relate,” Littlepage said, “and how much he thought that the high school coaching community would respond to Mike as the head coach.”
“My coaching stints have allowed me to recruit every area of this state,” London said. “And I know we’ve got to do a better job in recruiting the in-state players, but we’ll do that, because I think I want the high school coaches to know that if Virginia hasn’t been there, we’ll be there. And if you have a player you want to recommend to us, then we’ll evaluate and we’ll listen.”
Mike London is a self-proclaimed “relationship guy” when it comes to managing his players and to recruiting.
The key factor, London said, is to be more accessible and more proactive in dealing with not only area high school coaches, but also the surrounding communities.
“If you’re in those communities and people see that you have an interest, then they’ll come,” London said. “They’ll come because what they’ll see is they’ll see the real person. When you say come to my game or come to my venue, if you haven’t been to theirs, if you haven’t been in their communities, then why would they come to yours? So there’s a lot of work to do. But we’ll be hard at work in making sure we get that corrected.”
One such Tidewater product is Aaron Brooks, the retired NFL quarterback and two-year starter for Virginia from 1997-98. Brooks – a Newport News native – was in attendance for London’s welcoming press conference, and is hopeful that London will make significant gains in the in-state recruiting battle.
“It sometimes can be overwhelming when you’re speaking about academics to certain kids – all their life, they’ve played a lot of sports, but we don’t ever want to scare kids away with academics, because that’s always a part of being a student-athlete,” Brooks said. “I would say that we just probably haven’t done enough of reaching out to kids, to understand their lives, and the things that they may have to go through, to make them feel a home away from home. I think that’s really a big issue when you get kids to go to any university. You have to influence them that everything is going to be all right.
“With the coaching staff that we have, I believe that Coach London will bring that to the table.”
Before London starts recruiting, though, he has to get to know his players already on the roster. Some of that will be easy; London recruited and coached many of the Cavaliers who were on the roster in 2007, and was involved in the recruiting of numerous others who enrolled in 2008. That process started Monday, when players had a closed-door meeting with their new coach following the 1 p.m. news conference.
“He just focused on a winning attitude, trying to win a championship back here at UVa,” said true sophomore Rodney McLeod , whom London recruited in 2007. “Just making sure there’s a partnership there between us – the players – and him as the coach.”
The player-coach relationship, London emphasized throughout his press conference, is what he builds programs around. A week ago, Virginia wide receiver Jared Green said that, while Groh was approachable, he wanted a coach who made an even greater effort to relate to players. Littlepage appeared to find that with London.
“He’s the kind of guy that will make you want to play for him,” said true sophomore Cameron Johnson , who, like McLeod, was recruited by London in 2007. “You can definitely see his passion, and you want to match his passion.”
London noted that it has always been his policy to be approachable, keeping his door open for players to speak with him upon request.
“I could tell you stories about the players who have tragic situations in their lives, their personal lives, that after you develop that closeness, that they’re willing to open the door, so to speak, to what their issues may be,” London said. “By doing that, then it provides an opportunity for you not to fix it but to at least provide an avenue where they can go get an answer. And when they get that answer, which addresses the issue that they have, they’ll run through a wall for you. And I think that’s the key sometimes that outside of X’s and O’s, all that other stuff we’re talking about, that it’s worth it to me to take the time to invest in individuals.”
Indeed, London spent little time within the X’s and O’s, but he did shed some light on his football philosophy. He will use the 4-3 look on defense, as he did as the head coach at Richmond – one of many ways that, as London put it, he is “looking to provide my own mark, and do my own things and make my own way,” rather than following the methods his predecessor. Offensively, London joked that his mindset is to “score fast and as often as you can,” but suggested said that he puts an added emphasis on the skill positions – “I think in evaluating talent, particularly those players that can make a one-play difference, is critical,” London said.
As for assembling a staff of assistants, Littlepage noted that London would be granted the resources to hire a “top performing assistant coaching staff,” which will likely raise the total compensation of assistant coaches from last season. London said that he is in the process of identifying which assistant coaches he will bring with him from Richmond, who he will bring in from the outside, and which of Groh’s assistants he will retain. Brooks, for one, said he would consider joining the staff if London asked. When prompted, London did designate current defensive backs coach Anthony Poindexter as a likely member of his new staff, noting that his passion and excitement are exactly the qualities London is looking for – and which, in fact, are the qualities that have always been a staple of London’s coaching style.
“Someone asked the question about energetic and passionate; you look at that word, that’s Anthony there in the dictionary, his picture,” London said. “So having guys like that on the staff. In particular, he has a Virginia tie to him, he was a great player here, but having guys like that, individuals that players love, I think is important. I’m hoping to put a staff together that players will feel confident in, and come to respect and admire their position coaches as well.”
For the most part, though, London was more interested in discussing the intangibles. In his opening statement, London listed three ground rules that he had at Richmond, and which he will pass on to his Virginia players: number one, “Go to class,” number two, “Show class in everything you do,” and number three, “Treat people with dignity and respect,” London said.
The third ground rule, in particular, was directed both toward his players and toward Virginia alums. As London put it, “My arms are wide open to you guys. Come on back home.” It is a value that was instilled in London as a police detective, when London learned that communication was a necessary ingredient for how to resolve difficult situations.
“If you have an opportunity to talk to people about whatever issues may be going on, you can solve or at least come up with solutions. What happens sometimes is, you’re so quick to jump to conclusions or not hear someone out. That’s what causes problems,” London said. “That’s what I learned being a police officer, in situations where it can get out of hand or you can diffuse it.”
With Virginia coming off its lowest win-total in 23 years, London certainly has a difficult situation on his hands now. But, both Littlepage and his players appear to have every confidence that London will diffuse it.
“In a meeting that Jon Oliver and I had with our football team a week ago Sunday … we asked questions about what they thought we should be looking for [in the new coach],” Littlepage said. “And as the comments were being made by the players, and this was over the course of maybe 30 minutes, I remember thinking in my head – I was making eye contact with Jon who was in the back of the room – as they started to go through this list, it was almost like we were checking off the person seated to my right.”