The Sabre Interview: Coach Mike London

Coach Mike London.

Coach Mike London is heading into his fourth season as head coach of the Virginia football program. London’s journey as head coach at UVa has seen its highs and lows over the course of his first three years on the job.

His first season ended with 4-8 overall record (1-7 ACC), but there was renewed excitement for the future. During London’s second season he coached his team to a remarkable 8-4 regular season record (5-3 ACC, T-2nd) and received an invite to the Chick-fil-A Bowl in Atlanta, the first time UVa had played in the bowl since 1998 under Coach George Welsh. London received ACC Coach of the Year honors for the impressive turnaround in the program over a two-year span.

Last season London had a number of holes to fill on defense and within the interior of the offensive line. It forced him to make a difficult decision to play a large number of young, yet talented, players in the two-deep (50 percent were freshmen and sophomores). That, along with the challenge of finding a consistent quarterback, eventually led to an unimpressive 4-8 season and fans scratching their heads and pointing fingers. Some even wondered if London was the right man for the job.

Immediately following the season, the Virginia athletics administration headed by Athletics Director Craig Littlepage and Associate Executive Athletics Director Jon Oliver worked with London to improve the overall coaching staff’s resume. In an unprecedented move for UVa, the administration went out and helped London land one of the top assistant coaching staffs in the nation by hiring former NC State and Boston College head coach Tom O’Brien as Associate Head Coach and tight ends coach. O’Brien brings a strong background with regard to head coaching experience and overall development of most every phase of a college offense, particularly quarterbacks and offensive line – two positions that were of major concern last season.

During that same round of hiring, London brought in Jon Tenuta to replace Jim Reid as defensive coordinator. Tenuta is known for developing aggressive defenses and has had success doing so at the BCS level. One of Virginia’s biggest sources of contention last season was turnover margin – the Cavaliers finished dead last in the conference at -14. Tenuta was brought in specifically to remedy that by implementing an aggressive, ball-disruptive style of play.

Another big problem from game to game was special teams as those units showed fluctuating levels of effectiveness and consistency. One could argue that at least two games last season ended in losses primarily due to poor special teams play – and that became the difference between a bowl-eligible season and a losing one. To remedy this, Virginia initially attracted one of the nation’s best special teams coaches in Jeff Banks. But just nine days later Banks was offered a higher profile position at Texas A&M and left the program. That left UVa scrambling to find a quick replacement, so they sought out Larry Lewis, the special teams guru who had actually instructed Banks while coaching at Washington State.

That left one position to fill. Immediately after offensive coordinator Bill Lazor took the quarterbacks coaching job with the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles, Virginia hired Steve Fairchild, a well-travelled coach with 31 years of experience at both the collegiate and NFL level. Fairchild has been the head coach for Colorado State as well as senior offensive assistant for the San Diego Chargers. Fairchild will focus on quarterbacks and coordinating Virginia’s offense.

“These four coaches are a dynamic group who will be great teachers and instructors for our student-athletes, while maintaining the values we have set for our team,” London said in January. “Three of them have strong ties to Virginia and they have first-hand knowledge and experience of what makes our university a special place. This group will complement our current staff well and help our football program reach its goals.”

London addressing the media as head coach.

In 2010, Coach London was hired by UVa after only two years of head coaching experience at the University of Richmond. While at Richmond his first season in 2008, London took previous head coach Dave Clawson’s players and won a national title. In year two he won the CAA Championship and made another strong NCAA Tournament run. That team finished fourth overall in the final standings. He completed his career at U of R with 24-5 overall record, was named FCS Coach of the Year, and Black Coaches Association Male Coach of the Year in 2008.

While London had only two years of head coaching experience prior to his hiring at UVa, he has a quality resume of coaching at quality programs and under the tutelage of a number of respected head coaches. Immediately after a career as a police officer, London began his coaching career at his alma mater of Richmond in 1988-89 to work with linebackers. Following that, he spent three years at William & Mary as defensive line coach under the guidance of long-time successful coach Jimmye Laycock. In 1994, London returned to Richmond again to coach the linebackers for three years, and then travelled to Boston College where he coached the defensive line under O’Brien.

2001 became the first time that London coached at the University of Virginia, this time under head coach Al Groh as the defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator. In 2005, he got a call from the NFL’s Houston Texans to coach their defensive line under Coach Dom Capers.

In 2006, Al Groh lost defensive coordinator Al Golden to Temple. He realized he needed London back, so he attracted him to return to Virginia by offering him the Defensive Coordinator and defensive line coaching responsibilities. The move paid off. London returned with the expectation that he would be allowed to call plays during games and dictate the tempo of the defense, even if he still had to work from Groh’s base 3-4. The result was a 9-3 regular season record in 2007, in spite of the Cavaliers’ having the 100th-worst offense in the nation (out of 115 BCS teams).

During the 2007 season, he coached a defense led by talented defensive end Chris Long , and was afforded the freedom to change up blitz packages and be creative with in-game calls – which made Al Groh’s 3-4 defense much more effective. Groh wasn’t a coach who typically gave his coordinators a lot of freedom to make decisions, but he trusted London. Immediately following London’s hiring at Virginia, I caught up with Chris Long to get his insights.

“Groh had trust in Mike London to call plays a little more aggressively and frequently,” said Long. “Coach L was able to alter certain things and make more aggressive calls on first and second down. London’s biggest job as the defensive coordinator was the day-to-day scheme guy and motivator. He was the guy who worked with us in meetings and day-to-day adjustments. He got us going – to be able to play like a championship level defense.”

Immediately following Virginia’s successful Gator Bowl season in 2007, London took the aforementioned Richmond Spiders head coaching job in 2008, his third stop at his alma mater, before returning for his third stop at UVa in 2010.

While Coach London is considered a coach who is still developing his BCS head coaching abilities, he brings a number of intangibles to the program that are difficult to get in one package for a coach, let alone one willing to take on UVa’s academic-first mentality.

First, there’s the integrity in which he runs a program. Virginia requires a coach who can play by the rules and guidelines of the NCAA, but also embrace the academic side of the University, not just the athletic side. Coach London has made academics a priority and doesn’t hide this fact when on the recruiting trail. Instead he sees it as a selling point to recruits and their families, and he recruits players who have the aptitude and motivation to be as successful in the classroom as they are on the field.

London’s demeanor and family-first mentality has made him popular among high school recruits, their families, and high school coaches.

Speaking of recruiting, ever since London made his first stop at Virginia under Groh, he’s been a strong recruiter. Along with Golden and Danny Rocco, London helped bring in the much acclaimed 2002 recruiting class that included Kai Parham, Ahmad Brooks , Wali Lundy, Jason Snelling, Marcus Hamilton, and many others. London picked up where he left off when returning as head coach. His experience and reach within the state, particularly the 757 area code where he grew up, allowed him to attract three straight Top 30 national recruiting classes over the past three seasons. His fourth class – and the 2014 class is considered one of the best in-state classes in decades – is already off to a blistering start. London already has commitments from defensive tackle Chris Nelson of Lakeland, Florida, 4-star offensive lineman Steven Moss from Fredericksburg, and 5-star safety Quin Blanding from Virginia Beach.

With regard to the 2014 in-state class, London said, “Every major college in the country will be in here hot and heavy, some already have. I’ve run into some of these coaches while out on the road. I’ve talked to other coaches about where the best players are, and it’s pretty consistent about this particular class.”

With the potential for landing a fourth Top 25-30 recruiting class in as many years, Virginia will have the talent in place to compete for conference championships and BCS bowls.

And finally there’s the man himself. London has a lot of experience overcoming challenges and is an enthusiastic and intense competitor. But his method for reaching players on a mental level is above and beyond what you typically see from head coaches at this level. London’s motivational approach has earned the respect of his players because they feel as if he understands them well, treats them as family, and genuinely cares about their lives, not just their talents. This resonates with not only the players, but the recruits and their families, and coaches at the high school level. London has earned, over many years, the respect of his coaching colleagues, competitors and just about anyone who has ever had the chance to meet him.

He’s a true family man, happily married to his wife Regina, who are raising seven kids. London and his family have seen their share of hardships, including a difficult bone-marrow transplant to save one of his daughters. Those experiences, in addition to his time as a Henrico police officer, have provided him with valuable insight when approaching recruits and their families, as well as how he relates to his staff, players, media, fans, and alumni.

Coach Mike London may still be in the development phase of his head coaching career, but with the most recent staff upgrades, facilities upgrades to include the new George Welsh Indoor Practice Facility, London’s consistently high level of recruiting and level of integrity, and his overall motivational approach and competitive fire, it’s difficult to imagine the University of Virginia football program achieving anything less than success over the coming years. caught up with London just prior to the start of spring football training. Special thanks to Coach for his patience and allotting time for us to produce a thorough interview. Enjoy.

The Sabre Interview

London worked under former head coach Al Groh on two separate occasions before coming back to replace him in 2010.

Mike: This is your sixth time as a college coach in the state of Virginia; once with William & Mary, twice with Richmond, and three times with UVa. You’ve coached at a lot of places, but you always land right back here. Aside from spending so much of your life in Virginia, what makes the state of Virginia (and this particular area) so special to you?

LONDON: Virginia is home for me. My parents, a sister and a brother all live here. My wife, Regina, her mom and sister all live here. I think it is rare when a head football coach has the opportunity to live so close to his extended family. Our schedules can be tight, but it affords us time to see the extended family quite a bit and it is easy on them to visit us. I’ll still pop in to get some of mom’s cooking. And I don’t think you could find a nicer place to raise a family than Charlottesville. It is a fantastic community.

Mike: How difficult is it as a football coach to maintain a healthy family life? Obviously the hours are tremendous and you must make time for family, particularly with your kids. How do you manage off-duty life with your football commitments? What’s your strategy for that kind of time management?

LONDON: I don’t think it is difficult if you prioritize your time, your commitment to the task at hand and focus on separating the significant from the insignificant. Family is significant. I emphasize to my staff family needs to be significant. I want our players to see that so they will do the same when they have a family of their own. It is not something I harp on, but at the same time, if they see us interacting with our families in this environment, they will hopefully make that same commitment someday.

Mike: With regard to prioritizing your time, what is your strategy for time management?

LONDON: You have to work smart, be efficient and productive as it relates to what is important. You do not have to reinvent the wheel. Understand what it is we do well. Apply that to the needs of the game plan and practice it. You also need to eliminate as many distractions as possible. Get to the point and move on. If you manage your time wisely and efficiently, that will give you more opportunities to develop and maintain your family life during the season.

Mike: You spent time as a police officer. Were there any aspects of that career which helped you with your career as a college football coach?

LONDON: Yeah, I did the whole Starsky and Hutch thing. I worked the street crimes unit as a detective in Richmond. It was an interesting experience. I saw the worst of how people can treat each other. That’s how I discovered the third of our team rules – Treat People with Dignity and Respect – regardless of your/their station in life. Our first and second rules are Go to Class and Show Class.

Mike: You’re one of only coaches who honestly promote academic achievement as equally as athletic success. How has this resonated with players and their families, particularly on the recruiting trail?

LONDON: Well, first of all when you look at the school and you look at what the school stands for. You look at all of rankings – [Virginia is often] the number one public institution in the country. [Virginia] is one of the best schools in terms of selectivity. There are so many different things. The school’s reputation stands on its own, but you have to go around and look at the profile of the student-athlete that this type of message resonates with – because it doesn’t with everyone. You find the guys that want to be achievers on the field and in the classroom as well. There’s a common denominator through all of that. I know that the young men that are out there in all of the areas around the United States, the school’s brand has been talked about through guidance counselors and principals. [Maybe] there’s a friend of the family that went [to Virginia] that knows somebody else. The parents here are very educated. When you sit in the living room and you talk about their son, the commitment you have for them to become an educated man – that resonates with a lot of people. That’s the key.

Mike: You’ve come in with a true family-first mentality. I hear recruit after recruit state that they felt comfortable here because you made them feel at home, that you talked more about their future more than what they could do athletically. Many coaches attempt to convey that message, but most times it’s a smoke screen for parents. But you’re a true believer. How is it that your message can resonate when others have tried? They talk the talk, but rarely walk the walk.

LONDON: On the job training. You’re looking at a guy that’s the father of seven children. I had a son when I was in college, and struggled at times. So you’re looking at an imperfect man, but at least who understands that it is about the development of my kids, your kids, someone else’s kids. You’re looking at a guy who gave his bone marrow to his daughter and it saved her life. You look at it from the perspective that, if my daughter was given the opportunity to live a long and productive life, well then I owe someone else’s son the same opportunity I was given. Because, when people say 10,000 to 1 odds a parent could be a donor, that’s daunting because I’m looking at her every day when I wake up. So when parents sit in this office, or I go to different schools and sit in their offices or [the recruits’] homes, I know by the grace of God I’m sitting there knowing that my daughter is back at home. And they’re talking about where they should send their son? When you say, ‘Talk the talk and walk the walk’, I’ve been there, done that.

Mike: So that humbles you and keeps you grounded?

London during the 2011 Chick-fil-A Bowl announcement.

LONDON: Let me tell you something, Mike. I’d rather be humbled voluntarily than involuntarily. In this profession you get caught up in the highs of the high – 8-4, Chick-fil-A [Bowl], or the lows of the low – what just happened [4-8 last season]. You can get caught up in those type of things and let those things define who you are. But I’m still responsible for my family, our coaches’ families, and the young men that come to school here, and what they do. That in itself is an everyday challenge. My greatest accomplishment is in the players’ development – not bowl games and not championships, because all of that will come later. It will all come.

Mike: What was your process in terms of determining the type of direction you wanted the program to go? Did you look at UVa’s history, particularly under George Welsh, to see what had worked in the past? Did any of your experiences as an assistant coach at Virginia give you insight into areas you felt you could improve upon?

LONDON: You’re always influenced by the people you’ve been around. As a player at Richmond there was Jim Tait and later Dal Shealy. As an assistant coach there was Jim Reid, Jimmye Laycock, and of course Tom O’Brien. In the NFL it was Dom Capers. And then Coach Groh [at Virginia].

And then you have a chance to step out on your own, when I was the coach at Richmond, and take a little bit of everything that you’ve learned – the way you practice, how you delegate in-office hours, the way you recruit and those type of philosophies. You put a little bit of that together through the relationships you develop with other coaches that were here, and you craft that message. As we fast-forward to where we are now, the message is playing smart, playing tough, and playing aggressive. And I feel very comfortable in the hiring [of assistants] that message resonates with the type of men that are here.

Down in the weight room Evan Marcus understands it. When these guys are away from here and over at Newcomb Hall or in their classes that nothing will be tolerated but their very best in the classroom. If not, then they won’t be here. Their behavior. If not, they won’t be here. I think you go through cycles of what you are and what you want to be. You have to look at yourself sometimes and re-evaluate where you are. Where we are now and where we’re going is in the direction, as I said before, of being a smart football team, a tough team, and an aggressive team.

Mike: Are there any programs that you used as model or measuring stick for what you’re trying to achieve?

LONDON: Not in terms of what [the schools] do, but of the people – your network of friends – you share those type of things with them – [for instance,] David Shaw [at Stanford]. Even in the NFL, with Jim Caldwell. And a lot of the coaching buddies you’ve had along the way. Coach O’Brien has been a guy that I’ve known over the years. I think through the social networking we do as coaches, the conventions and the clinics. We all sit down and talk about what we do. Some subscribe to what others are doing and others have a different philosophy. There have been a couple of people and ideas that you look at, and you evaluate, and you see how it fits your program. Because every school is different and you have to make sure that the message is conducive to the message of the University, the type of young men you have in the program, and then you craft that message.

London during his first season at Virginia as defensive line coach.

Mike: What coach has provided the most influence on your coaching style and overall philosophy?

LONDON: My dad, growing up – football, baseball, basketball. Very energetic, very passionate. You know, he could chew you out and not cuss you out, and make you feel like, “Man, I’ve got to do better, because I want to do better for this guy.” I’d like to think growing up that he’s had that type of influence on me.

But then you go to different places and you see how different coaches work and you take some of those things. But the personality has always been the same – adopting from a man that was 30 years retired from the Air Force, very passionate and energetic.

Mike: Your father coached as well?

LONDON: He coached little league – North Hampton Little League in Hampton, Virginia. And Tucker Caps Elementary School. He did those things. You know, a lot of the heroes of coaching are coming from those guys who do it for the love the game, for the kids coming out of those areas.

Mike: What did you learn at Richmond as a head coach that prepared you for this job at UVa?

LONDON: Competition drives us all and the value of an experienced team is key, on and off the field. I learned that I am responsible for the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of the players and coaches alike. You have to make decisions based on the good of the organization, not just one person or a few individuals with an agenda.

Mike: When you were initially brought back to Virginia as Defensive Coordinator, did you have your eye on eventually becoming UVa’s head football coach? If not, at what point did you see this as a viable option? Is it one of the reasons why you took the head coaching job at Richmond – to stay close and in contact?

LONDON: I really didn’t. I was consumed with everything involved with my Richmond team. We had won the National Championship and we had a chance, and were competing very hard, to repeat. That was my focus at the time. After our quarterfinal loss to Appalachian State my focus shifted right to recruiting for Richmond. That was where our priority needed to be.

Mike: What was your biggest concern about the Virginia program prior to your first day as head coach?

LONDON: Changing the culture, but doing so in a positive way.

Mike: Major college athletics is a business, and sometimes tough decisions have to be made with regard to assistant coaches. On a personal level, how difficult was it for you to let go of coaches and friends you’ve worked with and respected for so many years, particularly Jim Reid?

LONDON: It’s always difficult when you have to part ways with people that you know. You develop relationships with them. As difficult as those decisions are, you’re also mindful of and responsible for players and coaches and entities of a university. In making those tough decisions, you have to make them and you have to think about just forging and moving forward.

Fans and students have embraced London as a whole, although there was a level of discontent this past season.

Listen, I’m a relationship oriented guy. I believe in the dynamics of having an interpersonal relationship with somebody is very important in who you are in the makeup of who you say you want to be. And when you separate yourself from people that you know, there’s a part of that that hurts. At the same time, there’s a part that you know you want to move forward and evaluate yourself on how you can get better, and trust in the decision that you make. And then take those steps to move forward.

Mike: The Virginia athletics administration provided you the opportunity to bring in several very high profile coordinators, including a successful former head coach in Tom O’Brien. For UVa, this move is rather unprecedented. Can you speak to the level support you are getting to help you achieve your goals and how this additional level of coaching experience can impact the program?

LONDON: From the President to Craig Littlepage to Jon Oliver, there’s a commitment in the resources that are here. If you look around you’ve got the indoor [facility] going up, the commitment to winning with the coaches that are here, and with putting a competitive schedule together with the teams that are coming in. My job is to win football games and develop these players. And you’re surrounded by men who have won in the past, and you want to bring that to a culmination of winning games, going to bowl games, and winning an ACC Championship.

Mike: How much of an adjustment in terms of schemes and terminologies will there be for the players with having three new coordinators? Will there be enough similarities to what you’ve run the past two seasons where players aren’t necessarily starting over and having a setback?

LONDON: I don’t know about ‘setback,’ but there’s a learning curve that has to be established and understood. You don’t put three new schemes and systems in and think it comes out ready-made and fine-tuned. I think the job for us now is putting the schemes and systems together that speak to the talent level we have and the development that’s needed for that. And the best case to judge where we are will be not only the first practice but the last practice and see the development.

Obviously it’s a process where there has to be a level of patience involved, because you can’t just get it, turn it around, and be at full tilt with it. I believe that the men that we’ve hired to implement those schemes are amongst the best that are in college football right now. And so the goal and aim is to always try to put us in a position to be competitive when we get on the field in August against BYU.

Mike: Even with the learning curve, will there be enough similarities to things the players have seen in the past to make the transition easier?

LONDON: When you break it down and look at the concepts – conceptual of the high-low, where you throw the ball, you have an underneath receiver and receiver over the top. The style of coverage that you play – in and out. First one in, this guy takes it. The first one out, this guy takes it. The language may change, but the concept of what we’re trying to get done will be familiar to them. And then the execution – you know, the techniques required to do some of those things are going to have to be taught.

I think that what this team has is a willingness to just dive into what’s going on right now. If you ask Evan Marcus what’s going on in the weight room, there’s a tremendous amount of enthusiasm from the players, and the excitement about the new schemes and systems that are going to be employed. I think there will be a learning curve. But we’ll be able to assess where we are as we get through these spring practices, and definitely until August – right up until the first game.

I think we’ve recruited some players here that, regardless of the scheme or system, because they’re athletic, can learn those schemes and systems.

London saw his share of on the field challenges in 2012.

Mike: As a head coach, what is the most challenging aspect of game management?

LONDON: I would have to say it’s knowing when to change, or seize the momentum by going for it, or playing conservative. You have to sense the feel and the flow of the game to really assess that.

Mike: Over the past two years there’s been a lot of news about the cheating that goes on in college football and it’s filtering into ACC programs as well. Former Auburn head coach Tommy Tuberville made a suggestion last year that the programs should get financially penalized, not just lose scholarships or forfeit bowl games. What’s your opinion on what it will take to help clean up the dirty aspect of college recruiting and help level the playing field?

LONDON: Well, there are rules and regulations that all of us are bound by. And there are those that take it to the edge, and then take it over the edge. You find different situations that are going on around the country that have gone way beyond what’s acceptable and what’s right.

I think one of the things the NCAA has done is address the fact, or try to address the fact, that if an assistant or assistants commit rules infractions, that the head coaches are going to ultimately pay – whether it’s disciplinary action, reductions of games, whatever it is. It’s not only the assistant coaches but the head coach being responsible and being held out of games. I know that there’s a conscious effort to try and get those things corrected.

But at the same time, you just have to be willing to say you’re going to do things the right way, and you’re going to recruit kids the way you’re supposed to recruit them, and the kids you have in your program adhere to the rules and the regulations that the school and NCAA have. That speaks to character. You have to be so vigilant. When guys are around you, you’re always talking about the rules, regulations, accountability, and responsibility. And sometimes they’re out in the community and out in different places, and you just hope that what you’ve said and continue to preach registers with them. Because there are so many outside entities that try to get into these guys’ minds, ingratiate themselves with them through gifts or gestures that put them in peril. You just do the best job you can and every day just talk about what’s the right thing to do.

Mike: How do you interact with other coaches here at Virginia (i.e. lacrosse, hoops, etc.)?

LONDON: I am fortunate to be a part of the coaching staff our administrators have assembled at Virginia – top to bottom the best in the country. It is great to talk to them and hear about their teams and how they handle things. You can draw a lot of inspiration from them and how their teams compete. We put together a little highlight film to show our players this fall of the baseball team’s comeback in the Super Regional to go to the World Series. Robby Andrews coming from last place to win the NCAA Championship in the 800 meters and Dom’s team rallying in the lacrosse tournament when their backs were up against the wall in the game against Bucknell. I try to take in as many games as I can, especially with my kids. They’re like, “Dad, did you know so-and-so did this or that.” They’re into it.

Mike: What have you learned from them, or have they learned from you?

LONDON: As I said, you walk around the halls here and there are all kinds of coaches with championship credentials. There are trophies everywhere. In talking to our coaches I’ve taken away some ideas for organization, aspects of management of players and coaches, and various situations. There is a wealth of common sense knowledge here at UVa. But you can learn things from anyone you meet, not just fellow coaches. We have great support staff at all levels. People are committed at Virginia and that is why the department is successful.

London coached Chris Long and the 2007 defense to a 9-win, Gator Bowl season.

Mike: As a coach (at any school), who’s the best player you’ve coached and the best player you’ve had to coach against?

LONDON: I’ve been blessed to coach a lot of tremendous young men and you hate to single anyone out because they are all different in their own way. But, I don’t want to just bail out since this is for our fans so I’ll go with Chris Long . I think everyone knows how special and committed he was as a player and how much this programs still means to him. As far as coaching against I’ll pick Phillip Rivers. He was very talented and a great competitor.

Mike: Talk about the decision to have the 2011 spring football game immediately following a lacrosse game. How did that come about? Is this something you’d like to do again in the future? What are the benefits of doing this?

LONDON: Jon Oliver made the suggestion to me. I agreed and wanted to do something a little out of the box. If we have the right opportunity again I think it will grow in popularity.

I think there was a lot of fan interest in having a doubleheader and you are going to attract some football fans to lacrosse and some lacrosse fans to football, so both programs can benefit by it. It is important for the football team to be involved with the other programs. We have guys running track and I think there are some two-sport athletes out there that will see they can come to Virginia and have the opportunity to do both things.

Mike: How has new University President Teresa Sullivan impacted you and the football program since her arrival?

LONDON: President Sullivan is interested in winning and winning the right way. She supports athletics and values the aspect that sports, especially football, can be the front porch of a university when managed, operated and directed in the right way. And she knows the difference between a nickel and dime package, so she’ll keep me on my toes. We might have to get her on a headset.

Mike: What’s your mentality when it comes to in-state recruiting and its importance on building and maintaining a solid program?

LONDON: Well, it’s always important that the best players in your own state take a serious look at this school. I feel strongly about that because of the message the school has and what it provides, not only for football but for life after football. And as you build a culture of getting the best players that know they can be successful in both arenas, off the field and in particularly, what we’re building here on the field. And it’s not that [the state of] Virginia has been a secret. Everybody in the country knows that Virginia’s been a place that has produced talent – you just go down the list of different players that have come out of this state. So they’re in here hard. Everybody’s in here hard.

As the in-state school, you just have to make sure that you continue to develop the relationships with those coaches and the community these players are coming from. We’ve done enough things that people can look at and register with them, “Hey, this is our state school. The University of Virginia. We should pay attention to what’s going on up there. And then the ones that are here, that do come, is to make sure that they’re successful in all areas. The ones that are back in those schools are looking to see how they’re doing. And if they’re doing well, then they become more interested and become highly attracted to the fact that this is a great University, “There are great players there. There are great coaches there. It is close enough for my family to see me play. It is close enough for the community to come see me play. The local home town newspaper or radio station will cover me all of the time.”

London congratulates linebacker Clint Sintim after a big play.

Mike: You came into a situation as a first-year coach where Virginia’s recruiting efforts in the state were less than desirable. Without getting too much into your recruiting strategy, can you at least provide some insight on how you and your staff were able to have such tremendous success with your first full recruiting class?

LONDON: Again, you’re talking about relationships. Sometimes it might be an overused word, but at the same time – I always talk about people don’t care how much you know until they know about how much your care. And these players out here can spot a phony a mile away; the disingenuous [talk], or the braggadocio, or the pounding the chest. Instead of talking about what schools can’t do or what they haven’t done, spend more time talking about your school, and what you are, and what you believe in.

Because when we talk to young players and the parents that come here, that’s one of the things that I try to be aware of, to not talk about what other schools have or what they’re doing or they’re not doing. But talk about what we’re doing here. And what happens, ultimately, is the players that are here – [recruits] will ask them. The players are also excellent barometers to why good players come to your school. Because if they come, they’re coming because the players say, “You know what, that’s the message the coach said to me and my mother, and that’s what’s happening now.”

I look at George Adeosun getting on the plane to go to his official visit to another school. He gets a call from two BCS schools to come join us. But George was here, and he had heard the message, and he saw that this is the type of school and the kind of men he wants to be associated with.

Again, without talking too much about the insides and outs, you’ve just got to be who you are. I’ve been a young parent. I have children that I’m responsible for. I got cut from the NFL. I’ve coached in the NFL. I’ve been a police officer. You know what, Mike. When you’ve been in homes and you’ve seen situations – the worst of what people do to family members and loved ones – you develop the sense that when you go into someone else’s home, that’s the last part of this, ‘I should treat you the way I’d want my daughter treated.’ The humility part of it is that I’m no better than anybody else. I’m a father raising children myself. I’m responsible for a bunch of young men [at Virginia], but at the same time it all boils down to the one-on-one connection – to look at you in your eye and at least have some personal history and background, so that when we talk I know where you’re from and I know what issues you may have. There’s a relationship that started and has cultivated up to when the kid says, “I’m coming,” or the parent says, “Take my son.” That’s awesome. You see that thing right there [points to an item on one of his shelves]? That’s a baton.

Mike: That’s for track, I know.

LONDON: But it’s not [walks over to pick it up]. When you say, “Coach, take my son” and you hand [him] to me, then I’ve got to do my job. I’ve got to run my lap. I take this seriously.

Mike: How important was it for you and the staff to break out so strongly with recruiting your first season? Was there a feeling of relief once you got that first important class under your belt and has it helped push other recruits to your doorstep?

LONDON: It was very important. But then you look at the guys. Again, I can go back to the personalities and the who – Chip West, Anthony Poindexter – they’re some of the best men I’ve ever known. You know, Vincent Brown. Those guys go out and they represent this school in a way that they see the model of what our coaching staff is to be and what we’re going to be. They know about the school already, and then they want to come because they see Tra [Demetrious Nicholson ] coming, they see other guys coming. And then Tra becomes a freshman All-American, doing well in school, great guy – everybody back home looks at him and says, “I want to go because he’s there and he’s doing well.” Then when they come, he can tell them, “Yeah, they’re treating me this way or that way.” Then the message is consistent. It’s not just Tra [or 757 recruits], but Anthony Harris , or anyone from all over the state of Virginia. I am from the 757, but as the head coach 804, 540, 703 – all of those area codes are as important to me as any other. It’s the same message that’s being sent. If they like it, they’ll tell others to come.

London’s honesty, humor and motivational skills have made him popular with his players and recruits.

Mike: Have you seen an impact on recruiting with the decision to have several practices at remote locations (i.e. Hampton, ODU, NOVA)? Is this something you plan to continue in the future?

LONDON: I think we have. But that’s going to be copied by a number of other institutions, particularly one down the road. But it’s a smart move. Most of these kids come to games and they stand on the sidelines for warm-ups, and then they’ve got to go sit in the stands. I think as they’re checking off boxes of, “What’s my position coach like? What are the schemes like? How do they really interact with the players? Well, you get a chance to see that up close and personal when you go to these different venues that are really right on top of you. I think it has helped. I think this year for us there’s going to be more of a concentration on schemes and systems and get them going here [in Charlottesville].

Mike: How much does summer camp performance play into a decision to offer a recruit if they do not already possess an official offer?

LONDON: You can look at camps in a couple of different ways. You can look at a camp to try and get as many as you can in here, and be a money maker for the coaches. Or, you can really use a camp as an evaluative tool. I think that’s what we try to do. You know, you get that questionnaire in and he puts on the questionnaire that he’s 6’4″, and 240 pounds – he comes to camp and he’s 6’2″, 200 pounds. So, what it allows you to do is evaluate and take a hard look. Does he have the body size and the girth and the potential for growth? It allows you to test them with speed and agility, change of direction – if they have those things. Camps have traditionally been where you get a bunch of guys to go there, you make some money, and ‘Oh, by the way’ you evaluate some guys.

What you do find, sometimes, is maybe they didn’t run the 4.5 [40-yard dash]. Maybe they ran a 4.6. But he’s 6’2″, 215, but he’s got a large frame. He might grow into something – from being an outside linebacker to a defensive end or defensive tackle. Everybody sees the ‘can’t miss’ guys. The trick is to see those young men that have the potential to develop size, strength, and agility. So camps have become an important evaluative tool to either move forward [with a player], or we’re not going to recruit this young man.

Mike: You’re getting an unfiltered view of the player, rather than his best plays on a highlight tape or what the high school coach is saying.

LONDON: If you can’t see this guy backpedal on the film, well then you bring them and put them through those drills. You want to make sure they can do them. If they can backpedal, turn their hips and open up and run, then check the box off and say, ‘Yeah, he can do it.’

London coached a more aggressive style in 2007 that was very effective.

Mike: You’re a coach that likes to play fast and aggressive on defense, but in the past that has resulted in some missed assignments and penalties. What can you do to limit those mistakes and still play an aggressive style of football?

LONDON: Again, as simple as it is, not having a bunch to do or think about, but playing at a high level performance speed and then understanding there’s only one ball in the game. And the more times you get it, the more times you have an opportunity to give it to your offense to score. I think ball disruption is always a huge key in how you play defense. And so I wouldn’t be surprised if you see guys walking around on Grounds holding onto a football – running backs, DB’s, or wide receivers.

I think the style speaks to the aggressive play that you want to have. The mentality of the defense – how you attack blockers, how you attack the ball when the ball is thrown into the secondary. All of those things are going to be a focal point of the defense that Coach [Jon] Tenuta is going to put in.

Mike: Being a defensive expert in your own right, how exciting is it for you to have Jon Tenuta on the staff? Can we expect more ball disruption and a better turnover margin as a result of this hire?

LONDON: That’s always the goal, ball disruption and turnovers because, again, it leads to point production – not allowing teams to score. I think in the time that he’s been here Jon has been able to work with the existing staff members Coach Brown, Coach West and Coach Poindexter. That mentality in that room is a rock solid mentality in terms of how we do things and want to do things. There’s a lot of experience in terms of what Jon brings. I think we’ll see that style of approach of guys flying around and making things happen. The exciting part of it is, it’s in the planning stages and come March 18 it will start to be unveiled, and we’ll see how this thing starts to play out.

Mike: Last season the offensive line had some difficulties. What can be done to improve this area? Coach O’Brien is well known for developing offensive lines. Will he help Coach Scott Wachenheim in terms of technique and any deficiencies there might be with development?

LONDON: I think it’s always a collaborative effort of experienced coaches that you have about working with technique, about a step, about a hand placement – things like that. Scott Wachenheim is a good coach. And the benefit of having Coach O’Brien, Larry Lewis, Steve Fairchild – guys who have coordinated offense before and the conjunction of how the running game and the passing game and all of those things fit. It can only be a benefit for any position on the team.

There’s a lot of experience in that offensive room. The goal and aim is for all of us to improve the way we coach, the way we teach, and be responsible for the production on the field. Those are things, amongst others, to correct and get better at.

London during the 2013 spring football scrimmage.

Mike: What is your primary focus of improvement and evaluation for the team this spring? What do you hope to achieve heading into summer workouts?

LONDON: It goes back to what we talked about – about being smart, about reduction of penalties, particularly post-snap penalties. Ball’s up in the air, does he have his hand on his back or whatever, interference. Post-snap penalties are the things that the players can definitely control – personal fouls, things like that. That’s one. Tough – a level of toughness in terms of mental toughness and the style and approach of how we play offense. I think what you’ll see is a team that wants to run the ball, that wants to be physical, that wants to be productive in that realm. And then have the opportunity to throw the ball deep and use the skill players that we have. Be balanced, but say, ‘Listen, we want to be tough.’ That speaks to mental toughness as well. And the other part of that means making tough decisions about doing what you’re supposed to do – doing the right thing. If you lose a couple of friends because they’re doing something wrong and you’re not, then that’s a tough decision.

And then lastly, aggressive – being aggressive on the field – the way we play special teams, the way we play offense, the way we play defense. Those characteristics are something we’ll continue to keep talking about every day we practice. What they do on the field translates to winning, but also what they do off the field – making smart decisions, making tough decisions.

Mike: Interesting. You’re focusing a lot on the mental approach as opposed to just the playbook or off-season workouts.

LONDON: We have to put the schemes and the systems in. But before you do that, you’ve got to say, ‘This is what we want to be.’ And so whatever drill, whatever the inference coming out of the drill – or what’s important coming out of the drill – is you want to see a level of toughness, a level of a guy making smart decisions. So instead of saying, ‘Alright, we’re going to do this scheme,’ there’s got to be the beginning of it. Evan Marcus used a great example down in the weight room. The bar down in the weight room is unforgiving. Because you can say you can bench 225, and really you can’t. You put 225 on it ‘clump’. The bar is unforgiving, it doesn’t care. You have to put on there what you can do and then you start to build from there. So you’ve got to start from a level of being smart, of being tough, and of being aggressive. And then you say, ‘Alright, we’re going to do this scheme.’ And then you put the drill together. The first couple of practices there might just be specific unit work and these are the drills we’re going to do.

Mike: Have you seen a benefit to redshirting players with regard to their ability to adjust to the challenges of moving from high school to the college level? And if so, would you like to redshirt more often in the future?

LONDON: I think there’s no secret when you look at your front seven on defense – talking about your linebackers and your linemen – or the offensive line and your tight ends, it benefits them to have a year to soak it in, to learn how to lift weights, to be strong and take care of the body – cut the body fat. The skill guys always have ability because they’re out in space. It’s not as much about physically blocking a guy, but the skillful way about how they move around and change direction. As you start recruiting classes of the talent level you want to develop, there may be one or two or three or four that might come in [and play immediately] because of sheer talent alone. I’m talking about the back seven – WILL linebacker, corners, and safeties – receivers and running backs. They may be in more of a position to play. But when they come in there might be competition. They might need to redshirt and sit a year.

Mike: That speaks to their physical maturity and abilities, but what about academic adjustment?

LONDON: People understand that when you come in as a true freshman, coming from high school to college, there’s always a huge transition. There’s that learning curve of how to study, and about time management. And you don’t really know how to do it until you’re in it, and then to try to balance that out with playing, knowing the plays, and then the study halls after that. Again, it goes back to the young men that you recruit – the high achiever on the field that also wants to come and be an educated man in the classroom. So there’s a profile that has to be developed and established. Sometimes it’s first-generation college. Sometimes it’s legacies that come here. Sometimes they come from two-parent homes with professional families that know about this school and about the degree that it offers their son. You take those profile types, you bring them into your program, and they understand that in order to be successful here at Virginia, they have to be successful enough in the classroom to allow you to get on the field and play.

We try to put the guys on a plan with the academic support system here – the structure that’s here is pretty good. We try to put them in a plan, so that if they do redshirt their first year, they’re not only lifting their physical muscles in the weight room, but they’re lifting their academic muscles as well with the support staff.

London instructing freshman Brandon Phelps , one of the high profile recruits in his first full class.

Mike: Which freshmen could make an impact in 2013? Have any of the incoming true freshmen already been slated to play right away?

LONDON: It’s always hard to say. You can look at them on paper or their highlight tape. You know, the star rankings. It’s hard to say sometimes. Some of these young men say, ‘Coach, I want a chance to play right away.’ And to be true to my word I want to make sure that they’re evaluated early enough in August camp to see if indeed they can help us. Again, it goes back to some of those positions like linemen with the every-down snap of being physical, disengaging, and blocking. That’s a little tougher. But, the skill position guys, they may have that opportunity to play early. But they’ll be evaluated early in camp to see if there may be an opportunity for them.

As we just discussed before, the academic part of it – making sure that they can balance being a true freshman playing, traveling, game preparation and also handle the 12-15 hours [of courses] that they take. That’s a big decision when you go down that road. They’ve got to be successful in both areas.

Mike: How soon can an incoming player take the playbook so they can start to learn what’s going on? Is it when they sign in for orientation?

LONDON: When they come in they can receive other instructional material. They can receive a weight program. The school will continually send them different things about acclimating as a student here. But when it gets down to sending playbooks and things like that, it happens further down the timetable.

Mike: While coaches often don’t like to single out players, can you at least mention one or more players on the offensive and defensive side of the ball that you feel could have a break-out season – if they keep their head in the game in terms of the classroom and doing what’s necessary on the field? I’m not talking incoming guys, but players like Eli Harold or others.

LONDON: There’s so many names, because they were young players last year and they’re developing, can fit into that category. Not only Eli [Harold], but you’ve got Anthony Harris , Kevin Parks – gosh, I could literally say, ‘This guy, that guy’ because it’s just the youngness of where they were last year and the development that they’ve had. I’m anxious to see how much of learning curve that they know that’s going to allow them to be successful. It’s positive, though. It’s very positive.

Mike: By the end of 2012, 9 of your 22 starters, and 30 of the 53 players listed on the 2-deep roster (not counting special teams), were freshmen and sophomores. While you had to take your lumps last season as a result, do you think playing so many young players, particularly on defense, will provide an advantage heading into the 2013 season?

LONDON: I think the advantage is gained through – after the season – back in the weight room. Then the knowledge of having spent a year in college, the ups and downs and do’s and don’ts of how they carry themselves and what they put into their body, and how they train. It’s always a benefit. The constant message has been the same with Evan Marcus down there about building their body. We’re talking about building their personal brand. And now we’re talking about taking all of that with these new schemes and systems and embracing it, embracing it for the opportunities that lie ahead for them.
You’re right. Having such a young team – playing and backing up – that’s where we are, or that’s where we were. Eli Harold will be a true sophomore, you know [laughing]?

Mike: But there’s no substitute for on the job training, right? You can simulate but so much in practice with regard to the speed of the game.

LONDON: The speed of the game is different, but it’s always about three or four recruiting classes. In the places I’ve been and with the other coaches I’ve talked to – to get those classes in to take you to where you want to be, mindset wise, the guy with the right type of mentality. That’s part of the process.

Mike: You’ve got a demanding schedule ahead of you in what could be another building year. And now you’ve had Oregon dropped into your lap. What are the pro’s and con’s of doing something like that, not only for your career but for the development of the program?

After a difficult 2012, London upgraded his staff and feels all of the ingredients are in place to be competitive.

LONDON: Well, you look at the schedule you’re looking at an opportunity to play – obviously, BYU’s a high profile team to me, and everyone knows who Oregon is. It looks to the understanding of the challenges that we’ve embraced as [a program] – we want to improve a lot of things around here. We want to improve the facilities, for sure. [The indoor practice facility] will be one of the best in the country when it’s done. We want to improve the profile of the student-athletes that we have here. We want to improve the resources that have been available, with the coaching staff hires. And we want to improve an opportunity to play really good teams. You can go the other way, I guess, you can say, ‘Play this lower team,’ or play two 1-AA’s or whatever it may be. You can go that route.

I guess, Mike, again we’ve talked here for the last hour about me being a police officer, and 10,000 to 1 odds, and all of those things like that – it’s that I’m more of the mindset of playing the best, hiring the best, building the best, raising the best, raising the bar and then go out there and compete and play. That’s just my mentality. And eight home games. That’s awesome. That’s unheard of.

Mike: Realistically speaking, what can we expect from the team in 2013?

LONDON: You can expect improvement. Again, anything that can be measured can be improved. That’s the bottom line. I’ll just say this, two years ago we tasted what it was like to be in postseason play. This past season didn’t taste very good. I like the taste of being in postseason play.

Mike: Finally, what’s the realistic and ultimate goal for Virginia over the next two or three years? Obviously, competing for the conference championship. But is it realistic to think UVa could ever play for a national title and what would it take to get to that level?

LONDON: Is it realistic to think that? Well, obviously, as the ultimate competitor and the odds said, ‘You couldn’t do this or couldn’t do that.’ I’m an eternal optimist. It’s a realistic goal to think that and want that. Now, the actions have to be hard set and proven and followed – resources for good coaches, facilities, traveling, recruiting – keep recruiting those top-end players. I believe that 2014 and ’15 may be the better classes around for the state of Virginia and for the profile schools. It’s important for us to be successful with those classes, because they’re the ones that are looking now and saying, ‘Wow, you guys are playing them? You’re going there?’ They’re the ones that are going to want to come. I think there are a lot of spokes that touch the tires – this is how we’re going to get this thing going. I think all of the ingredients and all of the things are in place to do that.