November 21, 2009
Mike London loves this time of year. Rivalry games. Postseason drama. Championship stakes.
Life as a college football coach doesn't get any better.
But London is learning to detest this time of year as well. Back-channel contacts. Back-stabbing colleagues. Media speculation.
Life as a principled and successful college football coach doesn't get more squeamish.
This afternoon, London guides fourth-ranked Richmond against fifth-ranked William and Mary in the South's oldest rivalry. It is the regular-season finale for both, rich in conference and playoff implications.
But as London and the Spiders prepare to defend their national title — they are a lock for the playoff field that will be revealed Sunday — another story looms:
Shortly after its season concludes Nov. 28, the University of Virginia will dismiss Al Groh after nine years as head coach. London is a logical candidate, and the Cavaliers could not hire a more stand-up gentleman to revive the program.
But how to approach the courtship? How to answer questions from reporters, recruits and superiors?
More to the point, how to inspire players and staff to pursue a championship when everyone in the room knows you may soon exit?
London, 49 and a Bethel High graduate, doesn't ride the turnip truck to work. As a Richmond detective, he confronted bad guys and loaded guns. As a dad, he donated bone marrow to his daughter — she's now healthy. As a head coach and assistant, he's navigated every imaginable game storm.
This is different.
In his second year as a head coach — the Spiders are a sterling 22-4 on his watch — London is new to the machinations that drive marquee searches at major universities, machinations that offend his senses of integrity and commitment.
To wit: Many schools retain search firms to approach potential candidates and/or their representatives, the better to cover backsides and allow all parties to deny direct contact. This third-party communication often occurs with the current coach still in place.
If there's mutual interest, head-hunters often encourage candidates to speak with schools during the season. Many have no qualms.
I believe London does.
He respects his peers. He appreciates the Richmond brass. He considers his players family.
Interviewing for a position that's not yet open? Pursuing another job while his team still is playing?
That may be how others operate in the cut-throat coaching world, but not London.
Remember the raw emotions he displayed during last year's playoffs? The fist pumps, chest bumps and other exultations, and, yes, the tears, were genuine.
As were his words this week about balancing athletics and academics.
"You take a tremendous amount of joy and pride in (players graduating)," London said, "because somewhere along the line with your cajoling or your encouragement or your, whatever it is, pat on the back, kick in the butt, then you see guys develop. It's just like a player developing athletically. ...
"I encourage the players to be whatever they want to be, but also (to) understand that the percentages (of making the NFL) are very minimal, but that the percentages of graduating here and moving on and getting a high-paying job are very high. …
"My whole coaching career has revolved around academic institutions. … You start attracting character people, people you know you can turn your back on and they'll do the right thing. Now do they always do the right thing? Not all the time. Just like a parent, you have to deal with that."
Indeed, working at schools such as Richmond, William and Mary, Virginia and Boston College has forged London's insistence on classroom excellence. Combine that with his ties to Hampton Roads, the commonwealth and U.Va., plus his NFL experience and Richmond success, and you see why he's on the Cavaliers' short list.
Have Virginia officials contacted London directly? Doubtful.
Has he reached out to them? Improbable.
Might someone connected with Virginia have approached someone affiliated with him? Quite possible, since Groh's fate was determined weeks ago and the search commenced immediately thereafter.
Not to say a deal is done. Virginia will, and should, consider other coaches — Wake Forest's Jim Grobe, Temple's Al Golden and Air Force's Troy Calhoun come to mind. London will, and should, consider other options, remaining at Richmond among them.
Fourteen high school seniors, including York's Ben Edwards, Jamestown's Andrew Cordasco and Surry County's Montel White, have committed to join the Spiders next season. Seven of London's nine assistants came to the university at his request — the other two he retained from former coach Dave Clawson's staff.
London takes seriously his obligations to those folks. But he also has ambitions for himself and his family, for which he need not apologize.
How Virginia's search and London's off-season conclude is anyone's guess. This is not: He will be true to his principles and act accordingly.
David Teel can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at email@example.com. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/teeltime.