December 8, 2009
Mike London inherited gold in 2008, a University of Richmond football program that returned 17 starters from a team that reached the national playoff semifinals.
Nice gig for anyone, let alone a rookie head coach.
On Monday, London inherited dregs, a last-place University of Virginia program fresh off its worst season in 27 years.
Onerous job for anyone, even an incurably upbeat ex-cop with a national championship ring stashed in his bling drawer.
"It's OK to expect great things," London said during his introductory news conference.
The Cavaliers, 3-9 this past season, are years from even approaching greatness. But London brings a sense of optimism absent since George Welsh's coaching prime during the 1980s and '90s.
London, 49, exudes hope, from his life story — he's worked the streets of Richmond as a detective and donated bone marrow to a now-healthy daughter — to his coaching chops to his engaging manner.
He's a proven recruiter, motivator and educator, and as a first-year big whistle won the 2008 Football Championship Subdivision national title at Richmond, his alma mater.
Perhaps most important, London feels like a long-term solution rather than a temporary Band-Aid. His predecessor, Al Groh, arrived with a checkered résumé and never looked the part of potential icon, even when his teams won.
"I think it's important to have cohesion and continuity on a staff," London said.
A graduate of Bethel High, London has run the professional treadmill for two decades. Four years there, three here, two there.
"All the moves that we've made, whether it was four years, three years, eight months, it was to get to this level," said London's wife, Regina, a Newport News native. "Yes, it was a lot of moves. But we're here, and this is where we worked hard to get."
"Here" is Charlottesville, where the Londons have twice lived already — Mike served two tenures as a Groh assistant. "Here" is Virginia, the state the family calls home.
Barring an unexpected belly-flop, or a sudden urge to run an NFL franchise — London is far better suited for college — this is his destination job.
Just as it was Welsh's. He arrived from the Naval Academy in 1982 at age 48. He remained 19 seasons and guided the Cavaliers to their first 11 bowls and two shared ACC championships.
The mid- and late-80s were halcyon times for not only Virginia football but also men's basketball, where Terry Holland was coaching the Cavaliers to nine NCAA tournaments and two Final Fours. Holland lasted 16 years before exiting to administration.
Call it a hunch — cynics would say a reach — but in London and first-year basketball coach Tony Bennett, Virginia appears to have leadership capable of matching the Welsh-Holland era.
"You're thinking right," athletic director Craig Littlepage said. "There's a profile, if you will, a certain feel, a certain look. These are people whose careers are ascending."
Jon Oliver, Littlepage's top lieutenant, researched all of the basketball and football candidates.
"We really got back to the basics on both of these searches, to figure out, OK, who are the right people for this institution now, and what will it take for them to come and build the program, put their mark on it and have a long-lasting impression?" Oliver said. "I think in both of these searches, that's where we arrived."
As comfortable a fit as London may be, staff will be critical. He is a skilled delegator, and assistants will be invaluable strategists and recruiters.
Toward that end, Oliver said that Virginia has budgeted $2 million in 2010 salary for London's nine assistants, a 29-percent bump from this season's $1.55 million. According to a USA Today survey, Virginia this season ranked last among the ACC's eight public schools in staff compensation.
Given that increase, expect some high-profile hires in the coming weeks.
Absent Bowl Subdivision head-coaching experience, London is not high-profile enough to suit some fans. Those doubters also question whether the one week that transpired between Groh's firing and London's hiring was enough time to identify the best candidate.
But that's a red herring. Littlepage and Oliver knew for months that Groh was finished, and during that time they conducted background checks and inquired through intermediaries of potential interest.
"I don't think there are many people who thought we wouldn't be making a change," Oliver said. "We knew in the early fall that if things didn't work out we might be in this situation, so you can imagine when I started the process of research.
"That's not meant to be disrespectful to anybody else, but part of athletics administration is being prepared at all times and having a short list of people you would target if you have an opening. I don't think we're unique in that regard."
But Oliver and Littlepage say they hired a unique coach.
"Yes, one coach, just one, stood out among 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."
Quite the endorsement. Time for Mike London to prove himself worthy.
David Teel can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/teeltime.