6:38 PM EST, December 20, 2011
Mike London remembers all too well his final college football game, the last time he stripped off his University of Richmond uniform.
London was a captain of that 1982 squad, which exited not only with a 28-17 home loss to William and Mary, but also the program's second winless season in four years.
Granted, those were different times as the Spiders navigated a treacherous schedule that included Virginia Tech, South Carolina, West Virginia, East Carolina, Louisville and Rutgers. But the 0-10 record and that final game have never left London.
That past informs London's present as he prepares to coach Virginia in the Chick-fil-A Bowl against Auburn. No Cavaliers senior class since 2005 has won its final game, a fact not lost on London and his players.
"The reality of it has finally hit them," London said Tuesday at the team's on-campus bowl media gathering. "As much as you talk about your last game being an emotional game, then all of a sudden here it is. There's an extra pep in their step."
That bounce is fueled by the program's first bowl since 2007, by doubling last season's win total and by drawing an opponent that just happens to be the defending national champion. The Cavaliers (8-4) and Tigers (7-5) will collide in prime-time on New Year's Eve in Atlanta.
"They've done everything in their (power) to get everybody ready for this game," junior linebacker LaRoy Reynolds said of the seniors. "It's a big stage, especially when you say Auburn in the Georgia Dome, an SEC team. It's one of those things you live for. …
"It's one of those games to change the program. We've been progressing. We've been saying we want to change the face of the program and get it back to respectability, where you had guys like Marques Hagans and Anthony Poindexter when they played. Those great times and great moments that we read about and we watch. This game could really change the way Virginia is looked at."
A graduate assistant coach, Hagans was a senior captain and starting quarterback in 2005, when Virginia rallied from a two-touchdown deficit to defeat Minnesota in the Music City Bowl. Hagans, a Hampton High graduate, threw for a career-high 358 yards to earn MVP honors, and Al Groh coached superbly with a staff decimated by four departures.
Poindexter coordinates the Cavaliers' special teams and coaches safeties, the position he played in college. His 1990s career included two Chick-fil-A Bowls against Georgia.
Postseason was routine for Virginia when Hagans and Poindexter competed. This year's seniors treasure their one opportunity.
"At this point in my career, I just love lacing them up and going out and practicing," receiver Kris Burd said. "The days are limited, so being able to go out there and run around, I love it. …
"What better way to end your college career? We put in a lot. From the '07 year being on scout team doing the looks for the Texas Tech offense and defense (prior to the Gator Bowl), to some of the down years to bringing it back to where it is now. It's been a roller-coaster ride and there's only one way to end it, and that's on top."
Bowls can be tricky. The lag since regular season's end motivates some, deadens others. Players can be more concerned about their NFL stock or the bowl's social outlets.
Stung by a 38-0 loss to Virginia Tech in the regular-season finale and unspoiled by past success, the Cavaliers figure to bring an edge to Atlanta.
"We don't want to be known as the team that mailed it in," senior defensive tackle Matt Conrath said.
"For us, it's not just about the season we've had," said senior guard Austin Pasztor, a second-team Associated Press All-American. "It's about the careers we've had. It's been a struggle, from 5-7 to 3-9 to 4-8. That's not a lot of fun. …
"This season has been great, but the final one is always nice to win. I think the bowl game is what we'll remember the most."
David Teel can be reached at 757-247-4636 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/sports/teeltime and follow him at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP