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Pressure? Mike London Knows Pressure and Coaching Isn't It

May 21, 2010 – 11:34 AM
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Jim Henry

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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. - Pressure? It just depends on how it's defined.

Take Mike London, for example. He understands the pressure on college coaches to win never ends, at any level. The stress of trying to reach those goals and satisfy everyone can be overwhelming at times. London also knows that his situation at the University of Virginia is unique because he has made the leap from the FCS (formerly Division I-AA) to the FBS (formerly Division I). Pessimists wonder if he's thoroughly prepared, even after one of the greatest head coaching debut seasons ever in 2008.

London, one of 13 African-American head coaches at the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) level, is also aware of the pressure being exerted nationally to make sure colleges include candidates of color in the hiring process. The naming of three black head coaches during the same week in December -- Charlie Strong at Louisville, London at UVa and Turner Gill at Kansas -- suggests university presidents and athletic directors are being attentive and inclusive. The Black Coaches & Administrators (BCA) in April named London as its male coach of the year for the second straight time.

Yet, none of these examples represent pressure in London's world. No sir. Not even close. Pressure?

"Pressure to me is having seven kids, pressure to me is when you give your bone marrow to your daughter and whether or not it's going to be a match for her and she's going to either live or die, pressure to me is staring down the barrel of a gun and having it pulled and not go off. That's pressure," London told FanHouse in a recent interview.

"This (coaching) is something I love to do. I know there are certain inherit things about football and coaching and winning and losing and how players conduct themselves. It's all wrapped up into it. This is something I enjoy doing and feel blessed to be doing. The other real life issues, those are the pressure things I think are the toughest issues. This is something I look forward to doing.

"I believe God has a planned purpose for everyone's life."

London intends to confidently follow it, too.

***

London is dressed business casual -- light brown slacks, a dark brown shirt and a tan jacket.

The McCue Center, which houses the offices, locker rooms and meeting areas for the Cavaliers football team, is relatively quiet. It's exam week for student-athletes and members of London's staff are on the road recruiting. An assistant coach from Clemson stops in to say a quick hello to a fellow colleague, while a few players dressed in UVa blue and orange head to the weight room.

London offers an engaging smile, firm handshake and upbeat personality. He's needed all three this spring. London has spent much of his time networking with his state high school coaches and connecting with fans. He even held a spring scrimmage at Old Dominion University, about 200 miles away from campus. London, who inherited a 3-9 team that lost its final six games under fired coach Al Groh and has in recent seasons lived in the shadow of perennial power Virginia Tech, figures he has made nearly 20 public appearances throughout Virginia since spring practice ended.

Before London tries to win a football game, he knows he has to win over a fan base and recruits. Simply, the Cavaliers are in a major rebuilding mode -- in more ways than one.

"In the past Virginia has done very well with establishing relationships under the George Welsh era in regards to recruiting Virginia," explained London, a former UVa assistant who spent the past two seasons as Richmond's head coach.

"That led to success and people equated that with recruiting Virginia. Being a product of Hampton, Va., I see the importance of getting back and re-establishing relationships that may or may not have been cultivated in years past. We are making more of a commitment to take in-state kids. Because if you take a young man, you also get the community to come with him. And in the community there's probably a seventh- or eighth-grader because they know the local hero, 'Hey, he went to Virginia. I want to grow up and be just like him and I want to go to Virginia, too.'

"That's how you kind of build that fan base. I've done a lot of traveling in the state, and what better way to show you are interested in developing and cultivating the fan base than going out there and spending time in their neck of the woods? That has been our approach. We invest, we invigorate, we invite people to get excited about Virginia again. We are very excited about where we are and what we have to do to keep pressing forward to get people to come out and support us again."

London and the Cavaliers are also taking their message to television.

The "Virginia Football: The Building of a Program" is an 18-part series that has started to air on Comcast SportsNet Mid-Atlantic and online at VirginiaSportsTV.com and VirginiaFootball2010.com. Each episode will deliver an in-depth look at the building of the football program under London. The show's format is inspired by the HBO Sports Productions "Hard Knocks" and "Jimmie Johnson: The Road to Daytona."

London allowed the show's cameras into meetings, practices and other team activities. The brainchild of associate athletic director Jon Oliver, the show is another sales pitch for a program trying to feel good about itself again.

"It's really neat," said London, who moments earlier had watched the show's trailer for the first time. "Sometimes you think, is this really going to benefit us? At first it was kind of frustrating because you knew they were around. But then I saw what they were doing and it's really professional, impressive. We are looking forward to it."

***

The recent lacrosse tragedy aside, UVa's athletic program is on a spring high. Four teams have been ranked No. 1 in the country. The men's soccer team won the national title last fall. But the school's two most lucrative sports, football and men's basketball, have undergone major changes.

While fans probably shouldn't expect too much too soon under London, he hasn't wasted any time reshaping expectations. He used a three-pronged approach during spring practice -- evaluating players, implementing schemes (the Cavs went from a 3-4 defense to a 4-3 and will feature multiple formations on offense) and identifying playmakers.

First, however, was a pivotal Dr. Phil moment.

"The first thing we changed was the mentality of how and what we thought about ourselves," London said.

"It was pretty low here in terms of how the players thought about themselves, how people viewed the program and we had to change that culture a little bit. And I think we did that. We put them in a situation where they feel pretty good about themselves now, and there's a lot of positive energy."

London, of course, arrived here from the University of Richmond. London led the Richmond, his alma mater, to the 2008 national championship in the Football Championship Subdivision. Before coaching at Richmond, London was a Cavalier assistant from 2001-05 and 2006-07, coaching Chris Long, a defensive lineman who was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft. London was also an assistant with the New York Jets and Houston Texans.

London initially believed he belonged in the NFL.

"I got there and it's like, 'These guys love themselves,' and the players can get the coaches fired," London said.

"If you are a position guy and you don't get along with them, they are going to keep the guy making $8, $9 million -- they are going to get rid of you. I kind of felt I was a college guy anyway. I like the hands-on interaction with the players, even though they come to us from high school and somewhat have their own ideas about who they are and what they want to be. You still can help craft and mold them into being productive citizens when it's all said and done."

The Cavaliers return 14 starters, including specialists. Key players include receiver Kris Burd, quarterback Marc Verica, defensive end Matt Conrath, linebacker Steve Greer and cornerback Ras-I Dowling. London, like fans, expects steady improvement from his team, even if it means taking its first steps from the Atlantic Coast Conference basement.

"I believe they (media) are going to have us picked last in the conference and that's OK," London said.

"You listen to that and you attach your self-worth to that. Man, they are talking bad about me, the school, the football program -- I must be bad,too. We need to separate these guys from that. The only thing you can control is how you lift, how you run, how you practice, how you conduct yourself on and off the field. That's what you can control. And then you play the games and when we are all committed to each other in those aspects and we are going to be a better team, I know that."

***

Pressure?

It was the late 1980s, and for three years, London had been a detective on the Richmond Police Department's street crimes unit. London, a former defensive back at Richmond who didn't stick with the Dallas Cowboys, thought he had a future with the police. That is until one day he chased a van carrying the bad guys into an alley.

As the van's driver attempted to maneuver away from London, the young policeman instinctively ran to the van's window and reached in to turn off the ignition. That's when London noticed the driver had a gun pointed at London's head. He pulled the trigger. Nothing happened.

London had dodged a bullet -- and decided to become a football coach.

London's family continued to expand, too.

While working at Boston College in 2000, doctors discovered his 4-year-old daughter Ticynn had Fanconi anemia, an inherited blood disorder that eventually leads to bone marrow failure and often leukemia. The doctors said she needed a bone marrow transplant soon or she would likely die. There was another problem. They had been unable to find a match in the world-wide medical registry.

London landed with the Cavs the following season. His daughter's health had worsened. Doctors decided to test London's blood to see if by chance he was a match. (London was told parents almost never make good bone marrow matches). London's blood was a match, and, yes, Ticynn's health improved. London calls it a miracle.

What's fourth-and-goal when compared to your child's life?

"I do this for her," London said as he pulled out a photograph of his daughter.

London brings his unique life experiences to coaching. So far, so good.

London's journey turned storybook in 2008 when, in his first year as head coach at his alma mater, Richmond won the FCS national title over favored Montana. The Spider beat Eastern Kentucky in the first round, thumped Appalachian State on the road in the second round and then, in the semifinals, drove the field with no timeouts in the last two minutes to beat Northern Iowa.

London was the first African-American to lead his team to the FCS national championship game in 30 years -- when Florida A&M head coach Rudy Hubbard won the inaugural FCS (then I-AA) title. London was 11-2 at Richmond in 2009 with an appearance in the FCS quarterfinals and was named Virginia's new head coach in December.

A record six African-Americans were chosen as head coaches in the most recent hiring cycle that takes place annually in December and January (see chart below for a full list of minority head coaches on the FBS level). In 2009, the BCA named London as its male coach of the year for the 2008 season.

The BCA Coach of the Year Award is named in honor of Frederick "Fritz" Pollard, considered one of the greatest football players in Brown history. Pollard is recognized as the first African-American to play in the Rose Bowl, to earn All-American honors, to play quarterback at the professional level and become a head coach in the NFL. Pollard was enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2005.

The award is displayed on a table near a couch in London's office, where his vision for the Cavaliers is coming into focus.

"It's an honor and privilege to be in this position but ultimately I know I am going to be judged by what happens on the field and hopefully off the field, too," said London, who joins Miami's Randy Shannon as the ACC's two African-American head coaches.

"I am a football coach and I want to be judged like any other football coach is judged, how they run the program, how they operate and how they represent the school. We can have high academic standards for our student-athletes and have a team that wins championships. I just came from a school where we did that. It's a profession and a business, but I love what I do. Faith, family, football, those are my priorities, and those are the priorities of how we want to lead this program."

Pressure? It just depend on how it's defined. London seems to have a firm grasp on it, too.

Minority Coaches (FBS)
Listed Alphabetically
Head Coach University Conference Season
Mario Cristobal Florida International Sun Belt 4
Ron English Eastern Michigan MAC 2
Turner Gill Kansas Big XII 1
Michael Haywood Miami (Ohio) MAC 2
Ruffin McNeill East Carolina C-USA 1
Mike Locksley New Mexico MWC 2
Mike London Virginia ACC 1
Ken Niumatalolo Navy Independent 3
Joker Phillips Kentucky SEC 1
Larry Porter Memphis C-USA 1
Randy Shannon Miami ACC 4
Charlie Strong Louisville Big East 1
Kevin Sumlin Houston C-USA 3
Willie Taggart Western Kentucky Sun Belt 1
Dewayne Walker New Mexico State WAC 2
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