Virginia Makes Signing-Day Statement
A few months later when Groh was gone and Mike London was enthusiastically welcomed as his successor, the new coach's challenge was clear. Across the Blue Ridge Mountains, the rival Hokies had taken over the state to a degree that at times even the Cavaliers' hometown felt like enemy territory. London, a personable coach who seemed younger than his 49 years, needed to win back the hearts and minds of the Old Dominion.
It may be too early to declare the mission accomplished, but after the Cavs unveiled one of the nation's top recruiting classes on Wednesday, it's clear London has begun to repair the damage done by the end of the Groh era.
"I don't know about trying to win the state, but we did do a pretty good job," London said. "Of the top-25 players that were in the state, I think we had 12 of them. Other schools got a few here and there, but I think that when the class of 2012 looks at it, they'll see that some of the best talent in the state went to this school right up the road."
By the end of signing day, the Cavaliers' class was ranked as high as No. 17 and a consensus top-25 pick among the major recruiting rankings. It also included 17 Virginians, the most in 21 years, with five more signees coming from just across the state line in Maryland.
It was a remarkable day for a Virginia program that has posted losing records four of the past five seasons.
While the Hokies were busy winning the ACC on a seemingly annual basis with rosters loaded with in-state talent, Groh, a Virginia alumnus who had some success in his early years at the school, had managed to alienate a large portion of the Cavaliers fanbase and an even bigger chunk of the state's high school coaches.
"I think one thing that helped coach London and his staff hit the floor running was that he hired many coaches that had worked in the state already," said Patrick Kane, the coach at Hermitage High School in Richmond.
"They were already familiar with the high school coaches and programs. There was no introductory period and they already knew and got along with the coaches around the state."
Fueling the anger in the final weeks of the 2009 season was the decision to burn the redshirts of 14 freshmen. To many high school coaches, the move looked like Groh was mortgaging the future of the program in a desperate attempt to win a few more games and save his job.
That frustration was replaced with optimism when London, who previously served as an assistant at Virginia before becoming head coach at Richmond, arrived. The new coach and his staff began calling in-state coaches immediately.
Perhaps nothing symbolized the shift as much as Fork Union Military Academy coach John Shuman's presence at London's introductory press conference.
Fork Union, located just outside Charlottesville, produces Division I prospects on an annual basis, but relations between Virginia and the prep school had essentially come to an end under Groh after Virginia passed on multiple Fork Union players, including Shuman's son Ryan, who became a three-year starter at Virginia Tech.
London had been the head coach at Virginia for less than two months when the Cavaliers signed Fork Union offensive lineman Morgan Moses, a top-50 recruit. Wednesday the Cavaliers received a letter of intent from Fork Union defensive back Kyrrel Latimer.
"Assistant coaches and I traveled all over the state to different parts," London said. "This opportunity during the contact period, when head coaches can go out, I think I've been in over 60 schools. We're having the coaches' clinic. We're inviting high school coaches to come up be a part of it. We are trying to do things to be accessible and available and to get high school coaches to think that we are trying to be inclusive when we're talking about recruiting their players. Hopefully within the state of Virginia, we've extended our hands and embraced it. Practices are open, meetings are open, anything that we can do to get them on Grounds, we're looking to do that."
Unlike in previous seasons, when the Hokies dominated recruiting in the talent-rich Tidewater region, Virginia landed nine players from the area. First-team Parade All-American and the Tidewater player of the year Demetrious Nicholson heads the list, becoming the most decorated player from that region to sign with Virginia since 2002. Not coincidently, London was the Cavaliers' recruiting coordinator then, the last time Virginia had such a highly rated class.
Virginia's good day was capped by highly touted prospect Dominique Terrell's decision to sign with the Cavs and Virginia's highest-ranked recruits chose UVa over the likes of LSU, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Miami and, of course, Virginia Tech.
The Cavaliers missed out on Curtis Grant, a top linebacker recruit from Richmond who chose Ohio State, meaning there is room to improve for London and Co. in terms of keeping the very best players close to home.
But there's little doubt the Cavs made a statement on Wednesday. One they hope will translate into wins.