Mike London’s perspective on winning changed 10 years ago.
That’s when he gave his 7-year-old daughter a life-saving bone marrow transplant. It’s the reason London still gets choked up today as he talks about sending Ticynn, now 17, to her prom this year. Her story is and always will be his biggest victory, as the two of them literally beat the odds. It’s well-documented in ACC country, but it also continues to keep London grounded in reality as he tries to put Virginia's program back on track this fall.
London was asked last month at the ACC coaches’ Car Wash in Bristol if he is concerned about his job security after a 4-8 finish last year. With his son Korben -- one of London’s seven children -- sitting next to him, the coach answered like a father.
“Pressure? Quarterbacks?” he says. “I know I gotta get it straight and I gotta get it right. But three months ago, she went to her prom. This? This job? What I’m doing with him? (Points to his son). You can’t put a price tag on that. So if I never coach football again ... this is the life I choose to lead. If I’m successful doing it, then the Smoke Mizzells and all of those other guys, they grow up being like, ‘Man, that dude had an impact on my life.’ So if with everything that’s being done there’s not enough time so we can walk around and go to the bowl games and do things like that, at least they will leave a program I’ve been responsible for saying, ‘That’s a father, that’s a husband, that’s a role model, that’s a mentor.’ I don’t have the flash, I don’t have the bling. Do I hope to get it? I do. But I’m not going to let people run my life.”
Virginia is his life.
He grew up in Hampton, Va., the very area he now recruits. His younger brother, Paul, was a defensive back at UVa from 1991-95. London played defensive back at Richmond from 1979-82. He also received a degree in law enforcement from the Richmond Police Academy, where he was once an undercover detective in the street crimes unit from 1984-89 -- another highly publicized story that has helped shape London's perspective. His daughter Kristen played on the UVa women’s basketball team. Before he was hired as the head coach, London was twice an assistant on former coach Al Groh’s staff.
Now, with London entering his fourth season as head coach, the program is still in a rebuilding phase -- a slow process in today’s college football culture.
“I love this job,” he said. “I love doing what I do. I know the job is to talk about wins and losses and things like that, but it’s a process. It’s a process of any program. I mean, ‘2011 ACC Coach of the Year!' I know football! Last week? ‘You don’t know squat.’ It’s part of the game, but anyone who knows me, I keep talking about the process. And if it’s good enough for the people who be to say, ‘We want that process to continue on,’ then I’ll be here for a long time. If not, then it is what it is.”
Right now, it is an uphill battle. The Cavaliers were picked to finish No. 6 in the Coastal Division this fall, ahead of only Duke. They’ve lost two quarterbacks with starting experience for different reasons in Michael Rocco (transfer) and Phillip Sims (ineligible and transferred). With little fanfare, David Watford was announced as the starter this summer in what was the quietest quarterback competition the Hoos have had under London. Virginia returns 15 starters this year but faces a daunting schedule that includes BYU and Oregon in the first two weeks.
Those within the program, though, maintain that London and the administration are still on the right track -- and the same page. The university has built an indoor practice facility to keep the Cavs on par with the rest of the country. London made some difficult staff changes this fall, including firing some of his friends in the business. The team’s semester GPA continues to grow, and recruiting has been hot. The Cavaliers currently have the No. 18 class in the country, according to ESPN’s RecruitingNation, ahead of rival Virginia Tech, which is ranked No. 26.
Last year, though, was an undeniable step back. The Cavaliers were inconsistent on offense and special teams and ranked 110th nationally in turnover margin. The unsettled quarterback position didn’t help.
“Ultimately, before you get to the top you have to have highs and lows,” said cornerbacks coach Chip West, also the team’s recruiting coordinator. “It’s just like building a house. Let’s make sure we have a foundation, something to build upon. That’s what coach London is trying to do, and that’s what he’s working very hard to succeed to do.”
On the recruiting trail, West said the staff is selling an “education-first” scholarship based on London’s principles.
“Coach’s deal is faith, family and football,” West said. “We sell all of those things, and specifically for me, I’ve been blessed because I recruit an area that coach London is from there and I’m from there. I can’t say enough about people I’ve come in contact with over the years, from all of the places I’ve been and coach London has been, who try to help us, who know what type of pedigree we have as far as treating their kids the right way. At the end of the day, the players recruit each other, so if they’re being treated the right way, you’re bound to have success.”
Especially when you define it the way London does.