Sitting Down with UVA's Mike London
College football forecasts paint a gloomy picture for this season’s University of Virginia team. If the predictions pan out, UVA fans will suffer through another long and losing season like last year, when the Cavaliers’ record was a dismal 2-10, including a winless (0-8) record in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
The Sporting News, for example, predicts Virginia will finish last (again) in the ACC’s 7-team Coastal Division. Athlon Media Group’s ACC magazine predicts the Cavaliers will win three games and go 1-7 in conference play, an improvement over last year but not one to keep alumni from grumbling.
As he begins his fifth season in Charlottesville, Coach Mike London has gone from ACC Coach of the Year in 2011, when Virginia won eight games and went to a bowl game, to sitting on the hot seat – sports lingo for coaches in jeopardy of being fired for losing too many games.
THE FUTURE IS ATHLETIC
None of the dire predictions for the 2014 season has diminished London’s confidence in his players. He firmly believes the Cavs will be considerably better this season. “This year’s team will be fast and more athletic in the receiving corps, something we made a conscious effort to change,” he said in a recent interview in his office. “Defensively we have, I believe, two of the best pass rushers in college football, and that is critical in terms of pass defense. We have depth in a lot of places. We are young on the offensive line, but we are young with guys who have game experience.
“Coming out of spring, we saw athletic ability in a lot of players. We have consistency in terms of staff and terminology, and that’s how you get better. So those are some of the things we are optimistic about. It’s about improving production and performance. That’s what this year has to be about.”
Oh, one more thing. There is no quarterback controversy.
Greyson Lambert, a 6-5, 225-pound sophomore from Jesup, Ga., was so impressive in spring practice that London named him the starting QB over last year’s starter, David Watford, a 6-2, 205-pound junior from Hampton. Lambert is not as quick afoot as Watford but is rated a superior passer. With Lambert running the show, look for the offense to be more pass oriented.
TRYING TO KEEP THE TALENT AT HOME
The prognosticators may foresee poor results for UVA this season, but, at the same time, they have high praise for London and his staff for the job they have done recruiting. The roster has a sizable number of highly rated players, a goodly number of whom are Virginians.
When he took the UVA job the year after coaching the University of Richmond (his alma mater) to the 2008 Football Championship Series (FCS) national title, London began working to improve relationships with high school coaches throughout the commonwealth, especially Hampton Roads. A graduate of Bethel High School in Hampton, London has numerous connections in that area, which is familiarly known as “757,” for the telephone area code.
“I hear all the time about the talent in 757, and we work hard to recruit that talent,” London said. “But 804, 540, 703 are just as important to us. Those areas have a lot of talent, too.”
With so many talented prep athletes, Virginia has become a recruiting hotbed.
“Every school in the country comes hot and heavy into Virginia,” London said. “That speaks to the quality of the state’s athletes and the high level of high school coaching. But we want these players to stay home. We want high school coaches in all parts of the state to know their players are being evaluated and recruited by Virginia.”
EMBRACING THE CHALLENGES
Virginia’s schedule is one reason forecasters are pessimistic. It is a bear, beginning with the opening game Aug. 30 at home vs. the UCLA Bruins, ranked preseason Top 10 in the nation.
“No question our schedule is challenging,” said London. “We play a number of teams that went to bowl games last year. With Maryland leaving [for the Big Ten Conference], we inherit a very good Louisville team. But so many of our players are older, more experienced, more mature, so they are willing to embrace the challenges of playing against top competition. It is important to have that mindset.”
The regular season schedule concludes with a road trip to Blacksburg on Nov. 28, the Friday after Thanksgiving Day, to play archrival Virginia Tech, which has defeated Virginia 10 years in a row. The Cavaliers’ last win was in 2003, when they defeated the Hokies, 35- 21, in Charlottesville. London was a Virginia assistant coach under Al Groh that season, so that victory is a special memory.
London and his wife, Regina, have a more important reason to remember 2003 as a special year. That was the year London donated his bone marrow to save the life of their daughter, Ticynn, who was 7 years old and suffering from Fanconi anemia, a rare genetic blood disorder that causes bone marrow to fail.
Eleven years later, Ticynn is doing great, her father is happy to report. She graduated from high school (St. Anne’s-Belfield School) this past spring and will attend Old Dominion University.
“She wants to be a physical therapist because of the way the Johns Hopkins people took care of her when she was hospitalized,” London said. “It is a tremendous blessing to know where she was before, and to see where she is now with a chance to go on with her life.”
London’s experience with his daughter is why his players take part in an annual bone marrow registration drive to find matches for people who need a bone marrow transplant.
“I have had four players who have been a match, plus a video person and two students,” he said. “Their donations saved lives.”
Those were big wins for Mike London.
A former sports writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The Richmond News Leader, Steve Clark is a retired Richmond Times-Dispatch Metro News columnist. He can be reached at Steve@TheBoomerMagazine.com.