A Former Police Detective, Mike London Makes Mark as Richmond Coach

The Post's Les Carpenter reports from Richmond's new football stadium, where coach Mike London brings his unique life experiences to coaching at his alma mater. Video by Atkinson & Co.
By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 1, 2009

RICHMOND -- In an alley, on the south side of town, Mike London is sure he is about to die.

It is the late 1980s, and for three years, London has been a detective on the Richmond Police Department's street crimes unit, hunting the Southside Strangler and chasing drug dealers. At a time when the city's murder rate climbed as high as third in the nation, the former University of Richmond defensive back has proven particularly adept at running down criminals in neighborhoods of broken lives and sputtering gunfire. His sergeant has noted that he has a brilliant future with the police.

But on this night something is wrong. The van he is pursuing -- containing suspects in the robbery of a fast food restaurant -- has whipped into an alley that London does not recognize. After trapping the van with his car, London climbs out holding his badge aloft. Suddenly the van's driver attempts to break away, sending the van lurching toward London. Instinctively, he runs to the van's window and reaches in to turn off the ignition.

This is when London sees the gun in the driver's hand. It is pointed at his head.

He hears the unmistakable click of a finger pulling a trigger.

Then nothing.

So what do you do when you get another chance at your life? When the gun that was supposed to kill you never fires? Twenty years later, Mike London sits in his office, the head football coach at the University of Richmond, telling this story, wondering what it was that saved him that night. Did the gun malfunction? Was it empty all along? He will never know. By the time the van was finally stopped and its occupants arrested, the gun had been thrown away. The workers in the fast food restaurant were too terrified to testify. And the people in the van were minors. Without a gun or witnesses, prosecutors had little to work with.

And that's when London realized he didn't want to be a police officer anymore.

"I was going to catch bad guys," London says. "Then here I was the victim and nothing was going to happen to them."

Given a second chance at life, Mike London decided to become a football coach. He called Dal Shealy, his former coach at Richmond, who helped get him a job coaching outside linebackers at his alma mater. Thus began a two-decade expedition that took him from Richmond to William & Mary, back to Richmond, then the New York Jets, Boston College, Virginia, the Houston Texans and back to Virginia. Until, finally, last year, he returned to Richmond, a head coach for the first time.

In a small lobby outside London's office door sits the division I-AA national championship trophy his team won last season. Beside it rests one of three national coach of the year awards he received after one of the greatest head coaching debut seasons ever.

In a matter of months, London went from being a largely anonymous assistant coach to one of those names raised every time a head coaching job opens at one of the big schools. At 48, he has the right mix of youth and experience that alumni and athletic directors crave. The black coaches' association has him on a short list of candidates to consider, and with just seven African American coaches among the 120 division I-A schools, it seems only a matter of time before London makes it eight.

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