By Zach Berman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 8, 2009
CHARLOTTESVILLE -- During a meeting on the day Al Groh was fired, Virginia's top two athletic department officials asked the returning players on the Cavaliers' football roster what they sought in a head coach. As players relayed those wishes -- a personal relationship, someone who can inspire and provide passion -- Athletic Director Craig Littlepage locked eyes with Executive Associate Athletics Director Jon Oliver.
"It was almost like we were checking off the person seated to my right," Littlepage said Monday at a news conference to introduce Mike London as Virginia's newest football coach.
London received a five-year contract worth $1.7 million per season and will receive a $2 million allotment to pay assistant coaches.
London, a former Cavaliers assistant who spent two seasons coaching Richmond, was assured that the resources for a successful program were in place during conversations Sunday, the day after the Spiders' season concluded with a division I-AA quarterfinal loss to Appalachian State.
Littlepage, who was in Tampa during the latter portion of last week for the ACC championship game, requested permission to speak with London on Sunday morning. They had "very anxious hours" throughout Sunday and reached an agreement Sunday night.
"This is a situation where having known this gentleman and having worked alongside of him and having respected him as a coach and a person, there wasn't a lot of interviewing that had to be done," Littlepage said.
London, who described his past few days as a "whirlwind," said he has had ambitions of leading a Bowl Championship Series conference school and playing for a championship. He also described Virginia, where his brother played and eldest daughter attended, as the right fit.
All of London's college coaching experience has been at schools with demanding academics, including Virginia, Richmond, William & Mary and Boston College. He said he will "embrace" Virginia's academic qualifications and expectations, and believes the program can succeed even with the school's restrictions.
"If you just want to play football and, okay, I think I might get an education, this is probably not the place for you," London said. "If you just want to get a great education and I think I'll play a little football, this is probably not the place for you. But if you want the best of both world opportunities, this is the place for you."
London placed an emphasis on recruiting the state of Virginia, which has been a source of criticism during Groh's tenure. He specifically mentioned the Tidewater region -- London is a Hampton Roads native -- and said that Virginia must win back the "757."
He met with his new players for the first time after the news conference, explaining his ambitions of playing for a championship. Many in the room already knew London, having played for him or been recruited by him.
"He's a hell of a guy, and he's the same on the field as he is off the field," said Virginia sophomore defensive tackle Nick Jenkins, who was recruited by London out of Good Counsel and played for London during his redshirt season. "He has all that. Great leader. Great coach. Great with his players. Very family oriented."
Jenkins said London was the coach the players wanted. Oliver said both former and current players recommended London by name. Athletic administrators always keep a short list, Oliver said, and London had been high on that list throughout the autumn. His experience at Richmond only enhanced what they already knew.
"He's a CEO" now, Oliver said.
But winning the news conference counts only so much, and London still must alleviate skepticism about the jump from division I-AA to the ACC and his associations with Groh. Littlepage said Virginia's familiarity with London trumped any concern about lack of experience.
And though London expressed appreciation toward Groh for providing him an opportunity as a young assistant, he also distanced himself from his predecessor -- going as far as confirming that the Cavaliers will switch from a 3-4 defense to a 4-3 defense -- while subtly mentioning what is believed to be the primary difference between the new and the old.
"I'm my own person," London said. "I think if the players and the head coach have a relationship that's really special or that we're both on the same page in terms of understanding the expectations in the classroom and on the field, then I think that makes for something special. So, I'm looking to provide my own mark and do my own things and make my own way."