Virginia football players did their best to avoid the topic, but when the rumors and the lists of coaches on the hot seat became unavoidable, Mike London addressed his job security. It came in the form of a pregame locker room speech last November before the Cavaliers played Miami.
“Essentially he was saying his job was secure,” defensive tackle David Dean said. “He was here to stay, and he didn’t want us to focus on any of the talk that was happening with him.”
“Then we go out, and we smacked Miami,” wide receiver Canaan Severin said. “Maybe we should talk about it more often, to be honest with you.”
Athletic Director Craig Littlepage announced after that 30-13 win over the Hurricanes that London would return for the 2015 season, which will begin Saturday with a game at No. 13 UCLA. But the subject could come up again. London is entering his sixth season, and the Cavaliers have had a winning record just once in his tenure.
Patience for London to turn the program around could be expiring if Virginia doesn’t make a bowl appearance, something most of the Cavaliers have yet to experience. A difficult nonconference schedule that features three opponents ranked in the Associated Press preseason top 25 poll could bring scrutiny to London if the team struggles early, as most expect, and that bowl appearance could come down to going 5-3 in league competition.
“I spend and focus my time on the positive,” London said. “There’s a lot of negative that’s out there and there’s a lot of narratives that have been written and talked about, whether it’s scheduling or hot-seat issues or whatever it is. I talk about the positives of the scheduling being an opportunity and not about the players that left but the players that stayed.”
London compiled a 23-38 record during his first five years at Virginia, and he earned a berth to the Chick-fil-A Bowl during the 2011 season. But he has an 11-29 mark facing ACC teams, including 0-10 combined against rivals Virginia Tech and North Carolina.
The Cavaliers finished 5-7 overall and 3-5 in the ACC last season, a year after they went 2-10 overall and winless in the ACC, in which they lost by an average of 20.6 points per game. Beyond the obvious record bump, only two of the losses were by more than eight points, which made fans a mix of frustrated and hopeful. The crowds at Scott Stadium were the smallest in 20 years.
Dean and Severin said London’s job instability was a motivating factor last season, and it will be again this year.
“Going 2-10, I think people could see the fire in our belly going into last season trying to keep Coach London around,” Severin said. “We’re going to try to do the same thing and try to bring it up another level and bring it up another notch this upcoming year.”
The focus of most of fans’ frustration was the offense, which ranked 11th in the 14-team league in yards per game (374.2), 11th in points (25.8) and sixth in passing yards (236.4). London’s management of quarterbacks has been especially criticized; the position has been a revolving door for five seasons.
Six quarterbacks have transferred out of the program under his tenure. After Greyson Lambert was named the starter entering the season opener against UCLA last year, he was benched for Matt Johns before halftime. The two continued to split time last season, and though Lambert was thought to be the favorite to start this season, London named Johns the starter after spring practices, prompting Lambert to transfer to Georgia.
“My high school football coach said if you have two quarterbacks, you have no quarterback,” Severin said. “I do kind of believe that phrase. It worked somewhat well last year, though obviously not well enough to get the job done. I think it is good that Matt Johns is our guy and we’re going to stick with him no matter what. I think that is key. While I’ve been here, we haven’t really had that to a certain extent.”
The offense is committed to power running this season, but top running backs Taquan Mizzell and Daniel Hamm are largely unproved. A linebacker corps that was a strength of an experienced defense last year with 19 sacks will start all new pieces this year . Junior Zach Bradshaw is the most experienced with just one career start.
The Cavaliers are optimistic despite the outside doubt. Virginia was picked to finish last in the ACC Coastal Division, and the questions about London’s job security are unlikely to go away if the season trends in that direction.
“We like flying under the radar,” Dean said. “There’s no pressure. Now we can just go out and shock the world. I think a lot of teams like feeling like that, and it drives the team to be better. You kind of feel like there’s no one that believes in you, and that just kind of brings a team together more.”