As Mike London begins his first season as Virginia’s head coach, he faces a daunting list of challenges. He inherits a team that went 2-6 in the ACC and finished last season with a 3-9 overall record. Last year’s top passer, the top four rushers and three of the four leading receivers are gone. Defensively, the Cavaliers have lost three of their six leading tacklers. Plus, the schedule is tough, including seven opponents that went to bowl games last year.
None of this seems to bother the charismatic new coach in the least. London is excited not only for this season, but also for the bigger picture as he begins to rebuild and redefine the football program.
What’s the one message that you’d like to send as you begin your first season as coach?
I can’t do this by myself. We need the support of alumni, fans and students. I was here before and I know how it was when it was good. You see a fan support system that’s as good as anywhere else in the country. And you see where it’s tailed off. The first thing I did in talking to the players was try to get them out of the mindset of “Man, are we ever going to be any good?” You know what? Yes we are. We’re going to be good, because we’re going to recruit the type of student-athletes that can help us win. We’re going to do things in the community. We’re going to reconnect with high school coaches in the state of Virginia. I’ve been traveling and spreading the message to different alumni groups about the new vision, about the new energy.
How would you sum up your vision?
Availability, accessibility and inclusion—whether you’re a high school coach or a fan who feels like you’re disconnected with the program. I took the assistant coaches out in a bus and we traveled to the four corners of the state. We got out there; people asked us questions and we talked. We went down to Old Dominion to hold a practice and a coaches’ clinic there. At the VAF events and functions I traveled to, I used the words “regenerate, rejuvenate, reinvest”—and if there was another R word, I would use another R word. I am just trying to get people back involved and excited about us.
Your staff includes a number of former Virginia players. What do those ties to the program’s past add to the equation?
There are six former players from different eras. They played here when we had good seasons. They’ve tasted victory. They’ve tasted what it feels like to have people supporting the program 100 percent. And they know what it’s like to be a student-athlete here.
What kind of on-field differences do you think fans will notice right away?
Our style of play will be fast and aggressive—something that people can appreciate and cheer for. There will be a different style of defense, going from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defense. We’ve tried to utilize personnel that make us faster on the field. We’re going from last year’s spread offense to a style that’s more conventional. We’ll be adding a fullback and tailback, bringing the tight end back into the passing game. We’ll protect the quarterback, which allows you to throw deep. I think we have some skilled receivers. I hope the fans will see the difference, obviously, in the systems, and I hope they’ll see a difference with guys playing faster.
As you begin your tenure here, what are you most concerned about, and what are you most excited about?
I’ve lost about 10 to 12 players since December because of their lack of appreciation for the academic expectations here and not appreciating the behavioral rules and regulations that I have here. But at the same time, the players that are here understand my expectations of them both on and off the field. This past semester, we had the highest cumulative GPA in the last 10 years.
The rule is: Go to class, show class, treat people with dignity and respect. I believe that there’s a correlation between being successful in the classroom by being a self-starter and success on the football field.
My first official recruiting class is one that I’m very, very excited about. If we just keep doing what we’re doing, then I think we’ll be very competitive. I don’t know how long that’s going to take, because you’ve got to bring those players in, and you’ve got to keep emphasizing the message and the expectations. But if you talk to the players here and you ask how they like what’s going on, I would venture to say you’d hear that they love the energy; they love the excitement; they love the coaches; they love what’s happening right now.
What would you like the distinguishing characteristics of this program to be under your leadership?
Virginia football is about getting it done in the classroom and on the field. This is a school that is among the best of all colleges academically. We’d like to also earn the reputation of being a very good team that can produce championships. That’s the ultimate goal. This is a different school. It’s a special school. Guys are proud about their academic accomplishments, but we want to also couple that with the days when guys like Shawn Moore and Anthony Poindexter were playing. I’d like to be able to look back and say we got Virginia football back to where it used to be.
I think people understand that it’s a process that’s going to take time, but I think if you go out and you ask people—other high school coaches, people in the community, the players now, alumni—I feel pretty comfortable in saying there is a buzz about Virginia football right now.
Virginia by the Numbers
1 National championship won by Mike London at the University of Richmond in 2008
3 Offensive coordinators in the last three seasons
6 Returning starters on offense
6 Returning starters on defense
14 Former Cavaliers who have played in the NFL Pro Bowl
17 Bowl games played since 1982, fourth-most in the ACC
20 Career field goals made by placekicker Robert Randolph, out of 23 attempts
52 Virginia’s 2009 ranking in total defense among 120 Division I schools
73 Yards rushing last season by Torrey Mack, the team’s leading returning rusher
92 Tackles by linebacker Steve Greer last year, the most by a first-year player since Darryl Blackstock in 2002
118 Virginia’s 2009 ranking in total offense among 120 Division I schools
1,204 Football games played by Virginia, the most by any ACC school
Two players to watch
“Coming out of spring practice, Marc Verica was the best quarterback,” says coach Mike London. Indeed, Verica has shown flashes of brilliance during his career—in 2008 he joined Matt Schaub as the only Virginia quarterbacks to string together six straight games of at least 200 yards passing. But he’s also struggled at times, throwing 17 career interceptions vs. eight touchdown passes.
Dowling leads a veteran secondary that helped Virginia finish last season ranked 21st nationally in pass defense. With eight career interceptions and 36 pass breakups, he is on the preseason watch list for the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, awarded to the nation’s best defensive player. “Ras-I Dowling will be, arguably, one of the top 10 picks in next year’s draft,” says London.