Part of the pleasure of sports is the nakedness of its emperors. The head football coach might be the highest paid employee at a university, but for him there is no such thing as tenure.
After a disappointing season, and another loss against rival Virginia Tech, Al Groh was fired and UVA hired Mike London from the University of Richmond. “It’s a special place because there’s so many things,” said London in his first press conference. “My daughter went to school here. My brother played here. I know a lot of people here. And it’s a fit, a perfect fit for me.”
Seven days after canning its 38th football head coach, Al Groh, the University of Virginia had already found No. 39: Mike London, a 49-year-old who for the past two years has led his alma mater, the University of Richmond, to an impressive 24-5 record and a Division I-AA national championship.
For ditching such success for UVA, London will get $1.7 million a year—less than Groh’s $2.2 million compensation, but enough to tie London with the men’s basketball coach for the honor of being UVA’s highest paid employee.
London is no stranger to Charlottesville. He served two stints at UVA during the Groh era, first as defensive line coach from 2001 to 2004, and as defensive coordinator in 2006 and 2007, with a couple years with the NFL’s Houston Texans sandwiched in between. In his introductory press conference last week, London said all the right things about academics and passion and championships.
“It’s a special place because there’s so many things,” said London. “My daughter went to school here. My brother played here. I know a lot of people here. And it’s a fit, a perfect fit for me.”
Beside him beamed Athletic Director Craig Littlepage. “One coach, just one, stood out among many excellent coaches as the search was in progress,” said Littlepage. “This coach stood out as a leader, teacher and coach.”
You can say this about Groh: He was tough to shake off, clawing onto the job for nine years. He only beat rival Virginia Tech once, but in his initial seasons, Groh was relatively successful (by Virginia’s standards) with four straight bowl berths from 2002 to 2005. Since 2006, however, the dramatic tension of each season concerned not bowls but Groh’s future, each year opening with embarrassing losses that stacked the odds against him, and each year winning improbably down the stretch to escape the axe. Groh had quite the Houdini act. But he finally took the act too far, starting with a loss to William and Mary and finishing a horrid 3-9 (earning Groh a $4.3 million going away present). As damning as Groh’s recent record was UVA fan attendance: Only 48,000 attended the average home game this season, the worst mark of the Al Groh era, down from roughly 54,000 in 2008 and roughly 60,000 in 2007. Rock bottom came October 31, when only 41,713 stalwarts showed up to watch UVA lose to Duke—heck, in 2005, 61,021 packed in for what was then the annual Duke drubbing.
To lure fans back to Scott Stadium, London will need to lure in talented high schoolers—who can also squeak through UVA admissions. Described repeatedly as a “players’ coach” by former Cavs like Chris Long and Brennan Schmidt, London is predicted to step up UVA’s in-state efforts, particularly in the Hampton Roads area from which London himself hails.
Many fans blame the high standards of the admissions office for the football program’s mediocrity, but at his press conference, London didn’t sound like a man who wanted to lower the bar.
“I will make winning a priority, but also by doing it the right way and also making sure that it’s O.K. to embrace the academic qualifications and expectations here at the University,” said London. “…It’s O.K. to attract those young men out there that want the best of both world opportunities—great academics and a chance to compete and play for championships.”
London becomes one of only four African Americans coaching football at a power conference. He acknowledged it as “a tremendous honor” but said the burden of the extra scrutiny was little compared to the scrutiny from his seven kids.
“I don’t even think about it when I’m coaching,” said London. “The players don’t. The coaches don’t. Because all that matters is how they’re playing, how I’m coaching them.” And whether you win, coach. There will be no way you forget about that.
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