It's hard to tell whether the "whew" Mike London exhaled into the microphone at the outset of his introductory press conference Monday at Virginia was meant to be a sigh of relief after a head-spinning 48 hours or a realization of what he has just taken on.
Either way, he made it clear before a room full of media, former U.Va. players, boosters and athletic department personnel he was ready for the challenge of turning around a program that has endured losing seasons in three of the last four years.
It's why London, a 49-year-old Bethel High graduate, decided to leave a perfectly comfortable situation as Richmond's coach to return to a place where he already had served six seasons as an assistant coach under recently fired coach Al Groh.
With his wife, Regina, and four of his seven children seated in the front row, London spoke of his primary goals, which included restoring excitement in the program, graduating players and recapturing the attention of in-state recruits.
"I am a product of — and I'll use it as the kids say — the '757,'" said London, who was U.Va.'s defensive-line coach from 2001 to '04, and defensive coordinator in '06 and '07.
"To make sure that we connect with the high school area coaches here in the state of Virginia. This is a great place. My coaching stints have allowed me to recruit every area of the state, and I know we've got to do a better job in recruiting the in-state players, but we'll do that. I think I want the high school coaches to know that if Virginia hasn't been there, we'll be there — and if you have a player you want to recommend to us, then we'll evaluate and we'll listen."
London, who led Richmond to the Football Championship Subdivision national title last season and to the FCS quarterfinals this season, agreed to a five-year contract worth $1.7 million annually. While he still has big decisions to make regarding his coaching staff, the decision already has been made to keep one assistant coach from Groh's staff — defensive-backs coach Anthony Poindexter.
It was London's level of awareness of U.Va.'s core values — as well as athletic director Craig Littlepage's familiarity with London's coaching abilities and personality — that made London such an attractive candidate. In essence, he was the only candidate.
During a meeting with the team Nov. 29, the same day Groh was fired, Littlepage asked members of the team for the attributes they sought in their next coach. An image of London appeared in Littlepage's head as the team spoke.
"I was making eye contact with (U.Va. executive associate athletic director) Jon (Oliver), who was in the back of the room, as (the team) started to go through this list," said Littlepage, who confirmed he asked Richmond for permission Sunday to speak with London and worked through the afternoon to close the deal.
"It was almost like we were checking off (London).
"He doesn't know this, but there have been a lot of athletic directors who have asked me about him. I was hoping they wouldn't hire him (so that) maybe one day we'd have this sort of predicament."
London, who attended Tabb High before graduating in '79 from Bethel High, already has a lot of plans for changes in Charlottesville — not the least of which will be switching U.Va. from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defensive alignment, which he employed at Richmond.
U.Va. defensive end Matt Conrath said he welcomes the challenge of working in the 4-3, as he has experience playing both interior and outside positions on the line from his high school days. Conrath, a Chicago native, was recruited by London when London was a U.Va. assistant.
On Monday, London met with his U.Va. players for the first time. Conrath was impressed with what he heard from his new coach.
"It was just his energy that he brings," Conrath said. "He's a very passionate guy, and you can see that through the way he coaches. It's still the same coach London (as the one that recruited him). He genuinely cares about people. You can see that. It just shows."
Chris Slade, a Tabb High graduate and U.Va.'s all-time sacks leader with 40, stood in the wings watching London's press conference. Slade, who just finished his first season as a sideline reporter for U.Va.'s football radio network, was optimistic the addition of London could help the Cavaliers make inroads in recruiting in the state, particularly in the Hampton Roads area.
"I'm a little biased because I'm a Tidewater guy, so I think that's an area where we really need to get some of the top players," Slade said. "You know, the Tyrod Taylor's of the world that skip right on past Charlottesville and head to Blacksburg. We need to get those types of players here. The relationship that Coach London already has with a lot of those coaches on the Peninsula, like the (Hampton coach) Mike Smith's of the world, I think it's really going to help a lot."
Aaron Brooks, a Ferguson High graduate who played quarterback at U.Va. from 1995-98, said he had spoken to several friends from the Hampton Roads area about London's hiring. The overwhelming response has been positive.
"There's optimism amongst the guys I've talked to," Brooks said. "What comes out of a lot of those conversations is that Coach London is a guy who we all feel that can really bring some change in that area in terms of getting some of those athletes to come to the University of Virginia. By the same token, it's not as easy as one may think just to recruit kids. Obviously, we have (high academic) standards."
London won't need a road map to find his way around the high schools in Hampton Roads. He recruited the area as an assistant coach at Richmond ('89 and '90), William and Mary ('91 to '94) and U.Va., and as Richmond's coach. Now, he realizes the relationships he has cultivated in the area over the years will have to be put to good use.
"We're committed to being down there and being accessible and calling and talking to Coach Smith and (Landstown coach) Tommy Reamon and (Bethel coach) Jeff Nelson — any of the guys that are down there," London said. "They know the talent. They know what's going on down there. Sometimes you've got to utilize the coaches' knowledge of the area, particularly the ones that have been around a while and can say 'Hey, that guy's a player.'
"I'm looking forward to getting back down there, getting my hands in it, going to get a meal with Wilson and Mae London [his parents] and see the various schools around the area."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times