Coaching patience

Speculation that Mike London may be on the hot seat at Virginia is premature


Mike London’s reception at the 2013 ACC Football Kickoff in Greensboro, N.C. by the assembled media could best be likened to an indignant middle school student being viciously questioned simultaneously by his teacher, principal and superintendent for a crime he could hardly comprehend.

When London was not being asked to predict when Athletic Director Craig Littlepage would relieve him of his duties as head coach at the University, he was fielding questions about his team’s woeful lack of discipline last season, his decision to fire four assistant coaches this offseason and his inability to resurrect a flailing program since taking over in 2010.

Finally, after London had heard enough of “The Question” concerning the length of his professional leash, the fourth-year coach reminded reporters that he does not determine his own fate. That is the responsibility of Littlepage and others.

“You’ll have to ask other people that particular question,” London said. “I plan on being at Virginia for a long time.”

In college football, switching coaches is akin to declaring bankruptcy. You can come back from it, but it is likely to be a long, miserable process. Coaching changes create uncertainty in the minds of players and recruits and often jeopardize the long-term health of a program.

In the face of financial unease, the best approach is not to immediately mortgage the house, sell all possessions and rush to the nearest soup kitchen. The most effective remedy is usually honest self-evaluation, subtle adjustments and, if need be, long-term lifestyle changes.

While Littlepage has a lot of evidence to consider when making an evaluation of London’s first three years at the University, he must understand the tremendous cost a coaching change can inflict on a program. The only reason to reverse course after three years would be unmitigated failure, and London’s tenure has been far from that.

London is largely beloved by players, who use phrases like “father figure” to describe him. He has improved the team’s academic standing and reduced the frequency of disruptive off-field incidents. He has increased the program’s national exposure by scheduling a difficult non-conference slate in 2013.

Under his leadership, Virginia has become the only school to secure verbal commitments from two of Rivals’ top-10 prospects in the class of 2014 — Quin Blanding and Andrew Brown. If London were dismissed, the program would likely lose much of the gains it has made in recruiting prowess.

“You talk about coach London, he’s a great coach, he’s a player’s coach,” senior offensive tackle Morgan Moses said. “He takes care of his players, he looks out for them, but also he’s one of those guys that you can go talk to him about anything and he won’t look at you in any way.”

Make no mistake: London has been far from perfect as head coach at Virginia. He flubbed a timeout call that any 6-year-old playing Madden would have made correctly without hesitation against Virginia Tech last season. He institutionalized a quarterback guessing game that has introduced more uncertainty and upheaval than an Agatha Christie novel. And maybe most importantly, he has amassed a pedestrian 16-21 record in his three seasons at the University.

The on-field product took a drastic step back last season after Virginia was selected to play in the Chick-fil-A Bowl in 2011. Post-whistle penalties, quarterback inconsistencies, an inability to create turnovers and, of course, Timeout-gate were just some of the lowlights from a dismal season that culminated in a pair of high-profile departures by quarterbacks Michael Rocco and Phillip Sims.

But the Virginia football program appears to be reaching a fork in the road rather than a full-on crisis, with perennial ACC bottom-dweller status in one direction and a steady rise into Coastal Division contention and national relevance in the other. It is too early to tell which direction the program is headed — optimists and skeptics alike having plenty of facts to choose from when making a prediction.

However, the “make or break” label that has been placed on London by some seems to be incongruent with the state of Cavalier football. London’s seat is certainly getting warmer, but to invoke the words Mark Twain, the reports of London’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.

The long-term answer to “The Question” about London’s job security will hinge on whether recent struggles on the field or accomplishments off it are more indicative of future results.

“The commitment to the facilities, the scheduling, just all those things I think kind of fit into — we want and expect more for ourselves,” London said. “We want to play smart, we want to be tough and we want to play aggressive. I think if you can do those things, you give yourself an excellent chance to be successful on the field.”

The direction of the program may not become clear for some time, at least until London has personally brought in each player on the roster, which will occur after the 2014 season — his original freshman class was recruited primarily by former coach Al Groh. Only then will London be fully responsible for the roster construction, and the subsequent results on the field.

“I think momentum is very important, in a game and in a season and in a program, and our program is building the momentum,” senior defensive end Jake Snyder said. “We had a little bit of a setback last year but that’s not gonna stop us. We’re gonna keep this thing rolling.”

With outstanding recruiting success, an unwavering commitment to the right priorities and a stellar season on the field in 2011 mixed in, London has built up enough capital at Virginia to avoid bankruptcy as coach for the near future. For a program in need of a smart investment, it is not time to sell London short.

related stories