Part 3: Faith, Family, Football
Coach Mike London's recruiting tactics have paid dividends among top in-state talent
“A father away from home”
Mike London inherited a fading program. When he came to Virginia in December 2009, head coach Al Groh’s nine-year tenure with the Cavaliers had culminated in a 3-9 season and a 42-13 loss to Virginia Tech in Charlottesville.
The coaching change had forced the team’s 2010 recruiting class to reconsider its future at the University, uncertain if one existed at all. Early in his tenure as coach, London addressed his inaugural freshman class as a group for the first time. He walked with confidence into the McCue Center, looked each anxious young man in the eye and told them that things would get better.
“He came and he was all fired up and excited and yelling and encouraging us,” said senior defensive end Jake Snyder, who was a three-star prospect from Deep Run High School in Glen Allen, Va. at the time. “I remember everybody leaving the meeting room with a big smile on their face because we felt like we knew this was gonna be a good thing. And it has been.”
One afternoon was all that London needed to replace uncertainty in the minds of his recruits with clarity and hope for a better future. His passionate, off-the-cuff remarks exemplified his remarkable ability to connect with young men on a personal level, a skill that has proven invaluable on the recruiting trail. It also helped ensure that much of his first recruiting class would remain committed to Virginia despite the coaching change.
“Young men want to play for people that have personalities and genuinely care for them,” London said. “When you got seven kids…man, I’ve got plenty of personality, from older all the way down to young.”
London had already become known as an excellent recruiter during his time as head coach at Richmond, where he led his alma mater to the 2008 Football Championship Subdivision title. It was the first national championship in any sport for the Spiders.
The landmark victory added to a lengthy list of football accomplishments for London, who spent much of his career in Virginia. He played at Bethel High School in Hampton, Va. and continued his career as a star defensive back at Richmond. London later signed with the Dallas Cowboys as an undrafted free agent in 1983, eventually returning to Richmond in 1988 to become the linebackers coach.
In 20 years as an assistant coach, London appeared on the sideline for William & Mary, Boston College and Virginia twice, as well as for the NFL’s Houston Texans in a one-year stint as linebackers coach. His vast experience in the Commonwealth area — particularly within the Virginia Beach area — has allowed London to make numerous connections locally and bolster his credibility among in-state recruits.
“He’s a good guy to talk to, a good guy to be around,” said Bayside High School coach Jon White, who has coached four current Cavaliers. “Then, on top of that the fact that he has the [luxury] of being down here, he’s a 757 guy, he went to Bethel High School. A lot of guys look at that and say ‘Okay, he knows a little bit about the area.’”
During his opening press conference as head coach at Virginia, London mapped out his blueprint for rebuilding the program. He wanted to institutionalize his core principles — go to class, show class and treat people with dignity and respect — and consistently communicate and market that vision to local recruits.
Counterintuitively, the program’s transformation began with prioritizing success off the field. In London’s very first semester at the University in the spring of 2010, the team’s cumulative grade point average was the highest it had been in a decade. London prides himself on his commitment to players’ well-being in all facets of life, and aspires to be far more than just a football coach to his players. He says his priorities — listed in order of their importance in his life — are faith, family and football.
“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. He’s a father away from home to some of these guys, and just having somebody that you can relate with on that level definitely makes it easier.”
That paternal aura has equipped London to sell recruits and their families on the Virginia football experience.
“Every recruit I’ve talked to that’s on a visit, picked up an offer or even just spoken to coach London talks about how enthusiastic he is and how great of an influence he is on their lives,” Rivals’ Mid-Atlantic Recruiting Analyst Adam Friedman said. “He kind of points kids in the right direction and makes sure that they’re high character people.”
While simultaneously improving the situation in Charlottesville, London wanted to erode Virginia Tech’s recruiting dominance in the state. Despite securing several high-profile prospects during Groh’s early years, Virginia lagged behind in later years. From 2006-08, the Cavaliers did not attract a single prospect ranked inside the Rivals Top 100.
London directed his efforts towards recapturing the state of Virginia through a persistent yet personable approach. With a simple message, London changed the program’s trajectory and set the stage for a flurry of top-rated Hampton Roads products to choose Virginia.
“My coaching stints have allowed me to recruit every area of this state,” London told Virginia Sports at the time. “And I know we’ve got to do a better job in recruiting the in-state players, but we’ll do that.”
London brought in fellow Hampton, Va. native Chip West to serve as cornerbacks coach and improve the team’s recruiting capabilities. West, whose high-energy style resembles that of London, had coached at James Madison and Old Dominion before arriving at Virginia. In their first season as an NCAA FCS program, the Monarchs finished 9-2 with West serving as recruiting coordinator and directing operations in the talent-rich Hampton Roads Area.
The Cavaliers have enjoyed unprecedented success recruiting in the Tidewater area since London and West united at Virginia. Since 2010, the number of players on the Virginia roster from the Hampton Roads area has doubled and the team’s recruiting rankings have steadily risen.
West was named ACC Recruiter of the Year in 2011 by 247Sports for his work in the Tidewater area. He was promoted to recruiting coordinator prior to the 2013 season, following a coaching shakeup which saw the dismissal of four coaches including previous recruiting coordinator Jeff Hanson.
When star Bayside senior safety Quin Blanding became the third five-star recruit to choose Virginia from the Hampton Roads area in a 12-month period, he called West “the best recruiter I know,” according to Bleacher Report. In an interview with the Cavalier Daily, Blanding credited the Cavalier coaching staff for making him feel comfortable with the program.
“I think all the coaches from the old coaching staff to the new coaching staff, I mean I think all them played a part,” Blanding said. “My recruiter Chip West, of course he was always down here at school to see me and I would always give him a call to check in — and my position coach, coach [Anthony] Poindexter, [wide receivers coach] Marques Hagans. [Defensive coordinator Jon] Tenuta when he first came in, on the first day of his job he came down to see me. I just love it.”
Blanding said the single biggest factor that led him to choose Virginia was London and his coaching staff. London, he said, is “one honest and real guy.”
“Virginia was my first offer so it was just like okay, I didn’t really go nowhere else but U.Va.,” Blanding said. “And I just saw all the love they showed me no matter when I came up and it was just like, ‘Dang, this can be somewhere I can play right off the bat.’”
This is the third installment of a four-part series detailing Virginia’s emergence as a recruiting powerhouse, particularly for prospects from the Virginia Beach area. Part four will explore the implications of the Cavaliers’ recent recruiting gains for the future of the program.