Firing squad: Writers unleash on embattled UVA football coach Mike London
The first question for UVA football coach Mike London at the 2014 ACC Football Kickoff in Greensboro on Monday was sort of friendly fire, from long-time daily progress sports columnist and London supporter Jerry Ratcliffe.
What do you think you’ve got to do this year, Ratcliffe asked London, still getting settled at the big, round table surrounded by writers, to keep your job?
Some friendly fire, that.
“First of all, it’s about an opportunity here to coach this team. My focus is on coaching the team to 100 percent of my ability,” said London, bringing to mind his predecessor, Al Groh, whose own death spiral played out in front of largely the same media horde.
The Groh era ‘Hoos had losing seasons in three of his last four campaigns. London’s teams have had losing seasons in three of his four years since, including a historically bad 2-10 record in 2013.
“Last season was a very humbling type of season,” London continued his answer to Ratcliffe’s first question. “This season, as I look, and we progress, and we move forward, it’s about being hungry for the season. There’s always a fear about the lack of objectivity, but one of the things that I do know is that for this year’s team, there’s 17 returning starters, there’s nine starters on defense returning, there’s seven starters on offense returning, the kickers are returning. kevin parks is the leading returning ACC ground gainer.”
London then talked about having two quarterbacks with experience under center in college, last season’s starter, David Watford, and Greyson Lambert, who was named this spring to be the #1 man at QB.
“What I see is a team that’s unified, I see a team that is older, and a team that expects, and that I expect, and we all expect, performance from,” London said. “So as far as looking at what needs to be done and how it needs to be done, again the focus for me is to put a team together out there that’s very competitive, and I believe that we will be competitive. And then at the end of the season we can speak to the outcomes.”
But that was just the first question, and as it turned out, we weren’t done talking about outcomes, anywhere near it.
The next question took the form of delving into concerns that London might have that the negative talk about the program and the coach’s future could have on his players.
“My focus is just on this team. I can’t help what’s being said and what’s being written,” London said, inviting the writers to talk to players about how they’re tuning out the noise, and then hearing back that the two players representing Virginia at the ACC Football Kickoff, kevin parks and Anthony Harris, made it clear that they’re not tuning out the talk that their coach is on the hot seat, and are in fact are motivated to play harder to try to make sure their coach and mentor keeps his job.
“There’s obvious, and there’s what we need to take care of. All I’m focusing on is what we need to take care of, and that’s the play on the field and the performance on the field,” London said in response to that shared observation. “Those players that came in and are coming to join us, a few of them will have the opportunities to help us win. But the ones that are already here, and I believe there are 55 lettermen, guys that have played overall, there are a lot of guys who have played in college football games, they’re going to have to step up and play. I feel confident that they’ll be able to do that and help us win this season.”
Ratcliffe came back with a change-of-pace question referencing Auburn, which last year played in the national title game after finishing last in the SEC a year before. Does London look at what Auburn did in 2013 and say, Why not us?
“Last year, six seniors total, four playing, and then going to 22 seniors, having experience, with your wide receiver group, with your quarterbacks, with your running backs … defensively, with the nine returners back, that Eli Harold is second among the returning pass rushers in the ACC, that six of the defensive backs that we have on the squad currently have played in 112 games, which is first in the ACC and second in the country. So there’s an experience and a depth level to a team that can perform better, with systems and coordinators that are here for the second year,” London said.
“That’s all part of the process here. We’re older, we’re unified, and there is an expectation of performance. So not knowing what Auburn’s situation was particularly, I believe that we’re in a better situation to be as good as we’ve ever been because of where we are, with the type of people that we have coming back and playing for us,” London said.
Doug Doughty of the Roanoke Times was next, asking London what athletics director Craig Littlepage and assistant athletics director John Oliver have indicated to him that they expect to see in terms of improvement in the program in 2014.
“Without getting into specifics, the obvious of playing better. You can’t go 2-10. The expectation of playing better. The commitment level from all of us to perform better,” London said. “Any organization, any team, needs and expectation of getting better. And I believe, and I have faith in our players, I have faith in the schemes and the systems that we’re running, I have faith in the things we’re doing in order to get us to that level. It’s about the progress of the program, about where we are, and getting better. That’s my focus.”
David Teel of the Daily Press asked London if he’s looked back to what the program did right in 2011, when Virginia went 8-5 and played in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, and what it has done wrong since in going a combined 6-18 in 2012 and 2013, and what needs to be done to get back to where things were three years ago.
London started his response by talking about spending some time visiting college and NFL coaches to see what they do to run their operations. Then he looked back at 2011, pointing out that the 8-5 season that ended with him being named ACC Coach of the Year and getting a big contract extension was the success that it was in large part because it did the little things right.
“In 2011, we won four games on the last play of the game, and it all boils down to a couple of plays. This past season, we lose five games by a total of 20 points, and so it boils down to a few plays once again,” London said. “The point for us being an older team and a more experienced team is getting to that point in the game where the critical element, the lack of the mental lag, the lack of the missed assignment, is one because of experience we know, we execute, and we’re on the other end of those plays that have gone against us.
“That’s how I view this team and the process of where we are. Keep getting good players, keep giving good players opportunities to play, keep getting better and getting acclimated to the coordinators’ schemes and systems, me doing a better job. It’s a process that all of us as we move along have to get better at. That’s been the focal point.”
Last question in this opening barrage was from Teel, who asked London if he felt betrayed by his bosses for the brutal schedule that they’ve given him in 2014, opening with a consensus Top 10 team in UCLA and a September road game at BYU in addition to a grueling ACC slate with a game at Florida State, a home tilt against new ACC foe Louisville and the usual suspects like UNC, Georgia Tech, Miami and Virginia Tech.
London paused a beat before answering.
“I look at the schedule, I see the schedule. I also approve parts of the schedule. And I embrace the schedule. And that’s what I’ll say about that,” London said.
Just short of nine minutes in, then, the focus turned to Xs and Os, player health, schemes and the football stuff that the other 13 coaches working the media room had to get through before their days were done.
– Column by Chris Graham