Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Tech's success spurs Virginia

The pipeline from the state's most fertile recruiting ground has gone straight to Blacksburg for much too long, the UVa people say.

CHARLOTTESVILLE -- He spoke for 53 minutes and never said the two key words.

Mike London didn't need to. They hung in the air here Monday afternoon, as he was introduced as the new football coach at the University of Virginia. They drove the quick and decisive search process of athletic director Craig Littlepage.

They helped get Al Groh fired, and they almost assuredly got London hired.

The two words?

Virginia Tech.

They talk a lot about standards here in Charlottesville. Academic standards, character standards, performance standards. But the standard that matters most to the UVa football program at this juncture is the one being set two hours away by the Hokies.

It's a standard of winning in the ACC, and it's fueled by recruiting the top in-state talent.

"We've got to beat our rivals," former UVa quarterback Aaron Brooks said a few minutes after London finished speaking. "We do that, everything else will take care of itself."

He's right, you know. Since joining the ACC, the Hokies have made it easy for UVa football to see where it stood. The first goal is to catch them by winning the battles in the living rooms; the next is to overtake them on the field.

Easier said than done, but that's why London is here. London is not a schemes genius or a sexy name. His hiring is not going to lead "SportsCenter" or force Notre Dame to move down its list of candidates.

But none of that matters. What matters is he is a Virginian, a self-described "7-5-7" guy who grew up in Hampton and just departed Richmond, a man who knows the lay of the land in this state. That's why UVa gave him $1.7 million annually over five years and turned him loose a week after jettisoning Groh.

"The Tyrod Taylors of the world that skip right on past Charlottesville and head to Blacksburg?" former UVa linebacker and Newport News native Chris Slade said. "We need to get those type of players here."

London has a plan to do it. To his credit, he didn't shy away from the academic demands of UVa. He spoke about finding the guys who want the best of both worlds -- a valuable degree and a high-level football experience. He's determined to try to lure them in a way his predecessor never did.

London said it's all about relationships, not only with the prospects themselves but also with the people who shape them. Parents. High school coaches. Even Pee Wee coaches. The only way to earn their trust, he said, is to become visible to them. Reach out.

"If you haven't been in their communities, then why would they come to yours?" London said. "So there's a lot of work to do. But we'll be hard at work in making sure we get that corrected."

No other candidate who had been mentioned -- realistically or not -- during this hiring process would bring the immediate in-state recruiting credibility that London will. Given that, Littlepage could look past London's relative inexperience as a head coach. He could shrug off the fact that most of Richmond's players, who surged to a 24-5 record and a Division I-AA title under London the past two years, were recruited by somebody else.

The pipeline from the state's most fertile recruiting ground has gone straight to Blacksburg for much too long, the UVa people say.

"When it comes to the Tidewater area, he's the guy you have to think of first," Slade said of London. "Because he played at Bethel High School, went to Tabb High School before that, which is where I went ... He has the pedigree of being a Peninsula guy."

London also had the reputation of being a Groh guy, which gave many UVa fans pause. But there is no discipleship here. London said he plans to run a 4-3 defense, something Groh wouldn't do. He plans to allow his assistants to speak publicly, something Groh wouldn't do.

And when asked about his connection to the former coach, London was respectful of Groh but drew a clear line between them.

"I'm looking to provide my own mark and do my own things and make my own way," he said.

The former players on hand Monday liked that about him. And even if London never mentioned the key words, they did.

"I'm deeply involved into the football program because I want the best and I want success," said Brooks, who retired from the NFL in 2007 "But most of all, I want to beat the Hokies. And I think he's the guy to understand that rivalry and get this done."

The Cavs are counting on it.

Weather Journal

News tips, photos and feedback?
Sign up for free daily news by email