Sunday, September 05, 2010

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Vital performance from UVa in London's debut

CHARLOTTESVILLE -- He entered the postgame interview room, sat down, wiped his bald head with a towel and let out a sigh.

For Mike London, this was all a relief. That after all the hand shakes and well-wishes and recruiting trips and alumni speaking engagements, his first game as Virginia's coach had finally come. That the Cavaliers had played well. That they'd won.

Most of all, that it was no longer all about him.

London was ready to move on the minute the whistle blew to end UVa's 34-13 victory over Richmond, away from the profiles about his days as a cop or his successes at Richmond and instead toward the future, where the spotlight shines on the team alone.

For that reason, the players did nothing special to commemorate London's debut win. No game balls. No cooler dumps. No chants.

"No," defensive tackle Nick Jenkins said. "Coach London is the type of coach, he's most excited for his players. I think what we did tonight, going out there and getting a win, is all he wants from us."

They couldn't have given him a much better entrance. From the first play from scrimmage, when little tailback Perry Jones broke free for 38 yards, to the fourth and final smashmouth touchdown run from Keith Payne, the Cavaliers played with effort and toughness and efficiency.

And there's just no way to overstate how vital that was. A crowd of 54,146 that included a packed student section -- "Awesome, wasn't it?" London said of the fan support --showed up for this one, and they needed to see something like what they saw.

"It was really important to come out and at least be representative of a team that's trying to improve," London said. "We're not world-beaters or anything like that, but I think what we're trying to do do is to show that after all the other areas we've improved -- we've improved academically, we've improved socially -- if we could just take one quarter at a time and play a game where we don't self-destruct and show that we can score points and show that we can play a little defense, then that's the improvement that we're looking for."

London arrived as emotional as advertised. The crowd roared at one point when he hauled in an errant sideline pass from Richmond quarterback Aaron Corp and impulsively spiked it on the turf.

Later, as Chase Minnefield ran a critical interception across midfield down the UVa sideline, there was London running right alongside him, waving his arms with excitement.

"I might not do that again," London said with a smile. "I think I got a charley horse."

If that's the worst thing that happens, he'll take it. And he'll also take a performance like Saturday's from quarterback Marc Verica every week. The senior directed the pro-style offense masterfully, piling up a career high 283 yards on 24-of-35 passing. He eclipsed last season's total for passing yards (156) by halftime.

Best of all, he avoided the poor decisions that had plagued him in the past, allowing the team to sustain drives.

When it ended, London ran off the field to the cheers of lingering fans, then headed for a locker room celebrating its first opening-day win since 2005.

He allowed himself one moment of self-indulgence.

"I promised them I'd do a little dance for 'em," London said. "So that's what I did."

Later, when players were asked to describe how the dance looked, several said they never actually saw it. There were too many arms in the air, they said, too much excitement in the dressing room to get a clear view.

London probably would like to hear that. Because if he has his way, we'll be watching that mass of youngsters from now on -- not him.

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