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STEVE DeSHAZO: Cavs’ London faces win-or-else season

GREENSBORO, N.C.—Mike London barely had settled into his (figuratively hot) seat Monday before the first question came at him like an unblocked blitzing linebacker.

What’s it going to take to keep your job as Virginia’s football coach?

No small talk, no pleasantries.

But when you’re coming off a 2–10 season in the biggest revenue-producing sport at a school where virtually every other athletic team

is wildly successful, the bluntness couldn’t have blindsided him.

“Last season was a very humbling season,” London said at the annual Atlantic Coast Conference Kickoff media event. “ I take things that happen hard and personally. I’m responsible. Behind closed doors, it’s something I have to deal with. There has to be an explanation: how we get it right, how we fix it. The ultimate responsibility lies with me.”

London is also a man of faith. Professionally, he’s putting his complete trust in the program he assembled, one whose talent level has far surpassed its performance.

His livelihood depends on it.

London is 18–31 in four seasons, including a 6–18 mark the past two years. And only one of his 10 losses in 2013 came by fewer than 10 points.

To be honest, he might not even be back this year if not for his recruiting acumen; two of the nation’s top 10 high school prospects last season (defensive tackle

Andrew Brown and safety Quin Blanding) matriculated in Charlottesville this summer. Their decisions alone may have bought their coach one more chance.

“I’m an eternal optimist about things,” London said. “I look at where we are and what we have, and I’m very optimistic. I know the league is better; I know our schedule is very challenging. But at the same time, I like our team.”

He doesn’t have much company. Media voters almost unanimously chose the Cavaliers to finish last in the ACC’s seven-team Coastal Division. That’s hardly a surprise for a team that lost its last nine games in 2013 and failed to win an ACC contest for the first time since 1981.

The skeptics see a defense that gave up more points (399) than any ACC squad, twice allowing 59 in a game. They see an undisciplined program that ranked 13th in the league in turnover margin and 12th in penalty yards—perhaps a trickle-down from a head coach whose game management has often drawn scrutiny.

They see a quarterback (Greyson Lambert) who hasn’t started a college game, whose most dependable target (Jake McGee) transferred and whose projected starting left tackle (Jay Whitmire) has a significant back issue. And they see a merciless schedule that features 10 bowl teams from 2013—one that could prevent even a vastly improved Virginia team from reaching the six wins needed to reach a bowl game and satisfy disgruntled alumni, many of whom have stopped attending games and threatened to withhold donations.

To a man, London’s players don’t share that disdain. Many of them consider their coach a father figure and feel a responsibility to him.

“Coach London looks out for us players,” senior running back Kevin Parks said. “He puts his players first. We’ve got to play harder for him and do everything within our will to win games for him and keep him around.”

London sees things differently than his critics. He sees a team that’s only now maturing after pressing youngsters into action out of necessity.

He cites 16 returning starters, including the nation’s interception leader in 2013 (safety Anthony Harris) and the ACC’s leading returning rusher (Parks).

He claims a second season under coordinators Steve Fairchild and Jon Tenuta should make his players significantly better as they play instinctively rather than thinking first.

“I believe we’re in a better state than we’ve ever been, because of our personnel,” London said.

He knows remarkable turnarounds are possible. Auburn went from 3–9 overall and 0–8 in the Southeastern Conference in 2012 to an unbeaten run to the national championship game after the 2013 season.

Virginia isn’t capable of that kind of 180 in 2014.

The Cavaliers open Aug. 31 with UCLA, a likely top-10 team, and also face Louisville, BYU, Florida State and Virginia Tech.

But if the Cavaliers don’t show significant progress this fall, they’ll be searching for a head coach for only the third time in the past 33 years.

“We’ve got to step our game up to our ‘A’ game,” Parks said. “If you see the teams we play, we’ve got to step up or we’ll get run right through.”

And his coach will get run out of town.

Steve DeShazo: 540/374-5443

sdeshazo@freelancestar.com

 

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