Homecoming: If Virginia's Al Groh Is Out, Will Mike London Be In?

Ben GibsonSenior Analyst ISeptember 30, 2009

They always say you can't go home again, but it happens all the time in football.

Coaches return to their alma maters and some end up brilliantly, while others just plain end.

Al Groh, a Virginia alum and current head coach, is certainly part of the latter category.

Groh has had a front row seat for nine years to watch as the Virginia Cavalier football has fallen farther and farther into irrelevancy.  The current state of the program has reached such a low that appears that Groh already has one foot out the door as names start to be discussed as possible candidates.

One name that has consistently came up is a candidate who has already become a shining example of the former category.  

Mike London has already fulfilled a storybook ending in just a year-and-a-half as head coach of the University of Richmond Spiders.  The former defensive coordinator for the Cavaliers and Richmond alumni came in last season and helped lead the Spiders to their first national championship ever.

Richmond recovered from two heart-breaking losses earlier in the year to Villanova and James Madison to stage an amazing playoff run where the Spiders outscored their competition 116 to 50.

Of course, the biggest game in that postseason came with an absolutely thrilling 21-20 victory on the road against Northern Iowa in the semifinal game.  The Spiders trailed 20-7 going into the fourth quarter of the game and did not score the winning touchdown until there were 14 seconds left on the clock.

In other words, Richmond had learned from their tough losses earlier in the season and finally got a nail-biter to go their way. 

Now winning and Richmond has become virtually synonymous with one another.  The Spiders currently have a 13-game winning streak and are the top ranked team in the FCS. Virginia, by the way, is on a seven-game losing streak and is the only BCS team without a victory so far this season.

Mike London has done more in just one-and-a-half seasons than most coaches achieve in a lifetime.  No wonder, London has become one of those trendy names out there to replace Groh at the end of this season.

So will he?

On the surface, London and Virginia are a pretty strong couple.  London spent six years as defensive line and defensive coordinator for Virginia.  His own daughter transferred to play for the Virginia women's basketball team last season.

While there is an indescribable joy in coming back to your alma mater and building your program, Virginia represents not only a FBS program, but one in a BCS conference with the potential for tremendous growth.

London would undoubtedly love to come back to Virginia and help restore the ailing program someday, but would he leave now? 

The better question is: What does the Virginia administration think about such an idea?

London is a young and energetic coach.  He provides that spark Virginia football desperately needs for the fan-base that has lost faith and passion for the program. 

London is a figure people can rally behind, and his youth gives him the opportunity to build and lead the program for a long time.  He is cut from the same cloth as new Virginia basketball coach, 40-year old Tony Bennett, a former national coach of the year at Washington State.

London also has strong recruiting ties, particularly in the Hampton Roads area.  Virginia has struggled mightily to nab the top recruits in the Commonwealth, and if the Cavaliers have any chance of turning things around, it must start in-state.

It is no coincidence that in the three years London served as recruiting coordinator, Virginia had three classes ranked in the top-15 nationally.

However, being a great coach is more than just being able to recruit talented players.  While there is always a Jim Tressel out there that go from the FCS to the FBS and finds success almost immediately, it is still a difficult transition.

The truth is that hiring Mike London is a risk, no matter how you look at it. 

Is there a tremendous upside?  Certainly.

Is there a chance of failure? Of course.

I think most Virginia fans knew that London would get the phone call at some point, they just hoped it would be later on than this.

With less than two years of coaching experience, we have yet to see how much of Richmond's success is attributable to him or to the players he inherited from former coach Dave Clawson.

Strong safety Darryl Hamilton is the only starter on Richmond's squad that is not a senior or junior.  In fact, only 18 of the 54-man roster is composed of sophomores or freshmen.

Will Richmond still be a dominant CAA team when senior Eric Ward and seven other offensive starters graduate next year?

Most FBS programs would like the opportunity to see how London could handle those challenges, but necessity may never give them that chance.

In the end, Virginia knows that Mike London is a solid candidate and worth discussing.  His passion for the program and knowledge of it give him an edge in that interview room.  His potential is what makes his hire so interesting, but it is also why it is such a scary prospect for Cavalier fans.

If London returned to Charlottesville, he would be welcomed with open arms.  People would love to give him the chance to make things right, but they know that is going to be a tall task for any the most experienced coach.

Coming to Virginia comes with the understanding that this marriage is just as likely to lead to long-term bliss as it would a quick annulment.

Virginia football might be able to do better, but they also know that they could do far worse.


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