Mae London learned early on just how important football was to her son Mike. All she had to do was observe his passionate demonstrations revolving around the game.
When Mike was 7 years old, and the London family was living in Hawaii, she remembers how upset it made him when he found out he couldn't play youth league football until he was 8. After he started playing, it didn't take long before he was talking about the game as if it was some kind of life-giving force.
"He used to say he could smell the ball wherever it was," Mae said. "He loved the game of football. He always has. He's at ease with himself, and I think that's why he makes other people around him and young men at ease around him."
As Mike gets set to begin his first season as Virginia's coach, one of the primary goals in his life continues to be promoting the game every way possible, but his audience is different these days. Mom still listens, but London wants his enthusiasm and his message to be absorbed by another generation, too.
Thus far, it appears he's achieving that end.
After a spring and summer devoted to re-establishing U.Va.'s recruiting lines in Hampton Roads, Richmond and Northern Virginia, the Cavaliers are heading into the season with 20 commitments for their 2011 recruiting class. Eight of the commitments are from Northern Virginia, Washington, D.C. and Maryland, six are from Hampton Roads and four are from the Richmond and Petersburg areas.
What's the message? It's one that he believes is unique to the environment in which he works building the well-rounded student-athlete.
"The message is an academic message, plus an athletic opportunity," said London, a Bethel High graduate whose team will open Sept. 4 against Richmond, his previous employer. "So far, I think things are resonating with a lot of young men and parents. We'll continue to do that. Virginia has had an academic reputation for a long, long, long time. The opportunity to come here and play and be a part of something and build something is what we have to sell. So far, it seems like it's working."
He has witnesses to testify for how much his approach is making headway. Hampton High quarterback David Watford, a U.Va. commitment, said London could be the world's most successful car salesman if had chosen that line of work. Phoebus High linebacker Caleb Taylor, another U.Va. commitment, said he felt like London and his coaching staff were more genuine than any other coaching staff he'd encountered.
U.Va. defensive coordinator Jim Reid, who is also a former head coach at Richmond and who had London on his staff at Richmond in 1995 and '96, said he saw a similar coaching philosophy to London's when Reid was the defensive coordinator in '94 at Boston College for former coach Dan Henning. Reid believes it offers a lot of strong selling points.
"From the first time we met as a staff in January at U.Va., he's had a vision about how he wanted to get things done," Reid said. "He's very energetic about how he goes about doing those things. He's very articulate, not just with the staff, but with players and prospective players about achieving that vision. It's great to watch. Players have really bought into what he's told them. It's not just words."
Mere words don't always work with recruits. It also takes results, but there can be a honeymoon period in terms of recruiting.
In the last four years, the ACC has seen eight programs make coaching changes. Miami hired Randy Shannon in Dec. 2006. In 2008, Miami's first full year of recruiting under Shannon, the Hurricanes signed 33 players, including 17 players considered by recruiting analysts to be among the nation's top 25 at their respective positions.
Butch Davis was hired at UNC in Dec. '06. His '08 recruiting class included 18 players, six of which were among the top 25 at their positions.
Dabo Swinney was promoted in Dec. '08 at Clemson. His '10 recruiting class had 24 players, nine of which were in the top 25 at their positions.
Tom O'Brien came to N.C. State in Dec. '06. The '08 recruiting class for the Wolfpack included 26 players, with six rated among the top 25 at their spots on the field.
By contrast, the first full-year recruiting classes of Paul Johnson at Georgia Tech, David Cutcliffe at Duke and Frank Spaziani at BC each had just two players rated by analysts to be among the 25 at their respective positions.
Other than Duke, none of the aforementioned programs faced the kind of rebuilding job London has at U.Va. Of London's 20 commitments, two of them running back Clifton Richardson from Menchville High and athlete Brandon Phelps from Damascus, Md. are rated in the top 25 at their positions.
U.Va. is still actively pursuing several of the state's top recruits, including Curtis Grant from Hermitage High in Richmond and Travis Hughes from Kempsville High in Virginia Beach both of which are considered to be among the nation's top 20 linebackers. Hughes is most interested in UNC, Virginia Tech, Maryland, Clemson and Louisiana State, but he admits U.Va. has climbed his list after visiting the campus this summer.
The message is indeed making an impression.
"It's a new feel there (at U.Va.)," Hughes said. "Coach London is doing an excellent job with the coaches. All of the coaches are just real personal guys. You can go up and talk to them without any hesitation. They're real life-touching guys. They don't make it feel like it's straight business always. You've got the family aspect, and then the football aspect of it is going to come. They're not playing any games. They're serious. It's about putting you at the next level, no matter what you have in mind for your career. That's what they're selling."