When Mike London served as a police officer in Richmond in the 1980s, he had a weapon aimed at him and the trigger pulled. The gun kicked, but the bullet failed to reach its target; an internal malfunction meant it never fired.
From experience facing down a loaded gun to years in some of the most high-profile coaching positions in college sports, London knows what it means to keep his cool under pressure. That’s part of the reason why William and Mary brought him in to fill some of the biggest shoes the College has to offer: the position of head football coach, a role that Jimmye Laycock ’70 held from 1980 all the way through 2018.
“Athletics can be successful on the field without jeopardizing academics, integrity or sportsmanship, and no one epitomized those values more than Coach Laycock,” director of athletics Samantha Huge said. “His almost four decades at the helm of our football program will be a part of the fabric of this university for generations to come.”
The rubber pellets had barely settled on the artificial turf of Zable Stadium from Laycock’s last career game as head coach — a 10-6 loss to Richmond, highlighted by hundreds of former players returning to say farewell to their coach — when the College announced his replacement. The two-day turnaround time was possible because of the August announcement of Laycock’s retirement.
With the rare gift of a full season to look for a new coach, Huge was able to start the search by first building the profile of an ideal candidate. Once the profile was established, a list of more than 20 possibilities was compiled, which was eventually whittled down to eight then four names. Finally, a shortlist of two interviewees was created. It was from talking to higher-ups in the University of Virginia athletic department that Huge started to get the idea that London was the person who would best fit this profile.
“What I really appreciated hearing was that he’s a department guy,” Huge said. “What I mean by that is, he’s going to be at field hockey. He’s going to be at a volleyball game. He is going to be at a play on campus. He is going to go to the fraternity and sorority houses and get to know them. … Here’s someone who is really going to embrace university and embrace being a member of this community.”
Making that transition into the Williamsburg community will be natural, given that London has family members in the area and has lived in the City before. He even met his wife, Gina, at a local bank; she was working as a teller when London came in to drop off a recruiting check in one of his years as an assistant coach at the College in the 1990s.
“She thought it was my salary, but it wasn’t,” London said. “That’s what sealed the deal there for me.”
London’s coaching career spans all the way back to 1989, when he started out as an outside linebacker coach at his alma mater, Richmond. His next position was with the College, where he managed the defensive line for one of the best eras in Tribe football history; the team went 28-3 from 1992-94 and did everything from playing a bowl game in Japan to competing in the National Collegiate Athletic Association playoffs.
When asked to recall a memorable moment from that era, London’s answer isn’t the almost-30 victories or the postseason appearances; it’s a game against the Citadel, where a trap gone wrong on the five-yard line caused an opposing fullback to sprint all the way across the field for a 95-yard touchdown. Laycock, quivering with disbelief, turned to his defensive line coach and demanded answers: “Why? Why did he run 95 yards for a touchdown, London?” And a frustrated London eventually snapped back the obvious answer — “Because that’s all he needed.”
That ability to roll with the punches, even when things went awry, sustained London’s career for the next two decades. He returned briefly to Richmond, then headed over to Boston College and Virginia before dipping into the National Football League for a year with the Houston Texans.
His first head coaching gig was again at Richmond, where he assumed a role at the helm of a team stacked with potential. The lineup featured over a dozen returning starters from a squad that had, just one year prior, surged all the way to the semifinals of the Football Bowl Subdivision playoffs. But after an opening night blowout to Virginia followed by a few close losses, London’s Spiders had gotten off to an underwhelming 4-3 start.
After a seven-point loss to James Madison in October, the team turned its season around. One week later, it clobbered Massachusetts to begin a win streak that spanned the rest of the season, all the way through a NCAA championship and out the other side to open the 2009 season, 8-0. By the time the streak ended, the Spiders had won 17 straight games and London had both a ring from the first ever Richmond national championship and a job offer from Virginia.
“[Through adversity] you can also learn how to handle success,” London said. “I know what it feels like to raise that trophy on the final game of the season. I know what it feels like to share in the accolades.”
London would spend the 2010-15 seasons as head coach at Virginia, where the heady success of his days in Richmond mellowed into a more modest 27-46 overall record. He followed that tenure with two years and an 11-10 record at Howard. For Huge, the focus on London’s career after Richmond isn’t on win totals.
“He had some pretty significant success at Virginia,” Huge said. “He’s the first guy who took a team to both Florida State and Miami and beat them in the same season. … He did some great recruiting there, and Virginia has proven to be a challenge for a lot of coaches.”
Recruiting will be a focus for London at the College, as he will try and snap a streak of three-straight losing seasons for the program.
“You have to make sure that you cover your state high schools and the places that will produce players, and sometimes not,” London said. “There are a lot of William and Mary grads all over the state of Virginia. It’s important that we get into these schools and establish relationships … I’ll be on the road myself, try to have home visits and also recruiting weekends.”
Part of the strength that London brings to the College’s recruiting pipeline is the fact that he is the first head coach of color in Tribe football history. Huge, the first female athletic director for Tribe Athletics, and Katherine Rowe, the first female president in College history, both believe that adds a crucial element to the program.
“I wanted administration, and staff, and a leadership team that reflects the world I walk around in, and the world that our students walk around in,” Huge said. “It’s important to me that there’ll be individuals in leadership who each of our student athletes can identify with.”
On London’s part, he’s looking forward to both take over the program and return to Williamsburg two decades after he last lived there. Everything from his laundry list of coaching positions to the gun that misfired all those years ago has led him to be named the first new head coach at the College in 39 years.
“This is home,” London said. “The circle is complete. I’m excited about the challenges and the opportunities. I’m excited about bringing the quality of student athletes in football to this area, in the community. I’m excited about following a great man like Jimmye Laycock.”
Flat Hat Sports Editor Brendan Doyle contributed reporting.