On Saturday night, 56-year-old Mike London will lead the Howard University football team onto the Sam Boyd Stadium field turf for its season opener against UNLV. If the name sounds familiar, it might be because London was head coach at Virginia for six seasons.
He also was head coach at his alma mater of Richmond, having led the Spiders to a 24-7 victory over Bobby Hauck’s Montana side in the 2008 FCS national championship game. That was Richmond’s first national title, in any sport.
It was an unforgettable night.
On another unforgettable night, long before he was carried off the field on the shoulders of Spiders, Mike London found himself dressed as Frank Serpico, the detective who blew the whistle on corruption within the New York City police department.
London grew a beard and sported an earring to blend in on the streets, and he had strong convictions and core values. He blew the whistle on bad guys, only his weren’t wearing badges.
A call came in that said a restaurant had been robbed on Richmond’s gritty south side, with a description of the getaway vehicle. It was a utility van, and it’s 10-20 was almost directly in front of detective Mike London and Andre Boswell, his partner in the street crimes unit. The van and its occupants were pulled over.
When the driver stomped on the gas, London threw himself inside, in the way Frank Serpico wedged himself into that chained doorway in the movie’s climactic scene.
The driver pulled a gun. He aimed it at London’s forehead.
Was it a misfire? Was the gun loaded? Why am I still here?
After the kid with the gun got off with a wrist slap, Mike London decided he’d rather blow his whistle on a football practice field.
The first-year Howard coach told that story over the telephone Friday. He said one doesn’t forget the sound of the click, until one’s 4-year-old daughter has been diagnosed with Fanconi anemia, a virulent form of leukemia. And that if she doesn’t find a marrow donor, there is little hope for survival. Then one forgets the click rather easily.
Little Ticynn London was subjected to massive doses of chemotherapy and radiation. Her hair fell out waiting in vain for a marrow donor.
Mike London was coaching defensive linemen at Boston College, and then he was sitting at Johns Hopkins, talking to the creme de la creme of the medical profession. “What about me?” he asked.
Doctors said it was roughly a 1-in-10,000 chance he would be a match for Ticynn. It was like Doug Flutie throwing that long pass to Gerard Phelan at the end of the game against Miami.
This Hail Mary was answered, too. Mike London was a match. His daughter’s immune system did not reject the gift of life.
Ticynn London is now a senior at Old Dominion. Mike London now has the Howard players add their names to a bone marrow registry through an initiative called “Get in the Game.”
“One of my players was just notified he’s a match,” London said of a depth chart that rarely goes two-deep.
Don’t sweat small stuff
Howard University of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference has been playing football among the Historic Black Colleges and Universities since 1893. The Bison have been to only three minor bowl games and to one FCS playoff, losing to Marshall in the first round in 1993. Howard has enjoyed only one winning season in the past 13.
With a head-coaching record of 51-51, Mike London has been more successful than his team. He even had it going for a little while at Virginia, guiding the Cavaliers to an 8-4 regular-season record, victories over nationally-ranked Georgia Tech and Florida State, and a berth in the 2011 Chick-fil-A Bowl opposite Auburn.
As if any of that mattered in the coach’s grand scheme.
“I’ve been blessed, fortunate to have this opportunity, to have lived with my perspective. My core values are to go to class, have class, treat people with dignity and respect,” he said. “It’s never been about winning football games.”
He did not sweat it when he was fired at Virginia; he said he will not sweat it if Howard is trailing by two touchdowns, or worse, against the Rebels heading into the fourth quarter Saturday night. Regardless of how hot it is on the field turf.
He has heard the click of a pistol misfiring from lethal distance, the whir of the centrifuge machine that separates the life-sustaining white blood cells from the red.
Mike London doesn’t sweat the small stuff anymore.
“That’s a good way to put it,” he said on the telephone.
Contact Ron Kantowski at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.