Mike London: Family, not football, is the main reason I’m leaving Howard University
He met his wife on campus of William & Mary, where he’ll now coach
Mike London, head football coach at Howard University for two years, says the decision to leave Washington, D.C., for The College of William & Mary was by no means an easy one. But it was based on being true to his principles of faith, family and football.
London will be most remembered for his team’s historic 43-40 victory over UNLV in 2017. In his first game as Bison head coach and the first game for freshman quarterback Caylin Newton, they recorded the biggest upset in historically black college and university (HBCU) football history. Howard’s upset of UNLV is also considered one of the biggest ever in college football.
London won the FCS national championship at the University of Richmond in 2008, was head coach at the University of Virginia for six seasons and was Maryland’s assistant head coach and defensive line coach for a season before coming to Howard in 2017.
I caught up with London on his drive to his family home in Virginia to discuss his exit from Howard after two seasons with the program many thought he’d invested in long term.
Why are you leaving now? You’d previously said you are at Howard for the long haul.
What changed was the health of my father. He’s a retired 35-year Air Force noncommissioned officer, Vietnam veteran, and I was having a conversation with my mother probably three weeks ago and she was talking about my dad and how he was back and forth and he started to forget things. And you know it’s kind of overwhelming sense of, I’ve traveled all over much of the country and I’ve had jobs, places to develop, to move on to become a head coach and I don’t know, but it was something she said about that. … My father is my hero, my coaching style methods are after him, and it was something about what she said about him forgetting things that gave me the sense of him forgetting me and me forgetting the things that happened as I was growing up in a military family. That became the wake-up call.
My wife’s mother is 10 minutes away from William & Mary. I met my wife there at William & Mary at a bank that’s there [on campus] and I don’t know, Tiff, it’s one of those things that, you know, I wasn’t looking for this situation. Coach [Jimmye] Laycock had been there for 39 years; I wasn’t looking for if he was going to retire after the season. They came looking, and all the things that fit to go right now just seems like it happened in the last three weeks, the last two weeks, last couple days, and this opportunity allows me to go closer to my immediate family given the circumstances, and it was something that I didn’t want to pass up and then, God forbid, something happens and I’m regretting not making the choice.
We were building something at Howard, and I love the people there. I love particularly the players. It’s always the hardest when you’re leaving players, but I keep talking about faith, family, football, and the family part of it was significant. So if people are upset with me because I said I was going to be there and I left because of the circumstance in a conversation that I had with my mother about my father’s health, then so be it. I’m back in a place where I’m literally minutes away from taking him a cup of coffee, sitting in front of him, having a conversation, and hopefully he remembers and I remember the good times.
Anybody that knows me, that’s been around me, knows that’s [family] all I talk about.
What would you tell the athletes you recruited here, now that you’re leaving?
I’ve always hoped that it’d be the message of being an educated man, because you’re going to be a husband and father, own a company, be a president of a company much longer than they’re going to be a football player, and so you know, take an active interest in investing in their educational opportunities and also the community. We did a lot of stuff in the community, the bone marrow drive, the Boys & Girls Club, all the different things, and I’m very proud of the fact that our guys embraced that, and that when you decide on the things that are most important to you, it doesn’t just become words and slogans, it becomes something that you live.
We’re in a situation where as a coach we try to mentor, role-model this young man, and at the same time also give a path of opportunity where I can live the life that I tell them to live about family being important and so if decisions like that have to be made, I hope you stick to your core values. I wasn’t looking for this, but this came and presented itself as something I could do, something I must do.
What do you think you accomplished while at Howard?
Hopefully we brought a level of professionalism and expectation that you can win at Howard. An academic school that’s unapologetic about its mission of educating men and women into the 21st century.
Was the UNLV win your most memorable moment as a Bison?
My biggest moment? The incredible win at UNLV regarded as the biggest win in college football history. Seeing the elation on the players’ faces was priceless. The next day the Rev. Jesse Jackson came to the office unannounced and spoke on the win’s significance.
In hindsight, what do you think Howard has to do to become competitive within the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference?
The appreciation I have for [Howard president] Dr. [Wayne] Frederick and Kery Davis, the AD [athletic director], in terms of the commitment to the football program and the opportunity to grow it, for it to become a competitive team in the MEAC, is something that hopefully will continue to be demonstrated, whether one of the coaches there becomes the head coach or one of the coaches they seek out. Having the same type of vision being aligned with being able to win on the field, not only in the classroom.
The players that are recruited, that are assembled there, are young. They’re a young team that’s going to be a very good team with the training and the nutritional needs being met and the support that these guys need both academically and athletically. I see good things happening for the program. If the collaborative effort with Dr. Frederick and Kery Davis continues, then the future is bright for Howard football. I’m hoping that as I left, that I left it in better shape than what it was in when we first got there.
How did you maintain a great relationship with Kery Davis and Kevin Anderson at Maryland even after leaving those programs?
I got a chance to know Kery Davis. We talked several times prior to the announcement that I would be the head coach at Howard. I shared with him, and hopefully he believes in and saw the values that I believe in, and I hope that the relationship that he and I developed included some tough talks, some personal things. I hope that the relationship that you build with an athletic director is based on your core set of values and that’s something that he appreciates, and that you appreciate that you know about each other. That’s the same thing with [former Maryland athletic director] Kevin Anderson, and you’re right, he was at a press conference and having a chance to develop a relationship with him, hopefully what you see is what you get. I hope that I’ve demonstrated that and so when a tough decision like this is made based on the core values, then that is something that I would have Kery Davis’ support on.
Football facilities at FCS schools don’t always compare to those at FBS universities. What do you think Howard has to do to bring their facilities up to par with top-tier teams it is competing against?
They’ve started down that path, you know with Cook Hall, the football office being redone with the graphics, they started with the locker room, which is beautiful and state-of-the-art. The commitment to fixing the entranceway tunnel out to the field, the commitment for the press box to be done, that’s going to be important. As we talk about improving facilities, the press box area and the ability to have TV games and instant replay, all those things are going to be important. So, as you know, I believe with Dr. Frederick’s and Kery Davis’ vision, players want to see where they’re playing, what they’re wearing and what their locker room looks like and all those things. That’s yet to be seen, but I know that was very much in the mix in my conversation with the both of them.
What do you think is left undone as you depart?
From an academic support standpoint, we talked about learning resource needs, learning the tutors and specialists. People who can help in terms of the certification of the student-athletes and helping to progress towards a degree. Paul Bowden, Jada Crocker and Morgan Fisher, they handle the entire athletic department, but the football players are 90-plus players on the team.
What would you ask of HBCU alumni in regards to backing programs and donating?
When we first got there, we started talking about galvanizing the Howard football alum and who are, by the way, a group of men who embraced the fact that we reached out to them and wanted to make sure that we stayed in contact and that we provided timely information that addressed the needs of the program. Football alum that would address specifically the needs of the program, like Bison Express, they spread the cost of some of the equipment and things like that. I think that was what was critical in that effort, which started being developed, and hopefully it’ll continue on with the process that’s in place.
When you first came to Howard, I asked you what was your main draw. You said that you wanted to allow younger coaches who you coached, including your son, an opportunity to build. How have you done this, and how will you continue to do this?
When I was coming out in coaching, this job and William & Mary was the first full-time coaching job that I had. I spent four years here, and I was always looking to older coaches or someone to role-model or mentor me as a young coach. A lot of times you step on the shoulders of, or you look for mentors, and at that time guys like Tyrone Willingham and Ron Dickerson, they were guys that were in the coaching profession that I looked at, like, ‘I want to be just like this guy.’ So you’re reaching out and developing a relationship with them, which was critical. So what happens when you’re coaching and you get older, you see there are other younger coaches like yourself that perhaps need some guidance or a role model. You know coaching the coaches to be better coaches, and that’s always kind of been, in the latter part of this my coaching career, the focal point for me. There are a lot of young coaches at the HBCU level, any and every level, that hopefully have positive representation or positive people who are helping them in the way that Ron Dickerson, Tyrone Willingham and Tony Dungy helped me.