Friday, September 4, 2009

RICHMOND | The nightmare woke Mike London from a sound sleep and sent him scurrying downstairs, where he turned on every light in the living room and began pulling the cushions off the family sofa.

Awakened by the commotion, Regina London trudged down the steps, squinted through swollen eyelids and politely asked her husband whether he had lost his mind.

It’s the ring, he explained. I can’t find my ring, and I think I lost it in the sofa.

Regina hadn’t seen Mike act this protective of a piece of jewelry since their wedding day, but it wasn’t the loss of his gold wedding band that had him so panicked - it was the ring he had earned by leading Richmond’s football team to the 2008 Football Championship Subdivision title.

Only after Regina assured Mike that the ring was resting safely on top of his nightstand, then led him back upstairs so he could see for himself, were the Londons finally able to resume their slumber.

“I don’t wear the ring, but I look at it every once in a while when I have a private moment, just thinking about that accomplishment and the journey it took,” London said with a smile. “Then I focus on the fact that that was last year and this is this year. Let’s see if we can win some more games.”

London certainly set the bar high in his rookie season as a head coach after spending six of the previous seven years as Virginia’s defensive coordinator. He led his alma mater to a school-record 13 victories, the last of which - a 24-7 thumping of Montana - delivered Richmond’s first national championship.

Now he faces a different, but equally daunting, challenge: convincing his team to prepare for the upcoming season as if 2008 never happened.

“We understood when that clock struck zero [in the FCS title game] that everybody was going to be coming after us next season,” senior running back Justin Forte said. “Our coaches have done a good job of instilling in us that last year is last year. It means nothing now. We’re going to continue to work hard like we always have and keep that same mentality.”

London received a tutorial in avoiding complacency during an offseason telephone conversation with Gregg Popovich, winner of four NBA titles as coach of the San Antonio Spurs. Popovich told London that his teams begin every preseason camp by emphasizing the fundamentals that made them successful in the first place. Only after a full week of conditioning and defensive drills are the players finally allowed to touch a basketball.

Popovich also noted that the Spurs’ leaders, including veterans Tim Duncan and Tony Parker, set the tone for the rest of the team by buying into the philosophy of “doing the little things right.”

It’s a similar situation at Richmond, which returns 18 starters from a team that won its final nine games after a 4-3 start. That number includes fourth-year starting quarterback Eric Ward, four members of a dominant offensive line and a defense that played its best in the FCS playoffs.

“There’s a lot of confidence in our locker room because this team has been together a long time,” said junior linebacker Eric McBride, one of the Spiders’ six preseason all-Colonial Athletic Association selections. “I’ve never been on a team where the family bond was like it is here. Every guy around me, I know they’ve got my back and I’ve got their back. That’s a great feeling.”

There’s certainly never been a better time to be a member of Richmond’s football family. Known previously for the giant-killing exploits of its basketball team, the campus found itself swept up in a football frenzy last fall, and the excitement only continued to build this summer; season ticket purchases have increased 25 percent from last year, and more than 1,200 fans signed up for bus trips to Saturday’s season opener at Duke.

Construction is humming along at the site of Richmond’s new on-campus football stadium, which is expected to be ready for the start of next season. But while the Spiders would like nothing better than to christen the facility as two-time defending national champions, they’re not looking back at last year.

“[Repeat] is not in my vocabulary,” London said. “We just keep reminding the players that every year is a new team and we have to keep getting better. We can’t look at what we did. We have to look at what we’re doing and measure our progress that way.”

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