Virginia Reel

Al Groh
Virginia Coach Al Groh has his team off to a 1-2 start going into Thursday night's matchup against Georgia Tech. (John McDonnell - The Washington Post)
By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 21, 2006

CHARLOTTESVILLE -- Al Groh stepped before reporters as spring practice began in March, surely more prescient than he would have hoped, and delivered the first message of this season: "We have a significant rebuilding job in front of us," Groh said, entering his sixth year as coach of the Virginia football team.

Even then, Groh couldn't have imagined what would unfold at Scott Stadium this past Saturday. Virginia -- a team ranked No. 6 in the country 23 months ago, a program that recruited a top 10 class of players in 2002 -- lost to Western Michigan of the Mid-American Conference, 17-10, and dropped to 1-2.

The Cavaliers endured an afternoon of boos cascading from their home crowd. Internet message boards skewered Groh this week and multiple Web sites calling for his firing were launched, such as (slogan: "Doing Nothing For Virginia Football Since 2001.") Groh has said football teams are only at a crossroads when things are down. In that case, the Cavaliers' Atlantic Coast Conference opener at Georgia Tech on Thursday night, if not a crossroads, is getting close.

As Groh faces his most difficult year at Virginia since he finished 5-7 his first season, Virginia Athletic Director Craig Littlepage placed his support behind the coach this week.

"I think that Al is a fine football coach," Littlepage said. "There's no doubt in my mind that he can get the job done here at the University of Virginia.

"Again, because I see the hard work he and his staff put in, I see the way in which he is focused on the job that he has. It's easy for people that don't sit in his seat, that aren't in that office to misunderstand why a coach would handle situations in the way that he chooses to do it. He knows what's best for the program, given there's nobody that has a bigger stake in it than does he. I believe that when you have the right people in place and you have the right leaders in place, that you support them, that you give them the resources they need to be able to get their job done. We do that with all of our coaches."

Littlepage's support comes about a year after a more significant pledge. Last August, Groh signed a contract that runs until 2010 and includes an unusual stipulation, one that nearly guarantees Groh will receive all the money left on his new deal even if his detractors get their wish.

If Groh is fired before 2010 "for cause," he won't receive the remaining salary on his contract. But, in a legal sense, "for cause" doesn't include on-field performance. If Groh is fired "without cause" -- meaning the school deems he has lost too many games -- there is no buyout. Groh would receive the entirety of the contract, which is $1.78 million this season and increases 5 percent each season. Virginia has an option to add a year to Groh's contract at the end of the 2006, '07 and '08 seasons, too.

Basically, unless Virginia commits serious NCAA violations and Groh is found to be at fault, he will receive all the money his contract stipulates -- nearly $12 million -- whether or not he is the football coach for its duration.

Asked if the contract is still a good one for Virginia, Littlepage said, "I think it is."

Still, are the Cavaliers where they want to be, with the third-highest-paid coach in the conference having spent five years shaping the program?

"I would say that this year we have certainly, after three games, not achieved to the degree that we would have hoped that we would have achieved," Littlepage said. "There are any number of ways to explain that. But certainly, to be 1-2 is not the goal that we have for our program. The goal is to be competitive, to win a division, to be able to play for the league championship in the ACC. Right now, we're 0-0 in the ACC. Idealistically, we have a shot at it.

"I'm the kind of person that is very optimistic. I'm a cheerleader."

Asked if the program has progressed to the point he envisioned it would have when he took over, Groh confined his attention to Thursday's game.

"I don't have state of the program," Groh said. "I have state of the season."

For now, the state of this one remains rebuilding. That being the case, Littlepage remains optimistic that he has the right man for the job.

"We're going to be successful," Littlepage said. "There's no doubt in my mind about that."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company