With Revamped Staff, Embattled Virginia Football Coach Al Groh Says This Season Is ÂAbout the Team'
Monday, August 10, 2009
He left an NFL head coaching post to oversee Virginia's football program, which he has led to five bowl games in eight seasons while annually producing NFL-ready talent at a university with rigid academic standards.
He also has endured two losing seasons in three years, is 1-7 against intrastate rival Virginia Tech and spent the offseason overhauling a coaching staff that has a new coordinator for each unit.
The conflicting views of Al Groh are an undercurrent to the 2009 season, Groh's ninth as Virginia's head coach and perhaps his most important. His contract is set to expire following the 2011 season after Athletic Director Craig Littlepage declined to exercise an option to extend it into 2012 in November.
Speculation about Groh's future at his alma mater is a polarizing topic on Virginia message boards and talk radio in Charlottesville, yet Groh insists his coaching future is not a topic he even considers.
"It's not about me. It's about the team," Groh said. "I don't address it with me, so why would I address it with them?"
Even if Groh does not address it with the team, Virginia's players understand the perception that Groh enters 2009 under pressure to avoid another mediocre season.
"We're very aware of that," senior quarterback Vic Hall said. "We work hard to win games, not only for ourselves but for Coach, because he puts in hours. And a lot of people don't understand how many hours he puts in on his job. He's at the McCue Center day in, day out. Monday through Sunday during the season, his car is never gone. It does create a sense of urgency. We understand that, and everybody is working hard."
The urgency was apparent throughout an offseason of upheaval. After last season concluded with a disappointing 17-14 loss to Virginia Tech that clinched Groh's third 5-7 campaign at Virginia, the coach went through the annual evaluation of himself and the program. He starts with internal analysis, then seeks opinion from those within the program. Groh finishes with outside opinion from those he trusts, likely including confidants such as Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick, Super Bowl-winning coaches with whom Groh has coached.
"I'm fortunate to have as a resource people who have proven to be very good in this game," Groh said, "and I take what they say very seriously."
Changes for 2009 are most evident on the coaching staff. Groh replaced offensive coordinator and son Mike Groh with former Bowling Green coach Gregg Brandon, named himself the defensive coordinator and brought in former assistant Ron Prince, who was fired as Kansas State's head coach, to coordinate the special teams. He also has a new linebackers coach, wide receivers coach, defensive line coach, and strength and conditioning coach, and shuffled the duties of the coaches who previously were on his staff.
The team lost 11 starters, and the Cavaliers were picked to finish fifth in the ACC's Coastal Division -- ingredients that only add to the season's uncertain subplot.
Amid the upheaval, Groh's accomplishments can sometimes be forgotten. He twice has been named ACC coach of the year and produced 28 NFL draft picks at a program with only one major bowl appearance in school history (the Sugar Bowl after the 1990 season).
Plus, Groh's players remain intensely loyal. When the Cavaliers slipped to 1-3 last season, including an embarrassing 28-point loss to Duke, the team could have unraveled. But Groh kept the group together and the Cavaliers went on a four-game winning streak, including victories over Maryland, North Carolina and Georgia Tech, all bowl-bound teams. But that winning streak preceded a four-game losing streak.
"I think fans need to take a real good look at that and see that academics is a precedent at U-Va. Football and sports are second," said Washington Redskins wide receiver Marques Hagans, who played at Virginia for Groh from 2002 to 2005. "So they need to lay off Coach Groh, because for the last [eight] years, he has five or six players in the NFL every year. You can almost go to any team and see players I've played with or players that played before me in the U-Va. program in the NFL. So, I think he's done a great job with the players he's had and [critics] need to get off his back and appreciate the job he's been doing."
Even though his players come to his defense, Groh publicly remains unfazed by the issue. He will say he is coaching this season like any other season -- even amid speculation that it could be his last.
"We see every season as its own season," Groh said, "and we'll leave the assessment to everyone else."