By Zach Berman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 20, 2009
CHARLOTTESVILLE -- Ron Prince, Virginia's first-year special teams coordinator, had a good start on a beard as he talked to reporters earlier this week, the only week of the season when the Cavaliers' assistants are permitted to conduct interviews under Coach Al Groh's "one-voice" media policy.
That's merely one of the changes Prince is facing -- up until a few months ago, Prince was grilled on a near-daily basis as the head coach at Kansas State -- but perhaps not the most visible.
"The biggest difference between being a head coach and an assistant coach," Prince said, "is when you're a head coach, you have to shave more."
A few feet away, Virginia offensive coordinator Gregg Brandon conducted the same drill. As he sat down, he remarked how this used to be a typical routine during his six seasons as head coach at Bowling Green. Reminded of Groh's one-voice policy, Brandon displayed a dry smile.
"I'm learning about that," Brandon said.
Trying to bounce back after two losing seasons in three years, Groh has emphasized an improved offense and more productive special teams. Enter Prince and Brandon, two men who started the 2008 season as relatively successful head coaches. Both were unemployed by season's end.
Brandon and Prince had opportunities with other major college programs and NFL teams, according to agent Neil Cornrich, who represents both Virginia assistants.
Both chose Virginia. The reason was simple: They wanted to coach with Groh.
"A man asked me once, 'If you could send your sons to play anywhere for anyone, where would they go?' " Prince said. "I said, 'That's easy: to Virginia, to play for Al Groh.' That's how strongly I feel about him and this university."
In turn, any success comes with incentive for the assistants. Both are proven head coaches whose dismissals were abrupt. Boosting unproductive units at Virginia would undoubtedly improve their stock for future openings.
Brandon has introduced his no-huddle, spread offense to a unit that ranked No. 113 nationally in total offense in 2006, No. 101 in 2007 and No. 105 in 2008. Although Groh maintains that the Cavaliers have been transitioning toward the spread offense for the past few seasons, the commitment to Brandon -- and a promise that he has autonomy over the unit -- means the offense will fully have Brandon's imprint.
"Al brought me in to run the system, and he's allowing me to do that," Brandon said.
Prince wants to learn ways that he could have improved Kansas State's downfall -- defense -- while providing expertise needed to improve Virginia's special teams. Kansas State allowed 35.8 points per game in 2008. The Wildcats also were among the nation's best in special teams in each of Prince's three seasons.
"I think we did a lot of positive things. We had the highest graduation rate in the Big 12. We did some really significant things on the field, beat Texas," said Prince, who was a Virginia assistant from 2001 to 2005. "But there was an aspect missing, and we just didn't play good enough defense. That was the bottom line. Not that I have designs on anything in the future, but just because that's an element, if it ever happens again -- when I'm 60, if I coach at a junior high or high school -- I don't want to have a defense that gives up points. From a personal-satisfaction standpoint, I want to fill in the blanks."
Those defensive numbers surrendered by Kansas State were in part the byproduct of playing against high-powered Big 12 offenses. While Prince sits in on Virginia's defensive meetings, he said he provides insight on the spread offenses in the Big 12 that have proliferated in college football -- including in Charlottesville.
Brandon said his biggest adjustment has been dealing with the "nuts and bolts" instead of overseeing every aspect of the operations. Prince's focus is almost entirely on football's underappreciated third unit. But their roles are integral to any Cavaliers improvement -- even if their titles are different.
"It's a different job," Prince said, with his lone day in front of the cameras and his facial hair as evidence.