U-Va.'s Groh Has Motivating History

By Zach Berman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 15, 2009

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Sept. 14 -- In 1994 as an assistant with the New England Patriots, who were stuck in a 3-6 hole, Al Groh found a shovel in his garage and told his team they were going to dig out of the losing one shovel-full at a time. The shovel remained on the sideline while the Patriots won every remaining regular season game and reached the playoffs.

During his year as head coach of the New York Jets in 2000, Groh distributed flashlights to each of his players, darkened the room and, with each light flashing, told his team they could collectively outshine opponents with stars.

And before a game against North Carolina while Groh was Wake Forest's coach in 1984, he told his team about an Alaskan ice fisherman who kept worms warm by storing them under the lower lip to catch the best fish.

Then, Groh ate a live worm. The Demon Deacons pulled off the upset.

"The worm . . . don't remind me about that one," Groh said 25 years later as he navigates through his most trying season as Virginia's head coach.

The Cavaliers are 0-2, including a loss to division I-AA William & Mary. Scott Stadium had the smallest crowd in a decade during Saturday's loss to Texas Christian.

"There's a lot of story to be played out in the course of this season," Groh said. "Who is distracted, who is undistracted, who is focused, who is not focused, who is confident, who is not confident. These seasons are books. They are not chapters."

Groh remains calloused by operating in similar spots before -- both in his previous eight seasons at Virginia and in dozens of years as an assistant and head coach in college football and the NFL.

"One of the important things and challenging things to do for anybody who is the head coach is to spend time thinking about his team," Groh said. "Just what's the team need right now? And with the combination of administrative duties, practice scheduling, whatever involvement in the schemes and the X's and O's the head coach has to -- sometimes it's difficult to say -- slow down, sit here and think about the team or certain players on the team and what they need to hear."

This is the system Groh used to identify times when the motivational tactics were necessary. He picked the shovel out of the garage in 1994 thinking the Patriots needed a boost. He prepared for a 7 p.m. team meeting and found the shovel, which served as a symbol for the team to repeatedly reference. Groh still keeps his flashlight from the Jets in his office, a reminder of motivation.

"If it's always about a gimmick, then it just kind of becomes like -- it's like Vaudeville: What's the next show going to be, what's the next act going to be?" Groh said. "Take a special occasion for it, and sometimes they really work out well."

Plus, he needs the players to be correspondingly motivated. Groh said he believes morale and attitude are more important than talent, and has heard the ratio mentioned anywhere from 3 to 1 to 10 to 1 in favor of the intangibles. Only so much can come from the coach, though, before a player must rely on his own personality.

"Anything that the players get from the outside always diminishes relative to what we refer to as the amount of self-talk that they get," Groh said. "The outside talk really only lasts so long, particularly that's designed to really get them up and going. Eventually it's got to come from the player himself, what he hears from himself. But obviously some methods can kick-start some of the right thoughts."

Groh said players do not lose faith by what fans think. Groh said their reactions come from results, which are currently a source of trouble for Virginia. Shovels, flashlights and worms make for good stories, but it might take more to stimulate an offense that has reached the red zone only once this season and has averaged 14 points per game.

"I hear complaining, but they always talking about 'We lost,' " guard Isaac Cain said of fans. "They're just outsiders like everyone else."

Groh has looked into past seasons when the Cavaliers rebounded from poor starts. In 2002, the Cavaliers won nine games after opening 0-2. Groh cites the intangibles, but he also said there were occasions when he reshaped the team "strategically and tactically."

Groh said the Cavaliers have an offensive system that has proven successful elsewhere and offensive players that have individually been successful before. He must figure out how to merge the two to resuscitate the team, leaving him in a position to draw from past experiences.

"I might go to something," Groh said. "Might put the worm third, though. I don't know if I'm ready for that one again."

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