By Zach Berman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 28, 2009; D01
CHARLOTTESVILLE -- On the morning of Jan. 5, 2001, University of Virginia President John Casteen uttered two words -- national championship -- that established a lofty goal for Al Groh, even before Groh could provide his first comments as Virginia's newly named head coach.
Minutes later, Groh did not skirt those expectations. He had come from the NFL's New York Jets. He earned a Super Bowl ring as an NFL assistant. And he had watched ACC power Florida State lose the Bowl Championship Series title game to Oklahoma earlier that week.
"As long as it takes us to get players like I saw on television the other night," Groh said that day, when asked how quickly Virginia can become a national power. "We saw the other night that Florida State can be beat if you get the players Oklahoma got."
That talent never arrived -- or at least not enough to become a national contender. In nine seasons, Groh has only once brought the Cavaliers into the top 10 and never won more than nine games. Virginia (3-8, 2-5) enters Saturday's finale against rival Virginia Tech (8-3, 5-2) amid its worst season in Groh's tenure, and its third losing season in four years.
"I think everyone was excited nine years ago," said Shawn Moore, a former all-American quarterback at Virginia. "But if you ask any alum today, they will tell you that they are extremely disappointed that the program has not gone to that next level, has not taken that next step."
During an interview last month, Virginia Athletic Director Craig Littlepage said the expectation of the football program is to compete for the ACC championship. If the team is competing for the ACC title, it is therefore contending for a BCS bowl. Virginia has not made the ACC championship game since the game's inception five years ago and has not won a conference championship since sharing the title with Florida State in 1995.
"There's no way that we should not be competing for an ACC title," Moore said. "There's a ton of athletes playing in the NFL right now with University of Virginia degrees. I truly believe that with all the things we have in place now -- the facilities, the new stadium, the new locker room, all the things we've added in the last 10 years, we should be competing with Texas, Oklahoma, Virginia Tech, Alabama. We should be competing on that level."
If Saturday is Groh's final game as head coach, he will not need to look far to realize what went wrong. When asked why his program has trouble winning at home in recent seasons, Groh answered bluntly: "talent." The answer was not much different when discussing the difference between winning and losing seasons.
"There's so many components that go into winning, but certainly the key one that you start with is talent," Groh said. "And the more top-end talent -- that is playmaking talent, guys who can just make the play -- that makes the difference."
There are many factors that contributed to the downfall of a program that reached the nation's No. 6 ranking in 2004, but all are related to talent. There was the exodus of assistant coaches to head coaching positions elsewhere, which inhibited staff continuity and hurt recruiting. There were players who left early for the NFL draft and players dismissed from the team, many who were among the program's most talented athletes.
"He can't play football; his days of playing football are over," said quarterback Jameel Sewell, who is among a handful of Virginia players who have come to Groh's defense this week. "You hear a lot of things like, 'C'mon, what's wrong, Coach?' But he can't play. He coaches us."
Three of Groh's first four recruiting classes were ranked among the nation's top 20 classes by Rivals.com. His last four recruiting classes have never been better than No. 25, and were ranked outside the top 30 three other times.
The slide started after the 2005 season. Virginia had been to four consecutive bowl games and won three of them. Groh lost four members of his coaching staff before the offseason: offensive coordinator Ron Prince to Kansas State, defensive coordinator Al Golden to Temple, associate head coach/outside linebackers coach Danny Rocco to Liberty and inside linebackers/special teams coach Mark D'Onofrio, who followed Golden to Temple.
The problems were exacerbated when the Cavaliers' 2006 recruiting class included eight players, out of 24, who were not admitted into school that year. Only two of those eight ended up attending Virginia, creating a gap on the roster.
Then the Cavaliers ran into disciplinary and academic issues, and saw players depart early for the NFL draft. Sewell and cornerback Chris Cook, both key players on this season's team, missed the 2008 seasons because of academics. Standout defensive end Jeffrey Fitzgerald transferred to Kansas State because of an academic issue. Heralded recruits J'Courtney Williams and Mike Brown were dismissed for disciplinary reasons. Offensive lineman Branden Albert and wide receiver Kevin Ogletree both left Charlottesville early for the NFL.
However, no departure was more costly than Peter Lalich, who was the best pro-style quarterback recruited during Groh's tenure. Lalich was dismissed from the team last season while facing legal issues, leaving the team without a long-term answer at quarterback.
"Football in general is a talent-driven game, and I think in college football even more so," Groh said. "And the position where that is most significant is at quarterback. When the player who was designated 'quarterback to the future' was not available to us, it put us on a different course."
It did not help that Virginia Tech joined the ACC during Groh's tenure, and has since experienced its best stretch in program history. The Hokies have dominated the rivalry both on and off the field. Groh has lost seven of his eight games against the Hokies, and Virginia Tech annually wins the in-state recruiting battle. To further rankle Virginia's supporters, the Hokies reached the ACC title game three times in four years.
"There are a lot of alums who are extremely disappointed that we can't even win the in-state recruiting battle right now," Moore said. "And Virginia Tech has owned Virginia eight of the last nine years."
The rollover option on Groh's contract was not extended two of the past three seasons, which have often been played with speculation that Groh could get fired. After finishing 5-7 in 2008, Groh remained the head coach but overhauled the coaching staff and introduced new schemes on offense and special teams.
The changes have not worked, and the explanation relates back to what Groh said at that news conference when Casteen spoke about a national championship.
"Coaches with schemes but without talent," Groh said that day, "quickly become unimportant coaches."
As Groh enters what is likely his final game as head coach, he could see his words come true.