By Zach Berman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 30, 2009
Al Groh was fired as Virginia's head football coach Sunday following his worst season in nine years coaching his alma mater. The dismissal marked a disappointing conclusion to a tenure that started with promise after Groh left the head coaching job with the New York Jets following the 2000 NFL season to steward the Cavaliers.
Virginia's 3-9 finish marked its second consecutive losing season and third in four years.
Virginia Athletic Director Craig Littlepage said a national search for Groh's replacement would begin immediately, and that he would not comment on the coaching search until it is completed.
Possible replacements include two former Groh assistants: Richmond Coach Mike London and Temple Coach Al Golden. Virginia reportedly also is interested in Boise State Coach Chris Petersen. Former Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville's name also has come up in speculation, as have Louisiana Tech Coach Derek Dooley, who played wide receiver at Virginia from 1987 to 1990; Harvard Coach Tim Murphy and Air Force Coach Troy Calhoun.
Groh, 65, was twice named ACC coach of the year, in 2002 and 2007. He finished with a 59-53 record at Virginia and is the second-winningest coach in school history behind his predecessor, George Welsh. Groh, who had two years remaining on his contract, is owed approximately $4.33 million.
"I feel very fortunate," Groh said in a statement. "I am an ordinary guy who has been lucky to have been around some extraordinary players and coaches who put me in a position to enjoy many fulfilling games and seasons -- and that's the truth. I gave everything I had to the position and to each game."
After Saturday's 42-13 loss to rival Virginia Tech in what proved to be his final game coaching the Cavaliers, Groh read a version of the poem "The Guy in the Glass" when asked about his future.
"When I visited the guy in the glass, I saw that he's a guy of commitment, of integrity, of dependability and accountability," Groh added. "He's loyal. His spirit is indomitable. And he is caring and loving. I'm sure I will always call the guy in the glass a friend."
Although questions about Groh's future have been rampant throughout the season, Littlepage reiterated that the football team would be evaluated at the end of the year. Littlepage had until Monday to roll over Groh's contract for an additional season, but informed Groh of his decision on Sunday.
When asked before the season about the perception that he was coaching for his job, Groh dismissed the notion and said: "It's not about me. It's about the team."
But the season has increasingly became about Groh ever since a humiliating opening loss to division I-AA William & Mary. Virginia opened 0-3 before a three-game winning streak to even its record. But the Cavaliers did not win another game, and it became apparent toward the latter portion of the season that change was forthcoming.
"I know a lot more about the situation than probably anybody," Groh said on Nov. 1 when asked about his future with the Cavaliers. "Maybe someday I'll say what that is."
As the losses mounted, fan unrest turned into apathy. Virginia drew 54,587 for its season opener at Scott Stadium, but attendance declined steadily thereafter before picking up in the last two games, including a sold-out season finale against Virginia Tech in which a large contingent of Hokies fans raised the attendance. Virginia's home games averaged 47,986 spectators this season, down from 53,815 in 2008 and 59,824 in 2007.
When Groh was hired in 2001, Virginia President John T. Casteen III spoke of ambitions for a national championship. Groh installed his 3-4 defense and instilled an NFL mentality. The Cavaliers ascended to No. 6 in the Associated Press top 25 poll in 2004, and three of his first four recruiting classes were ranked among the nation's top 20 classes by Rivals.com, a recruiting Web site.
But the program began to regress in recent seasons after losing assistant coaches to head coaching jobs, missing a handful of key players to academic and disciplinary issues, and failing to sustain high-level recruiting, especially in-state. The offense has struggled since Groh named his son, Mike Groh, as its coordinator before the 2006 season. In three seasons, Mike Groh's offenses were never ranked better than 101st in the country.
Mike Groh, who stepped down last December, was replaced by former Bowling Green coach Gregg Brandon as part of a staff shakeup. Brandon, whose spread offense proved ineffective and was abandoned early this season, could not fix the Cavaliers' offense, which finished ranked No. 118 out of 120 division I-A teams.
Virginia also has been overshadowed by rival Virginia Tech since the Hokies joined the ACC in 2004. Groh finished 1-8 in head-to-head matchups against Virginia Tech and has perennially lost the in-state recruiting battle.
When Groh was hired before the 2001 season, 16 schools in Bowl Championship Series conferences had vacancies. That number is likely to be smaller this offseason, which could make the Cavaliers' opening more attractive.
"My coaching philosophy and method of building teams has trust and teamwork as bedrocks. We were poised to solidify our position as a top team," Groh said in his statement. "Instead, as that trust and collaboration deteriorated, I could see this day coming. We arrived with a set of principles that we have tried to remain faithful to and we leave with those principles intact.
"Change can make things better or worse. I have every confidence that this will be a positive change for the Groh family and I look forward to my next game."