June 29, 2006
CHARLOTTESVILLE -- With all of the other issues he faces in finalizing Virginia's 2006 roster, Al Groh didn't really need any public-relations headaches.
Yet there was the Virginia football coach in mid-June, dealing with disparaging comments by disgruntled ex-players Chris Johnson and Philip Brown as they consummated their transfers to Division I-AA Grambling.
Also headed to Grambling was a third former UVa player, Vince Redd, although Redd did not fire any parting shots. Redd offered a slightly different case than Brown and Johnson, having known since March that he would not be returning to the Cavaliers this fall.
Redd was among a group of three players who were left off the Wahoos' spring roster, along with former Butkus Award finalist Ahmad Brooks and 2005 co-captain Tony Franklin. Redd and Franklin had been suspended during the fall for violations of team rules.
Johnson and Brown, on the other hand, had been out of the program since the summer of 2005, after being declared academically ineligible. Both players had remained in Charlottesville (Johnson is from Charlottesville) and worked toward reinstatement.
In fact, Groh had spoken in a complimentary manner about Brown, who had stopped by the UVa football office in early May to pick up a workout program. One month later, however, Brown was out the door and none too happy about it.
Brown, rated the No. 2 prospect in Virginia as a senior at Hampton Phoebus, said he received support only from new defensive coordinator Mike London and had no communication with Groh. London originally had recruited Brown for UVa, before spending one season as the Houston Texans' defensive line coach.
In the long run, Brown would have been welcome to return to the Virginia program if he had made the required grades at Piedmont Virginia Community College, located in Charlottesville. However, Brown apparently did so poorly at Piedmont that UVa would not re-admit him.
Grades were not the issue for Johnson, who felt that Groh had wronged him by telling him he would return as a walk-on. That message came in a May meeting in which Johnson was accompanied by his mother.
There had been an earlier meeting with Johnson, Groh and Johnson's stepfather, after which Johnson had felt he would remain on scholarship. When that was not the case in the second meeting, Johnson went ballistic.
"I couldn't help them win now," Johnson told the Charlottesville Daily Progress, "so they stopped caring about me."
Groh's side of the story is that he wanted to see signs of Johnson's commitment before renewing his scholarship, and that any miscommunication from the earlier meeting rested with Johnson's listening skills, not the coach's words. Had Johnson been a little more contrite during the May meeting, perhaps something could have been resolved. When Johnson reacted as angrily as he did, there was no chance of reconciliation.
"As I have said on a number of occasions, it's an honor to have an opportunity to attend the University of Virginia, and it's a privilege to wear the uniform of Virginia," Groh told the Daily Progress. "With that come standard values and performance criteria that we deem very important. When there are issues with those criteria, we address the circumstances individually and with confidentiality.
"Without confidentiality, there's no trust and integrity. Because of that, the public will never know all the issues in every circumstance, and that's the way it should be. Besides the confidentiality factor, there are always many sides to a story. We always want to avoid embarrassing or disparaging anybody. We take care of our own business on this team."
For all of the noise they made going out the door, Johnson and Brown probably would not have had a major impact on the 2006 team, although both were former starters. In terms of on-field help, Redd might have been the biggest loss. His last game, against Minnesota in the Music City Bowl, was his best one. A converted linebacker, he had great size and athletic ability. He was a nice kid, too, but he was high-maintenance.
Johnson, a defensive end and nose tackle, had bulked up during his year away from the program and faced a lot of conditioning work before he could have helped the Cavaliers in 2006. Brown had the potential to be a shut-down corner, but if there's one area where the Cavaliers are set, it's at cornerback.
ACC interception leader Marcus Hamilton has one spot locked up, and on the other side there's Music City Bowl starter Chris Gorham. Mike Brown and Chris Cook also started games last year as true freshmen. Brown had a big reputation coming out of high school, and Cook quickly established himself as a playmaker before a season-ending injury.
Groh still had a loose end to tie up regarding Franklin, who took his degree this spring but so far has not transferred to another school for a fifth season of eligibility. Franklin was a model citizen for three years before falling off the wagon sometime between the end of the 2004 season and the end of the 2005 season. In all likelihood, Groh has laid down some undisclosed stipulations for his return.
No less of a concern for Groh was his 2006 signing class, which contained an estimated 6-8 players who might not qualify for admission. (If that occurs, it will be by far the most non-qualifiers in UVa history.) One of those players, New Jersey linebacker George Johnson, supposedly had met NCAA eligibility requirements but had not been admitted by Virginia.
Johnson is considered one of the top prospects in the 2006 class and probably would look to play for another Division I-A program rather than spend one year in prep school. Another New Jersey linebacker and UVa signee, Almondo Sewell, already is headed to Hargrave Military Academy.
HOOPS OUTLOOK APPEARS BRIGHTER
Virginia basketball coach Dave Leitao also was looking at a roster in flux, although at press time it was looking increasingly more likely that 6-5 swingman Solomon Tat would enroll in time for the 2006-07 season.
Tat, a native of Nigeria who spent three years at Community Christian School in Stockbridge, Ga., originally committed to the Cavaliers on Sept. 30, 2005, but did not sign with the Cavaliers during either the spring or fall signing periods.
At issue was Tat's ability to gain a visa extension that would enable him to remain in the United States, although Community Christian coach Linzy Davis said reporters had missed the point and that Tat merely was weighing the options of a professional career overseas.
Regardless of the reasons for the holdup, the Tat story took a bizarre twist in mid-June, when it was reported that he had been married in May to his Georgia sweetheart of a few years. It was not a marriage of convenience, Davis insisted, although immigration lawyers said the arrangement would help his case for a visa tremendously.
In any event, there was no mistaking the upgrading of the UVa talent base, which included a mid-June commitment from Eric Wallace, a 6-6 forward and would-be perimeter player from Glenn High School in Kernersville, N.C.
Wallace said he has better than a 4.0 grade-point average, but he nevertheless elected to spend his senior year at Hargrave Military Academy, where he will play on the postgraduate team. That was a route taken this past season by two of Virginia's best prospects, Vernon Macklin and Stefan Welsh, who signed with Georgetown and Arkansas, respectively.
Wallace had played at an elite camp in Virginia on the weekend of his decision and bonded with camp teammate Sam Zeglinski, a point guard from Philadelphia who was the first Class of 2007 prospect to commit to the Cavaliers.
While looking to fortify his roster for the end of the decade, Leitao also was looking to fill a vacancy on his staff after Gene Cross resigned to go to Notre Dame, where he will be closer to his Midwestern roots and family.