December 7, 2005
CHARLOTTESVILLE -- On Dec. 4, after weeks of twists and turns, a 6-5 Virginia football team finally received a postseason bid. Still uncertain, though, was the makeup of the staff that would assist UVa coach Al Groh in the Music City Bowl against Minnesota.
The exodus started Dec. 2, when Division I-AA Liberty named Danny Rocco as its head coach. It was expected that UVa also would lose offensive coordinator Ron Prince and defensive coordinator Al Golden. Rocco was the Cavaliers' associate head coach.
Other than situations in which an entire staff (including the head coach) is fired, it is extremely rare for a college football program to lose its top three assistants in one offseason, although it happened at N.C. State last year under far more alarming (nobody left for a promotion) circumstances. Clemson replaced both coordinators after the 2004 season.
Kansas State was expected to introduce Prince, who grew up 15 minutes from the Wildcats' campus, as the successor to retiring local legend Bill Snyder. Golden was expected to go to Temple, winless this past season as an overscheduled independent but headed to the Mid-American Conference.
Rocco has not had a coordinator's title since serving as Groh's first recruiting coordinator, but his designation as associate head coach was a reflection of the esteem in which he was held. At 45, he was among the older members of the UVa staff and had some of the most impressive credentials, having coached at Boston College, Texas and Maryland.
All things considered, Groh was fortunate to hold onto Golden, 36, for five years. Golden was the recruiting coordinator at Penn State before Groh lured him to Charlottesville with the defensive coordinator's post, and Golden was tempted last year to join Charlie Weis' first staff at Notre Dame.
Prince, also 36, was a little bit below the head coaching radar, but for any program taking a serious look at minorities, he was near the top of the list. At the end of the regular season, only three of 119 Division I-A programs had African-Americans as their head coach, and there weren't many more black coordinators.
Prince has spent most of his coaching career on the East Coast, but he is a product of the Kansas junior college ranks, from which Kansas State frequently draws. While the Cavaliers have sputtered offensively this year, they led the ACC in total offense in 2004.
The departure of Golden almost certainly would be followed by the departure of two-year UVa assistant Mark D'Onofrio, who coached linebackers this year and also served as the team's recruiting coordinator, a position he previously held at Rutgers. D'Onofrio and Golden were roommates at Penn State and each other's best man as their respective weddings.
As if the four above-named assistants wouldn't represent enough of a loss, there is a possibility that they could take other UVa assistants with them, although it would take a promotion to avoid what would be less than a lateral move. Running backs coach Anthony Poindexter has been mentioned as a possible Prince hire, but if Poindexter left his alma mater for rebuilding Kansas State as a position coach, that would be a significant step down.
Some people have wondered if UVa quarterbacks coach Mike Groh might go to Kansas State as its offensive coordinator, but Groh likely wouldn't do that to his father, not with the situation as unsettled as it looks. That is not to say that Groh will move up to offensive coordinator, not a politically correct move at this point.
Al Groh can be difficult with reporters, and it's easy to see where he might be hard on his staff, but nobody can blame his assistants for taking head coaching positions, even at Liberty, which competes in a league (the Big South) that does not have an automatic bid to the Division I-AA playoffs. Rocco is older than Golden and Prince, and who knows when he would have gotten another chance? Besides, he has family in the Lynchburg area, and his father and older brother both have worked at Liberty and know the landscape.
The short-term impact of the coaching losses most likely will be felt in recruiting, although the Cavaliers had 17 commitments by Dec. 1. Some of those players could de-commit, and uncommitted players, especially those for whom Golden and Prince were the primary contacts, might be scared off.
Hutch Eckerson, an offensive lineman from Lumberton, N.C., said he favored Virginia early in the recruiting process. But he was being recruited by Prince, and he told reporters that Prince's departure would cut into the Cavaliers' lead. Prince would have been Eckerson's position coach.
As for the long term, Virginia's assistants are paid well -- especially Golden, who was making $200,000 per year after a pay raise that coincided with the Notre Dame feelers -- so there will be interest in the vacancies. Last year, UVa lost defensive line coach Mike London to the Houston Texans, who made him an offer he couldn't refuse, but the Texans went 1-10 in their first 11 games this season, and there has been speculation about the future of fourth-year coach Dom Capers.
If Groh somehow could woo London back to Charlottesville, it would resolve a couple of issues, particularly in the talent-rich Hampton-Newport News area Groh gave to Rocco after London's departure. Somebody needs to rebuild the bridges Groh has burned with that area's most prominent coaches, Mike Smith from Hampton and Bill Dee from Phoebus.
On at least one occasion, Groh has attempted to hire former New York Giants quarterback Jeff Rutledge, the head coach at Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville, Tenn., the alma mater of current UVa tight end Tom Santi. Indeed, Groh offered Rutledge the offensive coordinator post in 2001, only to go to Bill Musgrave after Rutledge turned him down.
Former North Carolina head coach Carl Torbush has been mentioned as a possible candidate for defensive coordinator after being let go by Texas A&M, but Groh is wedded to the 3-4 defense. That's why London would make so much sense. Capers favors the 3-4, which is one reason the Texans pursued London in the first place.
LEITAO NEARING NUMBERS CRUNCH?
In basketball, reporters still were trying to make sense of Virginia's fall recruiting effort. With four scholarships at their disposal, the Cavaliers signed three players and received commitments from two others.
In fact, one of those committed players, 6-7 Andy Ogide from Paulding County High School in Dallas, Ga., said he signed a letter with the Cavaliers during the early signing period, held onto it until he visited UVa over the weekend of Nov.
18-20, and then mailed it upon his return.
It is unclear whether the letter would have been binding under that scenario. Indeed, in a Dec. 2 teleconference, Leitao said he had signed three players and named them: Johnnie Lett, Jamil Tucker and Will Harris.
A fourth player, Nigerian-born Solomon Tat, made a commitment in October but did not sign, at the advice of Stockbridge (Ga.) Community Christian coach Linzy Davis, at least in part because there were too many logistics involved in forwarding the letter to Nigeria and getting his parents to sign and return it.
The announcement that overmatched freshman recruit Sam Warren would be leaving the program created room for a fourth newcomer, but it is unclear how a fifth spot might open. The on-going delays in the season debut of oft-injured junior post player Donte Minter raised suspicion that UVa may seek a medical waiver for Minter or that he might complete his career elsewhere.