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Groh's Unique Approach Draws Raves, Complaints In Media Relations World

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

By Dave Glenn and Staff
ACCSports.com

October 4, 2004 Things could get real interesting for media members who cover Virginia football, especially now that the Cavaliers are ranked in the nation's top 10. With fan interest in the Virginia program at an all-time high, media access isn't what it used to be, which means the legions of Wahoo faithful who follow the Cavaliers may not learn as much about their favorite team as it continues its march toward elite status.

The good, the bad and the ugly all can be traced back to fourth-year Virginia coach Al Groh. He brought an NFL mentality to his alma mater in terms of building a program, and also in the way that program is followed by newspapers, television, radio and internet reporters. Groh, who once begged for his Wake Forest team to be noticed by the media, now has his own set of guidelines for how one of the ACC's blossoming programs will be covered.

First, there are Groh's ground rules. An example: Except for one brief window during the offseason each year, no reporter is permitted to interview Virginia's assistant coaches. When Groh arrived in Charlottesville, he brought a "one-voice" policy with him, meaning that he would be the one and only spokesman for the Cavaliers' football program.

While some critics mistake this policy as simply arrogance on the part of Groh, most writers who follow Virginia football understand that the coach's guidelines evolved from his long-time association with legendary NFL guru Bill Parcells. Groh coached under Parcells with the New York Giants, the New England Patriots and the New York Jets and was not allowed to talk to media unless the "Big Tuna" approved it ahead of time.

Groh explained his philosophy for instituting the one-voice policy as a defense against an assistant coach spouting off something that could rile up or tip off an opponent. (That happened more than once during the regime of Groh's predecessor, George Welsh.) If nothing else, Groh is assured that whatever emerges from Virginia's football offices isn't likely to come back to haunt the program.

In addition to a handful of writers, some other ACC coaches actually have questioned Groh's one-voice policy. One rival coach wondered how UVa's assistant coaches are supposed to learn about dealing with media if they're not allowed to talk.

"It's part of their training," the coach said. "What if a guy gets a head coaching job somewhere, and he has never had to deal with the media?"

That isn't an issue Groh spends any time worrying about, of course, and even most of the coach's critics in the media agree on this: One good thing about the one-voice policy in Groh's case is that the one voice is pretty darned accessible.

Groh, who was accustomed to and perhaps hardened somewhat by the New York and Boston media contingents during his professional stints, makes himself available to sportswriters and sportscasters at least five times a week from August practice through season's end. That includes a live press conference on Mondays, an ACC coaches teleconference on Wednesdays, a teleconference with Virginia and visiting media on Thursdays, his post-game press conferences on Saturdays and yet another teleconference with Virginia media on Sunday afternoons.

Indeed, many Groh observers will readily point out that the veteran coach is a pure joy for the media in several ways. Virginia's football beat writers, in particular, respect that he is highly accessible, and that he gives thoughtful and insightful answers to good questions. It also doesn't hurt that Groh exhibits a great deal of respect for the veteran writers on the Virginia beat, particularly the ones who are football-savvy.

"Groh has been a study in media relations," said Mac McDonald, the long-time play-by-play man for Virginia football. "He addresses the individual writers and broadcasters by name and teaches them the game of football. Every press conference is a lesson, a working game plan for the media, so they understand why Virginia is running what it is running. He breaks things down so media people who might not understand football walk away with a clearer understanding."

At the same time, Groh has a certain level of expectations for media members in return. He expects them to come prepared, to have a working knowledge of the program, the season and the personnel.

"Ask a stupid question and you'll get the Groh stare," McDonald said. "He will answer the question, but afterward you will walk away shaking your head, admitting it was a stupid question."

One reporter from a prominent newspaper was known among her peers for not always doing her homework. Almost weekly, she would ask one of "those" questions.

During a season in which Groh used two quarterbacks, one was pulled from a close game after suffering a concussion and replaced by the other. The reporter, who simply had not paid attention, arrived at the post-game press conference with an attitude that she was going to grill the coach on why he would jerk the starter out of the lineup.

Other writers winced when they heard the question asked, and they waited for Groh to resemble one of those cartoon characters whose eyes rolled like a slot machine until they came up cherries and steam blasted from his ears. Instead, it was just the stare, followed by a terse answer.

While Groh may be the most articulate coach to have worked in the ACC in decades and often shows off his Virginia education with the use of four-syllable words and descriptive terms, he also can be testy.

It's not just the occasional stupid question that ticks him off. He detests when media members question his judgment in personnel, game management or decision-making. Those issues can draw the stare, particularly if they come from a new or young face on the beat. At that point, the coach can be very condescending, and he may opt to show that person that he has forgotten more football than the writer will ever learn.

Most of the veteran Virginia beat writers sometimes can cleverly or even jokingly find a way to broach a sensitive issue with the coach without drawing his wrath. Sometimes, though, even the old pros draw fire if they strike the wrong nerve.

But those moments are rare. More often are answers that most sportswriters only dream about. For example, when asked to comment on his team's rushing success this season, particularly the massive amounts of rushing yardage without the benefit of long runs, Groh gave this explanation:

"When you analyze your running game, you have to analyze it two ways, and the same thing for your run defense. Average yards per play is certainly the most important. If you rush for 300 yards and you average 3.6, that might not make you as effective as if you rush for 150 yards and you rush for 5.5. But average per rush is an indicator of your proficiency of run or run defense, but also, not something that's calculated, but the efficiency of your running game. That is, how many times, what percentage of your runs either gain, say, four yards or more, or accomplish the situation. So, if it's third and one, and you gain one and a half, that's an efficient run."

Whew!

Perhaps that may seem as a lot of information to digest, but it is a typical Groh answer to a deep, interesting question. That's why his press conferences tend to take a long time, because he takes time to give good answers. Occasionally, media members find themselves referring to Webster's, because Groh's vocabulary is uncommon among football coaches.

When answering a question about how four current Division I-A head coaches, all ranked in the Top 25 at the time, worked with or for Patriots head coach Bill Belichick in New England, Groh perhaps startled a few writers.

"There's a homogeneity of football and work ethic that attracted us to working together and attracted Bill to hiring us," Groh said, leaving some writers scrambling for the nearest dictionary. He often peppers his speech with what former Clemson coach Frank Howard used to call "dem 50-cent words."

More often than not, though, Groh's replies are not as technical as the running game explanation or laced with sophisticated language, but rather just good, interesting answers. Talking about his team's ability to fight its way into a bowl game with a strong finish last season, Groh put it like this:

"The phrase I used to identify this team earlier in the season, collectively and individually, was that they can take a punch, get staggered a little, but you can't knock ëem out. There's no glass jaws out there."

Most writers pine to cover a coach who doesn't answer everything in coachspeak.

Some see Groh as a stubborn football coach who seldom will admit he's wrong. However, they will trade that off for what they usually get in return: a coach with an uncanny recall of his football past, often-entertaining stories and a good sense of humor. It isn't uncommon for Groh to joke around with the media and enjoy a good laugh at their expense, or sometimes even at his own expense.

The Virginia coach rarely passes up an opportunity to relate an experience from his lengthy NFL career to make a point about a topic concerning his own team, the ACC race or the way a position is played. He also likes to use analogies to clarify points, often using golf, three-point shooters in basketball, power hitters as opposed to singles hitters in baseball, etc., to give his explanation more meaning.

He often treats listeners to his radio call-in show and those who ask questions on the state-wide summer rubber chicken fundraiser circuit with similarly thoughtful responses.

"Groh is terrific with the fans," McDonald said. "He is a teacher and a motivator."

Groh's schedule is so tight that he often walks right off the practice field to his office, sits down with a bottle of water, puts on his headset and talks to fans. He often multi-tasks during the show, signing recruiting letters, watching video tapes or catching up on paperwork while discussing freeze options at the same time.

A community-minded person — after all, his mother, sister, brother and son all live in Charlottesville — Groh has become a very popular guy in a short period of time.

He's the antithesis of his predecessor, Welsh, in many regards. While both have done remarkable jobs at a school that used to be a laughingstock in college football, Groh is far more outgoing, and he never seems to mind dealing with media requests.

Welsh, who was always better in a one-on-one interview setting as opposed to a group session, often complained about why he had to make himself available so often. Welsh, who met with the media only on Mondays and in post-game settings, once barked, "I'm overexposed."

None of Virginia's major sports coaches in recent memory has been as accessible as Groh. His basketball counterpart, Pete Gillen, once eluded the media so much that beat writers had to complain to the school that they needed more access. Gillen submitted to occasional teleconferences prior to an upcoming game or games. Still, Gillen's answers are sometimes non-answers, sometimes ill-conceived and often dotted with excuses.

Speaking of making excuses, Groh insists that's something he won't do, particularly when it comes to injuries. While some wouldn't blame him for making excuses when it comes to losing key personnel because of injuries, Groh uses that explanation for why he will not discuss those situations.

The coach breaks that policy on occasion, as he did with the recent loss of star end Chris Canty for the season with a knee injury. Usually, though, the topic of injuries is taboo around Groh.

"The reason behind it isn't so much trying to create a cloak of secrecy, but rather from the mentality that we have a no-excuse policy," Groh said. "Weather, injuries or an ëI didn't get the call' excuse. Whether it's a player using injury as an excuse for his play or a coach using injuries as an excuse for performance, we just don't do it."

Virginia's locker room used to be open to the media following games and on Mondays, but Groh closed them down as punishment for what he called unfair coverage of off-the-field incidents involving some players and Charlottesville police in the offseason.

Groh was particularly perturbed when promising recruit Ahmad Bradshaw, from Bluefield, Va., was charged after being routinely stopped for an under-age alcohol check near campus prior to the season. Bradshaw panicked and ran from the police, then was caught and arrested. The coach became furious at the coverage around the state, particularly in the hometown newspaper, which ran a story on an inside page with a photo. Groh said the coverage was "out of whack," and that media had crossed the line in probing into the private life of athletes.

None of the media agencies that cover Virginia athletics changed any policy as a result of Groh's complaints, and many felt it was another classic case of "killing the messenger." Still, the locker rooms remain closed, even though media members are permitted to request players for interviews outside the locker room or in a media room at the stadium.

Should UVa's football ascent continue, drawing more national attention and thus more national media, the coach's policy won't be well-received when the big dogs take notice of the program.

In all likelihood, though, Groh won't care. He can be stubborn that way.

Bonus Brick: On Underclassmen

Let's conclude our contribution to this issue (please see pages 12-13 and 18-19 for the rest) by providing information on a handful of high school juniors who are interested in major ACC area colleges. As usual, they will be introduced alphabetically:

Mike Conley Jr. (No. 17), a 6-2 junior PG at Indianapolis (IN) Lawrence North and the son of the Olympic long jumper of the same name, already has pared down to a final four and hopes to reach a college decision by the end of the 2004-05 academic year. He identifies Wake Forest as the present leader, followed by Indiana, Ohio State and Michigan State. A left-hander, Conley is among the best three or four point guard prospects in the Class of 2006.

Wayne Ellington (No. 16), an outstanding
6-4, 175-pound junior WG/WF at Merion Station (PA) Episcopal Academy near Philadelphia, continues to excel for The Playaz traveling team. In one recent event (IS8), he scored 33 points to lead the team to a crucial victory over the Jamaica Youth Organization. He's being recruited diligently by N.C. State (which wants him badly), Seton Hall, Villanova, Notre Dame, Connecticut and Georgia Tech, but it's still early and many other schools could get involved.

Jonathan Hall (No. 27), a 6-5 junior WF/WG at Miami (FL) Senior High who played quite well for runner-up Team Breakdown at the Reebok Big Time tournament, is getting lots of attention from Cincinnati, Miami, Indiana and South Florida, among others. He has tremendous range on his jump shot and also is a good athlete and a solid ball-handler.

Eric Hayes (No. 48), a skilled, fundamentally sound 6-3 junior PG/WG at Dumfries (VA) Potomac, unofficially visited Wake Forest on Sept. 24-25, Virginia Tech on Oct. 1-2 and plans to be at N.C. State on Oct. 22-23. In addition, he's eyeballing Tennessee, Maryland, Georgetown, West Virginia and Richmond. Hayes recently said his goal is to play in the ACC, and he's already been offered by N.C. State, Virginia Tech, Miami, West Virginia and Ohio State. Last season Eric, who is coached in high school by his father Kendall, averaged 13 points and seven assists per game while shooting 52 percent from the field, 39 percent on three-pointers and 91 percent from the charity stripe as 29-1 Potomac reached the state final before losing.

James Keefe (No. 22), a 6-9, 190-pound junior BF/WF at Rancho Santa Margarita (CA) Santa Margarita, recently reduced his college list to the following five schools: Arizona (he'll unofficially visit Oct. 15 for Midnight Madness), Duke (he's been a fan of the Blue Devils), UCLA (an hour and a half drive from his home), Notre Dame and Stanford. In the process, this strong student (3,5 GPA) eliminated both California (once perceived as the early leader) and UNC, among many others.

Richard Semrau (No. 38), a heralded 6-8 junior BF at Rocky River (OH) Lutheran West whose play was inconsistent at major spring and summer events, unofficially visited both North Carolina and Wake Forest on Oct. 1. While he's interested in the Tar Heels and the Deacons, his current number one choice is Kentucky.

Jamie Skeen (No. 35), a 6-8, 215-pound junior BF/WF at Huntersville (NC) North Mecklenburg, reportedly has steadied his perimeter jump shot (which was erratic in summer play) and expects to wind up as a college wing forward. He was watched in recent workouts by coaches from Wake Forest, Florida, Clemson, Connecticut, Tennessee, Virginia Tech, Miami (Sept. 29) and UNC (Sept. 30). We certainly like his potential but believe he floated around the three-point line too much this summer, rather than using his size and athleticism to get easy buckets closer to the basket.

Edgar Sosa (top 100), a 6-1, 180-pound junior WG/PG at Manhattan (NY) Rice who has superb range on his jump shot, said N.C. State is his clear-cut favorite and the team to beat for his college services. He's also getting attention from much of the Big East, including St. John's, Seton Hall, Rutgers, UConn and Syracuse.

Among the many prospects we watched in action on Sept. 18 at Bob Smith's Hoop Alliance Evaluation Clinic at Guilford College in North Carolina were 6-9 Black Mountain (NC) Owen senior C David Weaver (No. 53) and Greensboro (NC) Dudley senior BF Kevin Swinton (No. 132), who both have committed to Wake Forest. We particularly like the potential of Weaver, who projects down the road as a devastating shotblocker. Among others who stood out at this fine event, which featured 220 prepsters, were exciting 6-7 Laurinburg (NC) Prep senior WF Kiwan Smith (No. 115) and 6-7 Salem (VA) High sophomore BF Kenny Belton (top 50).

At the Fullcourt Press Fall Hoops Classic, held Sept. 17-19 in California (Cypress), above-mentioned Duke commitment Jamal Boykin (No. 29), a 6-7 senior BF/WF at Los Angeles (CA) Fairfax, amassed 17 points and 12 rebounds in the championship game. In the final, Boykin's Belmont Shore team lost 74-58 to Branch West Team Reebok out of nearby Orange County. Pacing the winners was terrific 6-2 junior WG/PG Jerry Smith (who'll rise into the top 25 of the Class of 2006), an import from Wauwatosa (WI) West. Smith racked up 24 points in the final, 32 in the semifinals and 20 (18 in the second half) in the quarterfinals!

— Brick Oettinger, ACCSports.com

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