July 31, 2007
CHARLOTTESVILLE The mid-summer lull before the start of Virginia's preseason football practice was interrupted by an on-line shot at seventh-year UVa coach Al Groh.
Stewart Mandel, who writes a column for Sports Illustrated's website, had Groh first on his annual list of the five worst coaches in college football.
It marked the third straight year that an ACC coach had been at the top of Mandel's list. In 2005, Georgia Tech's Chan Gailey headed the group, and in 2006 it was since-departed N.C. State coach Chuck Amato.
Gailey was third last year and Clemson's Tommy Bowden was third this year, which further reinforced Mandel's lack of respect for ACC coaches other than Virginia Tech's Frank Beamer, a regular on the writer's list of the top coaches, which this year also included Wake Forest's Jim Grobe.
Groh had not previously made Mandel's list of the worst coaches, but he was on an "others considered" list in 2006 and a "most overrated" list in 2005.
Mandel's professed reason for putting Groh at the top of his list this year was that he had produced his share of talent in Charlottesville Matt Schaub, D'Brickashaw Ferguson, Heath Miller and Ahmad Brooks were listed by name and had only a 25-23 ACC record to show for it. Mention also was made of "a whole bunch of Christmas dinners in Charlotte and Boise."
If the point was that Groh is a good recruiter who doesn't get the most out of his top recruits, then it should be noted that Schaub already was on campus and that Miller had committed to the previous staff by the time of Groh's arrival. As for the 25-23 ACC record, that's better than four of the other eight teams in the league for the duration of his tenure.
Groh has had a better conference record than his counterparts at Duke, Wake Forest, North Carolina and N.C. State, and he's one game behind Clemson's Bowden (26-22). Also ahead of the Cavaliers during that span are Florida State (34-14), Maryland (30-18) and Georgia Tech (28-20).
Many would say that the 2006 season, when the Cavaliers went 5-7 overall, was their worst under Groh. On the other hand, UVa was 4-4 in conference games and finished third in the Coastal Division, after being picked fourth in the preseason.
"After four years of relative success and the anticipation of winning, we had a disappointing start and then a heartbreaking loss," said Groh, referring to a 28-26 loss to Maryland in a game UVa led 20-0 at the half.
"At that point, a lot of teams might have sacked their bats up. We aspired to a lot more than 5-7, but I think those kids might have turned a 3-9 into 5-7, given what they faced at the midseason mark and the way they responded to it."
Groh offered up those thoughts in a July 18 "summer sitdown" with media members who cover the team on a regular basis. The coach often can be testy when challenged, but he seemed comfortable that day and again five days later, when he met with a much larger ACC media group in Pinehurst, N.C.
"Thinking specifically of the years I've been coaching when I was the head coach, this will be the 14th time," he said. "Each one has felt the same for me going into the season. There's just an urgency to try to win games.
"I feel the challenge on a season-by-season basis to make our team add up to everything it can be. It's an on-going thing. It's what we live with, but it sort of energizes us, too."
Groh has been named by almost every preseason magazine that chooses to list coaches on the "hot seat," although his contract does not expire until 2010. UVa athletic director Craig Littlepage has told reporters that Groh is not on the "hot seat," and it probably would require a second straight losing season for that to occur.
If there was a sense that Groh's players had turned on him or that he no longer could motivate them, maybe that would hasten his departure, but that doesn't appear to be the case.
"It is what it is," preseason All-ACC defensive end Chris Long said of the piece on SI.com. "It's somebody on the outside looking in. No disrespect to anybody's opinion, but I wouldn't rather play for anybody but Coach Groh. He's made me the player and the man that I am today, along with a couple of other role models."
Tight end Tom Santi, a fellow UVa co-captain, said it was an attempt to sell magazines or, in this case, cyberspace.
"Football wouldn't be as popular as it is if we didn't have this sort of stuff," Santi said. "It doesn't affect the outcome of games. Frivolous' is the way I would describe it."
A WORRISOME RECRUITING TREND?
Of course, if attendance declines and Groh loses the support of fans, UVa's administration would have to take notice. There already have been signs of discontent this summer, as the results of early recruiting suggested a possible erosion of in-state influence.
None of the first 12 players to commit to Virginia for 2008 was from the state, and the early indications were that Virginia Tech might win every in-state recruiting battle between the two schools.
Virginia's inability to sign top in-state talent was a development not limited to football. In men's basketball, North Carolina swooped in and took a commitment from Richmond's 6-8 Ed Davis, a post player whom coach Dave Leitao had been recruiting almost since his arrival at UVa.
In women's basketball, seven of the nation's top 100 players as rated by Blue Star were from Virginia. Long-time UVa coach Debbie Ryan and her staff didn't sign any of them.
In his sitdown with reporters, Groh spoke of the student-athlete model that his staff has chosen to pursue, and that frequently UVa must go out of state to find those kind of players. He can point to a 2006 signing class of 24 that lost eight players to academics, but all too often that comes across as excuse-making.
Groh has a way of alienating the Stewart Mandels of the world, people who know him mainly from his sound bytes or selective quotes, but the beauty of his situation is that he controls his own fate. Or, rather, his team controls his fate.
If his team wins eight games or more, UVa probably will tack a year onto Groh's contract. If the Cavaliers win seven, at least they're back in the win column. If they win six, he's probably around for another year. Anything less and he's in trouble, but that's probably the case in a lot of places.
There's one more thing: If Virginia lays an egg in its regular-season finale against Virginia Tech in Charlottesville, as was the case with a 52-14 rout in 2005, all bets are off.