December 5, 2006
CHARLOTTESVILLE -- The last three visiting coaches to bring football teams into Scott Stadium no longer have jobs, which should have been a sign to Virginia's Al Groh of just how precarious his profession can be.
If not, Groh certainly should have gotten the message Nov. 30, when athletic director Craig Littlepage confirmed that Virginia would not exercise the rollover clause in Groh's contract.
As a result, Groh now has only four years remaining on his deal, instead of five. That was a wrist slap compared to the pink slips received by John Bunting, Larry Coker and Chuck Amato, but it was a message nonetheless.
Some were calling it a vote of no-confidence, but mostly it was Virginia's first opportunity to rectify a five-year, $1.7 million-per-year contract that was hopelessly out of whack when school president John Casteen agreed to it in the summer of 2005.
Groh's contract needed to be re-worked in the aftermath of Dave Leitao's hiring as basketball coach in the spring of 2005, but the Groh pact quickly became a joke. UVa announced that the contract was for five seasons but also said it ran through 2010, which was actually six seasons.
As a result, Virginia did not exercise the rollover clause after a 7-5 campaign in 2005, which left the contract at the desired five years. There was no such hidden reason for the lack of an extension this year.
"The expectations for our program are higher than a 5-7 season," Littlepage said in a statement released by the school. "I understand many young players gained their first significant experience during the 2006 season. I believe Coach Groh and his staff have positioned the team for success on the field in 2007 and beyond."
That was as nicely as Littlepage could have put it. Clearly, the 2007 season will be a pivotal one, if for no other reason than Groh has targeted the 2007 season with statements such as, "We're playing the 2006 season with the 2007 team." If the coach's 2007 team falters, that statement surely could come back to haunt him.
As early as last spring, Groh noted that the Cavaliers would be "rebuilding," a term he previously had not used. He noted the losses of All-ACC players such as offensive tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson and linebacker Kai Parham, playmaking quarterback Marques Hagans, linebacker Ahmad Brooks, defensive tackle Brennan Schmidt, offensive tackle Brad Butler and center Brian Barthelmes.
If the Cavaliers had so much talent in 2005, then why weren't they any better than 7-5?
They easily could have gone 7-5 this year, if not for home losses to Western Michigan and Maryland, the second in a game they led 20-0 at the half. That would have meant Virginia would have gone 6-0 at home, but if Groh and the Cavaliers are ever to amount to anything, they can't just win at home.
During the course of Groh's six seasons, Virginia has gone 18-6 in ACC home games, the second-best ACC home record during that time, trailing only Florida State's 19-5. On the other hand, UVa is 7-17 in ACC road games over that span, tied for second-worst with North Carolina (behind Duke).
The disparity between Virginia's home winning percentage in ACC play (.750) and road winning percentage (.292) during the Groh era is .458. No other ACC team has greater than a .200 differential over that span.
There was no greater evidence of Virginia's varying performances in home and road games than the last three games, when the Cavaliers lost 33-0 at Florida State, won 17-7 at home over Miami, and lost 17-0 at Virginia Tech.
In the Virginia Tech game, UVa had 112 yards in total offense, its low in a game since 1980, and dropped to 113th out of 119 Division I-A teams in total offense. A lot of the griping among UVa fans centered around Groh's decision to elevate his son, Mike, to coordinator following the 2005 season.
Virginia's offense lacked deception and had no deep threat. The word from inside the operation was that the lack of creativity may have stemmed from the head coach's interference, but, whatever it was, it was a mess.
As opposed to the offense, whose 257.2 yards per game were its low since the 1977 season, Virginia's defense had its best season -- statistically speaking -- since 1979. The Cavaliers allowed as many as 400 yards in a game only once and had an average yield of 289.5 yards.
Numbers were skewed this year by the NCAA rules changes that reduced the number of plays, but Virginia's defensive improvement was extraordinary nonetheless. In 2005, the Cavaliers allowed 375.8 yards per game, under previous coordinator Al Golden.
When Golden took the Temple head coaching job, it was Virginia's good fortune that Mike London was available. He had served as UVa's defensive line coach from 2001-04, then took a job as the defensive line coach for the Houston Texans under Dom Capers.
When Capers was fired after the 2005 season, Virginia had the coordinator's position to offer that London feels he needs to land a college head coaching job. He had been Virginia's recruiting coordinator during his earlier stay in Charlottesville, so he already knew many of the players.
What's more, Houston had used the 3-4 defense with which London was familiar from his earlier stay in Charlottesville. What he accomplished this year was nothing short of remarkable, especially since he was starting a pair of walk-ons in team tackle leader Jon Copper and safety Byron Glaspy.
Nevertheless, for the first time in 20 years, Virginia did not have a single first-team All-ACC selection, so talent is as much of an issue as coaching. Of course, talent is a product of coaching, or at least the recruiting and development aspects of coaching.
If rival recruiters can make an issue of Groh's contract, they will, but Virginia already had received 20-21 commitments by the time that decision came down. By most standards, it could be one of Groh's better classes. Now he's got to hang onto it.
In 2005-06, Virginia took a total of 28 commitments. Of that group, four de-committed and eight were not accepted into school. If that's the kind of fluctuation that occurs with a five-year deal, what difference is four going to make?
BASKETBALL ROAD WOES CONTINUE
The football season had barely ended when Virginia went on the road for the first time this season and was beaten at Purdue, 61-59, in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.
That left coach Dave Leitao with a 2-12 road record during his first two seasons, compared to 15-3 at home. Like Groh, Leitao was searching for reasons for his team's poor road performances, maybe moreso than Groh because Leitao isn't constantly trying to put spin on a topic.
Against Purdue, Leitao was let down by his two seniors, guard J.R. Reynolds and center Jason Cain. Reynolds was 1-for-7 from three-point range, missed both of his free throws and had six turnovers. Cain, coming off a career-high 22 points against Maryland-Eastern Shore, immediately got into foul trouble at Purdue and finished with four points, two rebounds and four fouls in 14 minutes.