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Staff Turnover Hurt Ugly Academic News

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

August 2, 2006

CHARLOTTESVILLE -- When reporters recently cornered Virginia football coach Al Groh on the subject of the Cavaliers' shrinking 2006 recruiting class, his answer left many UVa fans bewildered.

The Wahoos announced on Feb. 1 that they had signed 24 players, but only 16 will enroll for the start of preseason practice.

"I wouldn't say (the recruiting class) took a hit," Groh said. "I would say it followed a plan. We and each one of the individual players were aware of potential circumstances."

The obvious question: Who would devote the time and energy to sign a 24-player class, only to lose one-third of that class to academics? What sort of plan is that?

Virginia had never lost anywhere close to eight signees in the same year. If it was the Cavaliers' plan to lose eight this year, then it was a new plan.

In hindsight, Groh made a bad choice of words when he referred to the "plan." He probably could have gotten by with the second part, about being aware of the "potential circumstances."

Of the eight casualties, seven did not meet NCAA eligibility requirements. The eighth, Glassboro, N.J., linebacker George Johnson, was not admitted by UVa and enrolled at Rutgers. As a qualifier, he'll be eligible immediately for the Scarlet Knights.

The fact that Johnson could not get into Virginia caused some fans to criticize UVa dean of admissions Jack Blackburn, but Johnson apparently knew what was expected of him on the reading/verbal portion of the SAT and couldn't produce it.

Internet boards also were criticial of the decision not to admit Raleigh, N.C., defensive lineman Gavin Smith, but a knowledgeable source said that Smith failed an English course that kept him from graduating from high school. That kind of predicament would have been hard for a lot of admissions offices to overlook, although Smith entered August trying to become eligible immediately, at nearby N.C. State or elsewhere, as a very late qualifier.

The other six recruits all fell under the heading once known as Prop 48s. They were Orange (Va.) defensive tackle Asa Chapman, Winston-Salem (N.C.) Mount Tabor quarterback O.C. Wardlow, Trenton (N.J.) Central linebacker Almondo Sewell and three players from Chesapeake, Va., defensive back DeAndre Filer from Indian River and Deep Creek teammates Billy Cuffee, an offensive lineman, and Ras-I Dowling, a safety.

The truth be known, the Cavaliers were fearful that another recruit, Group 3A state player of the year Keith Payne from Oakton (Va.) High, might fail to qualify. In fact, the Cavs held up a scholarship offer to Payne when Virginia Tech, among others, had offered the UVa-leaning Payne, but he ultimately made the grade.

Most of the eight casualties were known to have academic difficulties. However, nobody knew that Smith was in trouble until the last moment, and the first reports about Sewell were conflicting because 2005 freshman quarterback Jameel Sewell also was known to have academic issues.

Almondo Sewell is among a group expected to go to Hargrave Military Academy, along with Dowling and possibly Cuffee. Chapman is headed to Fork Union Military Academy, after some initial concerns about FUMA's NCAA accreditation. If FUMA still was being questioned by the NCAA, it would have been more wary of taking Chapman.

Virginia knew when it took a commitment from Chapman in the summer of 2005 that there was almost no way he would qualify. The Cavaliers just felt that he was too good a prospect -- and a local prospect, at that -- not to try and navigate him through an extended admissions process. That decision was justified when the UVa staff heard reports that he had been "unblockable" during practice sessions for the mid-summer state all-star game.

Like Chapman, the word on Filer from the start was that he would have difficulty in qualifying and probably would enroll in prep school. More uncertain was the status of Wardlow, now said to be headed to North Carolina Central. Wardlow's academic prognosis was so questionable that Hargrave said it didn't think it could help him.

Wardlow was one of the players recruited by an assistant who left Virginia after the 2005 season, Danny Rocco. Rocco took the head coaching position at Division I-AA Liberty at approximately the same time that defensive coordinator Al Golden went to Temple and offensive coordinator Ron Prince to Kansas State. Assistant Mark D'Onofrio followed Golden to Temple.

When those aides left, players they were recruiting were turned over to holdover members of the 2005 staff. What the remaining assistants later said was that they became aware of information about some recruits that previously was not widely known on the staff.

The implication was that the lines of communication weren't what they should have been, that commitments were taken from prospects whose academic credentials had not been carefully scrutinized. According to several UVa sources, measures now have been taken that ostensibly will prevent such a situation from occurring in the future.

It could be that the casualties are one of the byproducts of a trend toward early commitments. Johnson was recruited by one of the staff holdovers, Mike Groh, but Johnson committed during the winter of 2005 -- 18 months before he was to enroll. That leaves a lot of time for an academic situation to change.

The most casualties the Groh staff had experienced previously was in the 2002 incoming class that was to have included star linebacker Ahmad Brooks. Brooks and three others failed to qualify in what may have been a case of UVa not playing its hunches very well. The Cavaliers pulled off of Jimmy Williams for fear that he would not qualify, then saw him meet NCAA requirements and become an All-American defensive back at Virginia Tech.

The 11 commitments that Virginia had taken by June 30 this summer would seem to suggest that the Cavaliers are recruiting a higher grade of student, but the Cavs generally attract a decent grade of student-athlete. The incoming 2006 class eventually may be viewed as an aberration, or at least the Groh staff would like to hope so.


Bill Courtney, newly named to basketball coach Dave Leitao's staff, has the kind of profile that Virginia rarely has used to its advantage in the past.

Courtney, most recently an assistant at Providence, grew up in Springfield, Va., before playing at Bucknell. He coached at Virginia high schools as an assistant for three years, before working under Jim Larranaga at George Mason for eight years.

Virginia never has quite determined whether it is a state school or a national school, at least when it comes to athletics. Courtney, who recruited most of the core group that helped George Mason reach the Final Four this past spring, won't need the kind of regional road map that was necessary for many past Virginia assistants.

Courtney replaced Gene Cross, who took an assistant's position at Notre Dame, where he might be sacrificing a little bit of job security for an opportunity to become closer to his Midwest roots.