- The Washington Times - Friday, August 24, 2001

There were 23 coaching changes by Division I football teams during the offseason, including four in the ACC. Most of the hirings made sense, such as assistants getting the top job or coaches moving up to bigger programs.
However, Al Groh's decision left many observers shaking their heads. It's rare for an NFL coach apparently in good standing to take a step down to the college ranks, as Groh did when he resigned from the New York Jets to take the job at Virginia.
"The head coach of the New York Jets leaving to go to Virginia gives the conference and the school some credibility," Clemson coach Tommy Bowden said. "[John Bunting] going from an NFL assistant to head coach at North Carolina a whole bunch of guys have done that route. I thought that was a no-brainer. Now the other guy who was head coach of the Jets, that's some serious stuff there."
Groh left New York after a 9-7 season that ended with a collapse to return to his alma mater just one year after getting his first top job in the NFL. He took over the Jets after Bill Parcells abruptly quit following the 1999 season.
Groh, who proudly displays his Super Bowl championship ring from when he was defensive coordinator for Parcells' Giants in 1991, said he took a pay cut with his reported seven-year, $5 million deal at Virginia, although not a drastic one. He'll make his debut tomorrow when the Cavaliers visit No. 22 Wisconsin in the Eddie Robinson Classic.
"It feels better to be here in order to move forward than it really does to come home," said Groh, who lettered in lacrosse and football before graduating from Virginia in 1967. "If I had done this to come home, I would have plain retired."
Groh, 57, said coming back to Virginia was the only job that could have enticed him outside of New York. He began his coaching career as an assistant at Charlottesville's Albemarle High School and was a Cavaliers assistant from 1970 to 1972. The alum
nus returned regularly to watch his son Mike, now Virginia's receivers coach, play quarterback for the Cavaliers before graduating in 1995.
Groh left the Big Apple by his own accord, though his surprising departure was just fine with many of his former players. There were whispers that he had lost the players' respect and grumbling about his draining practices late in the season. Several players feel that's what caused the meltdown from a 6-1 start to a 3-6 finish in which New York lost its final three games and missed the playoffs.
"[Groh] is at the right level [in college]," Jets quarterback Vinny Testaverde told New York reporters this summer. "The players did not respond or relate to the way he was coaching. Now, I think college players will do that. I think that is a much more rah-rah type of level."
Groh escaped the vast shadow of Parcells now the Jets' director of football operations when he took over at Virginia in January. Now he is no longer being scrutinized in the media capital of the world and is readjusting to country life.
Groh doesn't like to discuss his stint in charge of the Jets, where he was New York's second choice to take over after Bill Belichick abruptly quit to coach the New England Patriots. Groh said he doesn't have time to be introspective.
He spent the past 12 seasons in the NFL, mainly next to Parcells with the Giants, Patriots and Jets. Groh previously coached at Wake Forest from 1981 to 1986, compiling a 26-40 record with one winning season.
The Virginia community sees Groh as a savior and hopes he can stage a football revival after a disappointing season in which the team finished 6-6 its first non-winning season since 1986 and George Welsh resigned under pressure after 19 years as coach. Groh is charged with bringing the Wahoos back to national prominence.
"It's like a baby NFL now," said running back Antoine Womack, the ACC's top rusher last year. "It was kind of crazy when I heard he was coming a real NFL coach. He's changed our entire system."
Groh's changes have ranged from the cosmetic putting names on jerseys and redesigning the helmets to the philosophical making the defense a 3-4 scheme and prohibiting quarterbacks from ever being hit in practices or scrimmages. He brought in a young, energetic staff the players can relate to such as 33-year-old, ex-NFL quarterback Bill Musgrave as offensive coordinator and 32-year-old Al Golden as defensive coordinator to go with his own youthful vigor.
Players said the pace of practices is at an NFL level.
"Maybe change will be good for us, because we always had the potential," said offensive guard Josh Lawson, a second-team All-ACC selection last season. "Groh talks a lot more. Welsh is one of those guys [that didn't say much]. Coach Groh is more open."
Groh has also made other changes, like opening the locker rooms to the media after games. Florida State was the only ACC team to have an unrestricted policy last season. While making players more accessible, he has banned his assistants from talking to the press.
"We have a one-voice policy," he said. "I speak for the team."
Overall, Groh's rules have been well received. Of course, Virginia has yet to play a game this season. Questions will arise if the Cavaliers start slowly, and their tough schedule makes that a strong possibility.
Three of Virginia's first four games are against quality opponents. After the season opener with the Badgers and an easy home opener against Richmond, the Cavaliers play host to Penn State and visit No. 19 Clemson.
If things start poorly, Groh likely won't be dissected by the media to the extent he was in New York. But potential critics expect him to make an instant splash at his old school. He has drawn the area's interest and imagination with his impressive credentials, but starting tomorrow he will be judged on the Cavaliers' record.
"If we win, then the guy is going to be a genius and a magician," Groh said of himself. "If we lose, it's going to be like, 'What was the big fuss about?' "

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide