- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 27, 2003

Perhaps it’s only fitting that at a university renowned for its Lawn a football program is springing to national prominence thanks to a dose of Miracle Groh.

When Bill Parcells protege Al Groh returned to Charlottesville two years ago to take over as coach of his alma mater, the Virginia football program was stuck in a bit of a rut. In two decades under George Welsh, the Cavaliers were consistently solid, winning at least seven games each year between 1987 and 1999, but never spectacular.

Welsh’s teams won 10 games only once (1989). They never cracked the top 15 of the final AP poll. And like every other team in the ACC at that point, the program never managed to unseat Florida State and win an outright league title.

With the start of his third season at the helm of the Wahoos only days away, Groh already has built a program capable of eclipsing the modest successes of his predecessor.

“There’s no doubt that Al Groh has something special brewing in Charlottesville,” ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit said recently. “In just two seasons, Coach Groh has put a pro-style philosophy in place at Virginia that guys, both current players and recruits, have bought into. I think Virginia is going to be a serious national player in the very near future.”

It’s hard to argue with that assessment, considering the way Virginia closed out last season. After starting 0-2, the Cavaliers rebounded to win nine of 12, finishing with a flourish against four consecutive Top 25 teams. They slipped past No.22 N.C. State (14-9), drubbed No.18 Maryland (48-13) and, after a tough loss at Virginia Tech (21-9), pounded No.13 West Virginia (48-22) in the Continental Tire Bowl.

A Virginia squad picked to finish eighth in the ACC before the season had compiled a 9-5 record, finished second in the conference (6-2) and earned a final AP ranking of No.22. Quarterback Matt Schaub, who had 2,976 passing yards and 28 touchdowns against seven interceptions, was named the league’s offensive MVP. And Groh outstripped Maryland’s Ralph Friedgen, N.C. State’s Chuck Amato and FSU’s Bobby Bowden for coach of the year honors.

“It’s been a new season since last January,” said Groh, who like Parcells answers every question with an endearing gruff honesty. “It’s foolish to look back past your last game or ahead past your next one.”

Groh and Co. might be focused on Saturday’s opener against perennial pushover Duke, but Virginia fans have long dreamed of an ACC crown. After all, with Schaub back for his senior season, along with sophomore tailback Wali Lundy and 15 of last season’s starters, the 18th-ranked Cavaliers should be favored to win their first six games. Virginia easily could be undefeated heading into an Oct.18 showdown with Florida State at Scott Stadium.

In reality, however, the program’s ultimate glory days probably are still a season or two away. The roster is still disconcertingly thin and inexperienced at a number of positions. The graduation of Billy McMullen and a season-ending injury to Michael McGrew leaves the Cavaliers without a gamebreaker at receiver. The linebacking corps is loaded with talented youngsters like blue-chip prepsters Ahmad Brooks, Daryl Blackstock and Kai Parham but lacks a proven performer like departed defensive anchor Angelo Crowell. And the progress of a youthful offensive line was the biggest disappointment of fall camp.

“Right now, I probably like most of what we’re getting from [right guard] Elton Brown, but that’s about it,” Groh said last week. “We’ve got like two and a half [offensive lineman]. Elton would be one, and then you can split the remaining one and a half among the other four starters.”

Such personnel issues are what separate this season’s Virginia squad from the more mature product likely to follow in coming seasons.

“Take a kid like [senior cornerback] Jamaine Winborne, who played really well for us last season and had a really good preseason,” Groh said. “Jamaine was really lost as a sophomore corner two years ago. At some places, the program would have almost mandated, just because of the players ahead of them, that now as a fourth-year junior a player like that would just be entering their first year as a starter. They would start for two years, and that would be considered a real good career.

“So, when I talk about a mature program, I’m talking about places where they just take good-looking players like that, and they don’t make any decisions about them. They just put them on the shelf because they’ve been doing it for 50 years. The process has been going on for so long that there have been so many players just like them in ability who preceded them that they just have so much more experience at the position and so much more time in the weight room and all those things that go into being a really mature player. We’re not in that circumstance.”

Not yet.

Groh’s vision of stockpiling for success has manifested itself in two straight consensus top-10 recruiting classes.

“I rank Al Groh up there with [Texas] Mack Brown and [Tennessees] Phil Fulmer as the top three recruiters in the country,” ESPN recruiting analyst Tom Lemming said last week.

How talented is Groh as a recruiter?

Not only has Groh held his own in the talent-rich Tidewater region, his last recruiting class included a number of startling signees from other parts of the nation.

Groh and his staff went into Florida and swiped the nation’s top-ranked prep center, Jordy Lipsey, out from under the Gators, ‘Noles and ‘Canes. They claimed one of the nation’s premier offensive guards, Ian-Yates Cunningham, out of Texas. They mined Tennessee for highly touted linebacker Vince Redd. They tripped to State College (Pa.) and wrenched top tight end Jon Stupar away from JoePa. And earlier this week, Virginia received the good news that coveted quarterback Chris Olsen, one of the top signal-callers in last year’s prep class, was transferring from Notre Dame with designs on taking over from Schaub next season.

“It was pretty urgent to upgrade the talent level,” Groh said of his triumphs on the recruiting trail. “I guess it was just a result of developing relationships with the young players by the entire staff to make them feel like their best interests could be well-served here.”

At first blush, it seems strange that a coach who has spent most of his career in the NFL could have such instant success as a recruiter. Upon closer examination, however, Groh’s professional background is precisely what attracts most youngsters to Charlottesville.

After spending 13 years in the NFL, mostly as a linebackers coach under Parcells with the Giants, Patriots and Jets, perhaps it should come as little surprise that Groh runs his program almost like a professional franchise.

He employs almost the same offensive and defensive schemes he learned under Parcells.

He refers to spring and fall practice as “camps.”

An astounding 11 of his assistants have pro experience either as a coach or player.

And recruits, who often find themselves peering around a replica of the Lombardi Trophy (from the Giants 1991 Super Bowl victory) that sits on Groh’s desk, definitely have taken note. The message is as simple as it is subtle: If a professional career is the dream (and it always is), Groh has been there and runs a program that will groom you to take that next step. Accordingly, Virginia has become a national player on the recruiting front. Youngsters from all over the country have heard the pro buzz emanating from Charlottesville and decided to take a closer look.

Take this season’s top-ranked prep defensive tackle, 6-foot-4, 280-pound DeMario Pressley of Greensboro, N.C. Pressley’s current top seven includes Southern Cal, Florida State, Miami, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Georgia … and Virginia.

Or just consider Stupar’s comments about the Cavaliers on signing day in February.

“Sure, the pro connections played a role for me,” said Stupar, who was recruited by former Notre Dame All-American and Packers standout Andy Heck, who now coaches tight ends at UVa. “Who would pass up the chance to work with someone like Coach Heck? He’s played the position at the highest level. And he’s a great guy. Honestly, I looked around, and I didn’t see a staff anywhere that could match the one at Virginia. It’s obvious that something serious is happening there, and I want to be part of it.”

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