Al Groh’s tenure as head coach of the Virginia Cavaliers has been a rocky one. Upon his arrival in 2001, Groh immediately attempted to change the culture of Virginia Football. He encouraged the fanbase to leave their ties and pearls at home, and instead throw on orange t-shirts (or sweatshirts if you really wanted to make a good impression on the new coach). On the field, he made the switch from the 4-3 to the unconventional 3-4 defense. He concluded his first season with a 5-7 record, but Virginia fans were optimistic that Coach Groh would lead them to bigger and better things.
Enter the glory years of Al Groh’s career at Virginia.
In 2002, Virginia overachieved and won nine games, including a bowl victory over West Virginia.
The 2003 campaign saw the Hoos slightly underachieve on their way to eight wins. But nobody seemed to mind as Virginia was able to knock off the Hokies (don’t get used to it) and win their bowl game against Pittsburgh. Coach Groh was quietly building a national contender in Charlottesville. He had proven he could win with the 3-4, and his blue-chip recruits were ready to take Virginia to the next level.
The 2004 season was Groh’s chance to bring Virginia Football back to national prominence. After jumping out to a 5-0 record, Groh faced his first big test as head coach. He earned an F. Instead of putting up a fight, Virginia was thoroughly destroyed on the road by the Seminoles. The Hoos responded to that ugly loss with two more wins, and Groh faced his second big test as head coach, this time in the friendly confines of Scott Stadium. The location did not matter, as Virginia lost a heartbreaker to the Hurricanes. The Cavaliers concluded the season by losing on the road to Virginia Tech and losing to mid-major Fresno State in their bowl game to finish 8-4. Eight wins? Elite teams win more than eight games. Donors and fans began to wonder if Groh could win the big games.
The expectations were not nearly as lofty for the 2005 season, but many expected Virginia to still make some noise. Virginia (3-2) came limping into a home showdown with No. 4 Florida State (5-0). The Cavaliers pulled off the upset and it seemed that Groh had finally hushed the doubters. He had finally gotten that big win.
For an encore performance, Virginia lost at North Carolina in a shootout (The score was 7-5. It was honestly one of the worst football games I have ever seen.) The loss essentially negated the big win over FSU. Virginia finished the season with seven wins, including a bowl victory over Minnesota (I will not speak of the 2005 VT game).
From 2002-2005, the Cavaliers went 32-19 and won three of their four bowl games. While it is hard to complain about four consecutive winning seasons and three bowl wins, if you look at what could have been, it is hard not to.
The 2006 season was an absolute disaster. Virginia finished 5-7. It was Groh’s second losing season in six years. Is it just a coincidence that this woeful season was also Mike Groh’s first as offensive coordinator?
As a result of the 2006 debacle, Papa Groh entered the 2007 season with his job on the line. After opening the season with a loss at Wyoming, fans were surprised to see Groh on the sideline for the next game (If it was up to me, he would not have been on the plane ride back to Charlottesville). But the Cavaliers went on a miraculous seven-game winning streak, which prompted Groh to write many thank you cards to Mikell Simpson and Chris Long. Virginia ended the regular season with nine wins and earned a spot in a New Year’s Day bowl, which they lost. But the nine wins were more than enough to keep Groh in charge for at least another year.
And what a year it was. Academic and legal casualties made for an ominous start to the season. Virginia finished the 2008 campaign with another 5-7 record, and made the record books by losing to Duke.
During his eight seasons as head coach, Groh had beaten rival Virginia Tech only once. To the extreme disappointment of many, Groh was not fired after the season. Instead, Athletic Director Craig Littlepage slapped him on the wrist and did not extend his contract. Cavalier faithful groaned and began preparing for another losing season.
So here we are, in the midst of another college football season. Heather Dinich is handing out asinine power rankings. Hokie fans are busy purchasing plane tickets to Pasadena for their inevitable trip to the BCS National Championship Game. And lowly Virginia fans are contemplating attending even the William and Mary game.
But wait! Groh has a plan to rescue Virginia from mediocrity. The plan is so crazy, it just might work. It involves hiring an offensive coordinator from outside the family, one with experience and a brain. Bringing in a coach with proven special teams success is also featured in this stimulus package. Throw in a great recruiter, and one of the best safeties to ever play the game coaching your secondary and you’ve got yourself an elite group of assistants.
I honestly feel that these changes are a giant step in the right direction for Al Groh and Virginia Football. Gregg Brandon is one of the best offensive minds in college football. While coaching at Kansas State, Ron Prince’s special teams units were very successful. In 2008, KSU was sixth in the nation in kickoff coverage. In 2007, KSU was first in the nation in punt returns, and in 2006 was first in kickoff returns. Latrell Scott is a young, enthusiastic coach and a great recruiter. His ties to the Commonwealth will allow Virginia to bring in top talent from the state. Let’s not forget that Scott brought in Morgan Moses. And Anthony Poindexter is finally coaching the secondary at Virginia.
This year, Al Groh has surrounded himself with the best coaching talent in his nine seasons in Charlottesville. Barring an absolutely disastrous season (four wins or fewer), Groh and his staff deserve another year to prove what they can do for this program. I was on the “Fire Groh” bandwagon last year after losing to Duke, but I love the offseason changes and am very excited to see this talented coaching staff return Virginia Football to excellence.