No Time Like the Present, Virginia Needs to Fire Al Groh Now
Former President Lyndon Baines Johnson once reportedly said, "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost middle America."
Walter Cronkite, the voice of America for an entire generation, saw the futility in Vietnam and forever changed the course of history.
While certainly paling in historical significance, Virginia coach Al Groh had to have come to a similar conclusion this weekend against the TCU Horned Frogs. After all, it only took one look into the stands.
Scott Stadium was far from a friendly place for the home team, as the Virginia Cavaliers continued to sink further and further into failure.
TCU was ranked No. 16 coming into the game, and after Virginia's opening season loss to FCS-team William & Mary, a blowout was all but assured.
However, there's losing and then there's putting up a fight.
The numbers were staggering.
Through three quarters, Virginia had 84 yards of offense. Their receivers had 11 yards total. The Cavaliers finished with seven first downs.
As a result, Virginia fans protested the way fans do. They booed, they chanted "Groh must go" and they left en masse.
Al Groh, you've lost the fans and that means you've lost the program.
Granted, this was not something that happened overnight. The fall of the Virginia program was long before the current six-game losing streak where the Cavaliers have averaged just over 11 points per game.
Indeed, Virginia's fall from grace can be pinpointed to a cold November day in 2005.
From 2003-2007, I went to every single home game at Virginia as a member of the student body. I specifically remember the excitement I had heading into the regular season home finale of 2005 against the rival Virginia Tech Hokies.
Two years ago in Scott Stadium, Virginia had pulled off the big 35-21 victory over the Hokies. I could not wait to see history repeat itself and not only deny the Hokies a chance at the ACC Championship but to put Virginia in position to go to Jacksonville to bring home a trophy of their own.
The game was at noon and I woke about 7'o'clock to make the trek from Lambeth Field to Scott Stadium. My friends beside me, we were met by an army of fans, waiting in freezing cold for the game of the year.
The energy leading up to the game was incredible. I remember chanting down the minutes before kickoff and the stadium was louder than I had ever heard it (except during the FSU game earlier that year).
Then the game started. I remember Virginia sacking Marcus Vick on third down for an early three-and-out. After that though, well that's a bit of a blur.
Turns out Virginia may have been pumped for the game, but they weren't ready for the Hokies. Instead of a victory, the Cavaliers were blitzed with a 52-14 loss.
In every phase of the game, Virginia had been outplayed and although Florida State would ultimately defeat the Hokies in the ACC Championship, this game marked a definite shift between the two programs...not just to outsiders but to the fans.
After the 2005 season, Virginia had to cope with the loss of Marques Hagans at quarterback. The transition was about as ugly as you could imagine. In 2006, Virginia had three different starting quarterbacks in a four-game stretch.
During that stretch, Virginia went 1-3, their lone victory coming off a missed extra point by the Wyoming Cowboys in overtime. The Cavaliers were outscored 91-43 and ultimately finished the season with a 5-7 record, Groh's first losing season since 2001.
While the product on the field struggled, the Cavalier fans lost their patience.
I remember having to wait in line at least three hours before kickoff to get good seats my first three years at Virginia. In 2006, I could show up five minutes before the gate opened and get front row seats in the student section.
The worst thing that could happen to a program had set in: apathy.
Even in 2007, when Virginia began to turn things around with a nine-win season and a Gator Bowl appearance, the students kept their distance.
They knew the truth, Virginia was getting lucky, not better. Five wins by two points or less may sound like your team is clutch, but Cavalier fans realized it just meant you were one or two plays away from having another losing season.
The Virginia offense was still anemic and a defensive lineman named Chris Long was keeping their team from being a joke in the ACC.
Just like former Virginia basketball player Todd Billet had saved head coach Pete Gillen's job for a few years, Long's heroics gave Groh more time but little else.
Last year, the problems grew. Virginia once again got off to a terrible start, including a 31-3 loss to Duke. The rough start and a bad economy meant that even though Virginia went 4-0 in October, no one was there to see it.
Nearly 65,000 people showed up for Virginia's season opener in 2008. In the home finale, Virginia could barely get over 51,000 fans to watch the Cavaliers battle Clemson.
Well this week, against a team ranked 16th in the country, with perfect weather and in the middle of the afternoon, Virginia's announced attendance was 48,336. It was the lowest turnout in ten years. By comparison, 57,580 people showed up in 2004 to watch Virginia beat up Troy 24-0.
After three quarters of offensive futility, that number seemed like a pipe dream. Those fans that remained were there to shower their team with boos.
The anger and disappointment has reached a boiling point and the cry can be heard throughout the Commonwealth of Virginia this evening.
Mid-season firings are always a touchy subject. There are plenty of examples of how making a change mid-season helps turn programs around or leads to complete chaos.
There are plenty of excuses to give coach Groh the rest of the year to turn things around. After all, Virginia has made a career of turning things around after slow starts under Groh.
In fact, the last time Virginia started 0-2 was in 2002, a year in which the Cavaliers finished second in the ACC when the team was picked to finish next to last in the conference.
Virginia actually showed signs of life in garbage time against the second-string of the TCU Horned Frogs with two long bombs by Jameel Sewell for 14 points to make a terrible game appear respectable.
I suppose a finish like that is the glass half full/half empty scenario. If you're an optimist you believe that Virginia may gain confidence not only in themselves but in calling plays that will stretch the field and prevent defenses from stacking the box.
However, if you're a Virginia fan, you know better.
Groh is also an alum, and canning a loyal and dedicated Cavalier can appear a bit cruel. After all, firing someone two games into a season looks to be a little rash.
In truth, Virginia has been more than patient with coach Groh. For nine years, fans have waited for the Cavaliers to reach the infamous "next level". Every year a new hope and every year a disappointment.
For the past four seasons, Groh has avoided the pink slip by the skin of his teeth. To the joy of his rivals, Groh has been given not just second chances but third and fourth opportunities to show he can get Virginia to the level he promised in a press conference not too long ago.
Well the time has come for Virginia to do what needed to be done years ago. For the sake of the program, the Cavaliers need to turn the page sooner rather than later.
The success of a college football team relies on a culture. In the early years of the Groh era, Virginia was one of the most difficult places to play in America.
During my first three years at Virginia, we lost three games total at home. The Sea of Orange created a positive environment where you couldn't help but be proud of your team.
The program has lost its way. Be it the arrogance of the coach, an offensive offense, a sour economy or just the successes down the road in Blacksburg, Virginia football needs a change now.
Football may ultimately rest upon winning and losing, but the first step towards a successful program is winning over the fanbase.
Groh has lost the fans, and winning them back may never happen. If he couldn't do it in 2007, how will losses against William & Mary and Duke stem the tide?
Virginia needs a new leader, a new face of the program. Someone who can win over the fans and bring Virginia back to respectability before the damage is done permanently.
The Cavaliers have two former head coaches on their staff and talent that is currently being wasted. Virginia may be bad, but not nearly as bad as they have looked so far this year.
Some may ask, what is the difference between firing a coach now and just a few months from this very moment?
My answer is, the difference between a short-term football recession and a long-term rebuilding project.
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