A Tale of Two Coaches: Virginia Cavaliers Find New Image

Ben GibsonSenior Analyst ISeptember 17, 2009

CORAL GABLES, FL - NOVEMBER 10:  Head coach Al Groh of the Virginia Cavaliers watches his team take on the Miami Hurricanes at the Orange Bowl on November 10, 2007 in Coral Gables, Florida. The Hurricanes played their last game in the Orange Bowl as Virginia defeated Miami 48-0.  (Photo by Doug Benc/Getty Images)

One of them has coached at Virginia for nine years, the other has yet to coach a single game for the Cavaliers.

One came to Charlottesville with joy and excitement surrounding him, the other came with murmurs of disappointment and confusion.

One is a 65-year old long-time NFL assistant and college coach, the other is a 40-year old son of a basketball legend with only three years of head coaching experience to his credit.

In other words, there are many differences between Virginia football coach Al Groh and new basketball coach Tony Bennett.  However, those differences are far deeper than anything you could find on a résumé .

Groh, as has many said many times, is not the most approachable person.  His demeanor and attitude can seem cold and standoffish to some if not most people.  It has won him few friends and more than a few enemies over the years. 

Even now with the dogs barking at the door and the angry villagers storming the castle, Groh has stood firm on his decisions and strategy after two back-to-back humiliating performances to open the 2009 season.

For those of you who have never had the joy of listening to a Groh press conference, it is truly a sight to see.  Groh has a certain way with words and good luck trying to quote him for an article.

Here's an example of what I mean.  Not only does it illustrate Groh's defiance against popular convention, it also shows his rather unique speaking style.

After Virginia's reluctance to throw a pass over 8 yards for over 55 minutes of game time, a reporter asked the fair question of asking what is his team's philosophy on throwing downfield.

"Depends on the type of game that you're trying to run," Groh said.  "We had a particular plan in mind the other day.  Keep in mind that we were playing the No. 7 team in the country from last year and one of the ways they got that way was to have the highest time of possession in the country.  So that clearly is a factor in their success.  So right away, when we see that and with when we see how they put it together, it said one of the components of being a team is you've got to get their time of possession down.  And so one of the ways to do that is to maximize the amount of time that goes off the clock while you have it.  And we are in a pretty good position to do that.  And, in fact, although it was my intention not to go back in history, we did have a third‑and‑long situation in which we stop the team.  Unfortunately we have to go back on the field after that play."

Just for reference, that was only about half the answer and let me assure you he still did not even come close to answering the question in that section either.  So when asked again to actually answer the question:

"I just gave you my answer," Groh said.  "It's about managing the game and putting the game together in terms of giving yourself the best opportunity to win."

Call me crazy, but waiting until the third string is in to throw downfield does not seem like the best opportunity to win.

The secret to a Groh press conference is that you need a masters degree to understand what he's saying but a Monday quarterback degree to know that sometimes his claims are just plain off-base.

I need not tell you how arrogance combined with a bad record can be quite a turn off to recruits, I already explored the topic here.

Instead, it is far more interesting to note just how differently things have been handled by his basketball equivalent in just a few short months.

It should be noted that Tony Bennett was replacing Dave Leitao, a less than friendly person in his own right.  Leitao had the look of a coach but his foul language and temper quickly wore on the Virginia administration and after the worst season in four decades, the Cavaliers went in a new direction.

Bennett was certainly not welcome with open arms initially. 

Virginia football fans were thrilled to get Groh to come back to his alma mater.  The NY Jets coach brought an instant NFL credibility and his ties to Virginia (including his own son, Mike, being a starting quarterback) made him a fan favorite.

Bennett, on the other hand, was met with shock.  Who was this guy?  Virginia fans felt like they were on the verge of getting Tubby Smith or Jeff Capel, instead they got a young and inexperienced coach that had worked on the other side of the map in Pullman, Washington.

His honeymoon had ended before it even began.  The young coach had to prove himself right away.

Yet, despite the less than ideal introduction, it took Bennett little time to win the people over.

Bennett's swift actions helped garner support and faith in the new coach.  First, he was able to secure that incoming recruits Tristan Spurlock and Jontel Evans honored their commitment to come to Virginia.

Second, Bennett assembled a great coaching staff by bringing in former Liberty coach Ritchie McKay, former Cavalier basketball player Jason Williford and poaching his top assistant at Washington State, Ron Sanchez.

However, those actions are just the icing on the cake.  The reason for optimism and hope for a team that finished near the bottom of the barrel in the ACC comes from the charisma and charm that almost effortlessly flows from Bennett.

Let's face it, it's hard not to like the guy.  Just take a listen for yourself.

Bennett has a larger than life personality, one that shows warmth and kindness when he is in front of the camera, talking to people.  That is not to say that Groh is not a kind person, he certainly is.  On the other hand, we all know that Groh would rather spend hours watching tape than go around on speaking tours or talking to the media.

He may not be the only one who dislikes the media game, but it is a necessary part of being a coach in college athletics.  It is clear that Bennett's strengths as a coach also appear to be some of Groh's biggest weaknesses.

To be clear, all the talk in the world means nothing if you can't produce on the court.  Coaches will always be judged on their ability to win more games than they lose.  Obviously Bennett's charm will wear thin if Virginia fans endure the misery they faced last season.

However, his ability to win over the fans, the media and even the recruits is a gift that must be recognized.  College sports is about selling a brand and Virginia basketball's stock is on the rise thanks to this young, energetic and friendly guy.

The John Paul Jones Arena is full of hope, Scott Stadium is full of nightmares.

Ever since Craig Littlepage became Athletic Director of the University of Virginia, the Cavaliers have found tremendous success throughout the numerous sports they play.

The Cavaliers have won national titles, ACC championships and continued to grow and prosper.  As a result, Virginia has continually ranked among the top in the Director's Cup standings which rank schools on their overall athletic programs.

However, in the major revenue sports, fans have grown restless.  They have wondered why Littlepage has been so quick to fire a volleyball coach but will stand by a failing football or basketball coach until the bitter end.

The problem has not been a difference in standards or an extra sense of compassion from Littlepage, it has been a lack of an identity.

Instead of finding something that works, or even modeling under-achieving programs to those that work, Littlepage has simply tried to find candidates that achiever short term goals in the football or basketball realm.

Well that has changed.

The hiring of Tony Bennett shows a shift in the thinking of the Virginia athletic program, and it is the right one.  Bennett has a solid system, which has worked in a power conference.  He has a vision which has not only worked for him but has worked for Virginia in the past.

Most importantly though, he is a striking contrast in image to Groh. 

It is an image Virginia should embrace and one that Groh will remember well, for it is the future of Virginia athletics.


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