Virginia Football: What Went Wrong With Al Groh?

John GilmerContributor IMarch 27, 2010

I am going to take a look at a question on the minds of many Cavalier fans: What went wrong with the Al Groh era?

During his first few years on the job, the Cavaliers were playing well and seemed to be a program on the rise.  We had some good recruiting classes.  The fan base was energized and growing. 

The stadium had been expanded and was bringing in record crowds.  Then things went south and Groh was unceremoniously dumped following the 2009 season after nine years on the job.  What went wrong?

First, let me ask the obvious question: Why was Groh fired?  The answer: He wasn’t winning enough games, which is closely related to his losing too many games. 

Why is it so important to win games, you might naively ask?  Is it worth it to fire a coach when you have to pay him over $4 million as a buyout?  Yes, because winning games bring money and prestige to a university—and lots of it. 

The difference between winning and losing in terms of ticket revenue, donations, apparel sales, and intangibles is much more than $4 million.  Football and basketball make money to subsidize all the other athletic programs. 

Let’s take a look at Texas as an example, which I would argue is the most successful football program (along with USC) in the last decade. 

Some people think it’s outrageous that Mack Brown was recently given a raise to $5 million a year when so many colleges are having to cut back their academic expenses.

However, according to Texas university officials, football revenues have quadrupled under Brown, from $21.3 million yearly in 1997 to $87.5 million in 2008. 

Forbes magazine estimates that the Longhorns football team profited $59 million in the 2009 season for University of Texas academics and athletics.  I’d say that’s a fantastic return on investment for $5 million.

I like Al Groh and was hoping that he would succeed at Virginia.  I know many fans had given up on Groh years ago, but being the eternal optimist, I supported him and didn’t agree it was time for a change until this past season, his third losing season in four years.  

Before writing a lot of words about what went wrong, I’d like to mention a few things I liked about Groh:


1. He was a man of integrity and ran the program with integrity. 

There was never a whiff of any sort of impropriety, which unfortunately is getting rare in big-time college sports.  The players in the program actually needed to be students first and focus on their studies. 

I’ve heard several recruits over the years say something like this when being interviewed: “Many schools use negative recruiting to badmouth other teams, but never Virginia.”


2. He developed young men who make you proud that they wear UVA colors.

Of course, there’ve been a handful of bad apples who have gotten in trouble with their academics or the law—just like there are among any population of college students. 

But the players have overwhelmingly been kind, humble, well-spoken, and good role models: the sort of guys you’d want your daughter to marry.


3. He’s developed many players who are ready to excel in the NFL. 

Groh is well respected in the coaching profession and ran the Virginia program like an NFL organization in many respects. 

Our players have a reputation of being NFL-ready, which has helped them get drafted and eventually succeed in the League. 

It doesn’t hurt that they are likely to be high character guys (see the previous point), which helps them to stay productive over the long haul.

4. Groh loved the university. 

He was an alumnus and his son played quarterback for the Cavs.  He left a head coaching position in the NFL, which is the pinnacle of success in the profession, to come back to his alma mater.  He was not a paid mercenary. 

He is famous for his work ethic, often working more than 90 hours a week during the season.  No one can say that he lost for lack of effort.


Now let’s discuss the reasons for the demise of the program under Groh.  The following are not in any particular order.


1. Failure to develop talented quarterbacks.

If I had to choose one reason that is more prominent than others in the list, this would be it. 

Our offense was most prolific in the two years it was led by Matt Schaub early in Groh’s tenure.  Schaub is arguably the greatest quarterback in UVA history and is now flourishing with the Houston Texans. 

Marques Hagans was under center for the next two years, having his ups and downs, but overall was a pretty decent quarterback.  Since then our quarterback situation has been a disaster. 

The one winning season post-Hagans was led by Jameel Sewell, who had some nice games that year but still wasn’t terrific. 

Groh himself has said on more than one occasion that a good quarterback is the key to winning since all the offense goes through that one position. 

Whether the failure has been one of recruiting talent or developing talent is up for debate.

But the fact of the matter is that the lack of offensive production has been the team’s downfall, and much of that is on the quarterback’s shoulders. 

The staff has also had a tough time picking the best option when multiple quarterbacks are vying for the starting spot, sometimes not declaring a starter until the morning of the season opener. 

The most egregious case was probably in 2006, when Christian Olsen started the first game but looked awful.  Olsen and Kevin McCabe played in the second game, and freshman Jameel Sewell was added to the rotation in the third game. 

After that third game, a loss to Western Michigan where all three quarterbacks played poorly, Groh was asked if he had any other options at quarterback. 

He replied, “No, if we do that, we might as well ask everybody in this room to try out. You can only go down so far. Otherwise, then you become a real ham-and-egg operation.” 

(I suppose a ham-and-egg operation might be an appropriate name for the quarterback position in the last four years.) 

Many fans, including myself, thought that McCabe looked like the best of the three options.  However, McCabe got into Groh’s doghouse because of a few interceptions and never emerged. 

McCabe was among Groh’s highest rated quarterback recruits (4-star) coming out of high school and later transferred to a smaller college where he could finish his eligibility, having an outstanding senior campaign there. 


2. Failure to develop receivers and defensive backs. 

Each year, I like to take a look at each positional group in order to rate their talent and production.  (See last year's article .) 

With a few exceptions (like the defensive backs this past year, which was a very strong group), the receivers and defensive backs have not been particularly strong.  These units have also developed fewer All-ACC players than other groups. 

3. Unnecessary burning of redshirts. 

I won’t belabor this point, since many others have already criticized Groh in this area, but he was infamous for using true freshmen even when they didn’t appear to be contributing much, thereby denying the players a redshirt year. 

Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe has proven that redshirting almost every single first year player is a key ingredient to winning with less talent. 

Alex Fields and Maurice Covington are two players that exhausted their eligibility after four years and would have been key starters on the 2009 squad if they hadn’t played a few snaps their freshman year. 

For true freshmen who only play on special teams, I find it hard to believe that none of the upperclassmen could do the job just as well. 

Groh has said, when questioned about his philosophy, that he’ll play any player if the player might help them to win the game, without any thought to the future.  That regrettably is a short-sighted way to run a program.


4. Attrition.

Virginia has lost many key players over the years to academic, behavior, attitude, or injury issues. 

The most memorable example of this might be when three of the top players on the team were lost before the 2008 season: Jameel Sewell, Chris Cook, and Jeffrey Fitzgerald. 

I think Groh made a mistake earlier in his tenure of recruiting players without giving adequate consideration to whether the player would be able to survive the academics on grounds for five years. 

There have been fewer academic risks joining the team in recent years, though the practice hasn’t stopped completely.


5. Roster management issues. 

This is a catch-all phrase that covers a number of issues that conspire to prevent having depth and talent in various positions.

I’ve already mentioned attrition and lack of redshirting.  Some fans have questioned how certain players have been slotted. 

It also seems that he has a so-called iron-man strategy of playing starters virtually every snap rather than letting the backups get some action, which doesn’t allow the second-stringers to progress. 

When the starter graduates or gets hurt, then the new starter is inexperienced.  This, similar to the redshirting issue, is short-sighted. 

It seems like almost every year we have a “young team,” where many of the starters are not seniors. 

Another issue is that Virginia often didn’t recruit enough players to compensate for attrition and, thus, had fewer than the possible 85 scholarship players on the team. 

This seemed to be less of a problem in later years, as the staff started to expect a certain amount of attrition.

All of these issues led to not having the depth, experience, and talent needed to level out the dips during rebuilding years and field a consistently winning team.


6. Not getting enough Virginia recruits.

I don’t know if this was from lack of effort or not, but in some years the Cavs didn’t get many prospects from in-state, particularly the top players. 

When a player commits to come here, I am just as excited about them whether they are in-state.  And I love our past and current players just the same whether they came from in-state.

That said, there are advantages of getting in-state prospects.  For example, it can create pipelines from certain high schools. 

More in-state recruits mean more local fans cheering for their local stars and clamoring for media coverage, leading to future prospects that are more likely to be UVA fans themselves. 

If more of our recruiting is in-state, this allows the coaches to spend less money and time recruiting because the geographical footprint area in which they are spending most of their time driving around is smaller. 

Our coaches can get an inside scoop on recruits that might be under the radar, or even if they aren’t under the radar, you can recruit them early and get a head start. 

This is because you have developed a good relationship with coaches and people in the know in VA who tip you off to rising stars, and because you see younger players in their freshman to junior years as you are scouting the older players. 

There have been rumors that Groh’s staff doesn’t have the best relationship with some Virginia high school football coaches. 

Maybe our coaches weren’t willing to grovel before them enough.  For example, they reportedly burned bridges with Mike Smith, the coach at Hampton High School, which used to be a UVA pipeline.


7. Inability to compete with Virginia Tech. 

Groh only beat UVA’s biggest rival one time in his nine years at the helm.  It’s not Al’s fault that Tech has been so consistently good, but he has to do better than that to appease the fan base. 

Tech has been to 17 straight bowl games, finishing in the top 10 of the AP final rankings six times and in the top 25 every year but three during that span. 

Frank Beamer is a master of winning without a load of elite talent, as their recruiting classes aren’t typically ranked in the top 20. 

An important side effect is that in recent years, Tech has started to whip UVA in the in-state recruiting battles.  This sort of success makes Cavalier fans livid with envy. 

Unfortunately, winning produces fans and losing produces apathy among fans, which means that Virginia Tech has a lot more fans than UVA these days. 

This causes Tech to be more popular with recruits and media, which then feeds back into even more success on the field.

8. Promoting Mike Groh to offensive coordinator.

Al’s son, Mike, was not qualified to be an OC this early in his career.  Groh lost much public goodwill for the move, and should have learned a lesson from Bobby Bowden, who did the exact same thing with his son Jeff. 

When things start to go south, fans will cry out “nepotism” and blame the son, whether it’s warranted or not. 

In Virginia’s case, I think it was warranted, because the offense was lousy for all three seasons he was a coordinator.  Al staked his own success on Mike’s ability to run the offense, and the gamble did not work out.


9. Assistant coach turnover.

There have been an alarming number of coaches coming and going in the past decade.  This is partly because Groh is respected among other coaches, so his assistants have been poached and promoted by other schools. 

Groh has always said that he’s happy when one of his tribe gets an opportunity at another school.  However, it makes it hard to maintain continuity in coaching strategy and recruiting. 

During Groh’s nine years, the Cavaliers had 23 different assistant coaches.  As a comparison, during that time Virginia Tech had 14 assistant coaches, including the same offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator and recruiting coordinator. 

In fact, Tech has not had a single coaching change in the last four seasons.  

Here’s a great article about how important it is for the college coaches to build long-term relationships with high school coaches in order to be successful recruiters. 

One telling quote from the article: “The most successful recruiting pipelines seem to develop because of a coach's prior ties there, or simply the length of time he has been coming back to the same schools.”

10. Running the program like an NFL team. 

As I mentioned before, there are certain benefits of an NFL-like atmosphere for a college team.  However, I think there are some downsides as well. 

Groh’s emotionless pre-game speeches, as seen on UVA’s video website, don’t exactly inspire the passion needed for a college team. 

Virginia seemed to recruit size over speed in some instances.  For example, often players that we were recruiting for linebackers were being recruited by other schools for defensive ends. 

In the NFL, a 6’4” player weighing 250 pounds would be a linebacker because that player also has elite speed.  If they don’t have elite speed, then they can still play linebacker for the Cavs, which is why Groh’s teams were never known for being fast.  

Richard Morgan, the coach at Oscar Smith High in Chesapeake, spoke to the Daily Press about this .

"I think with Al having the NFL background, they were looking for the perfect guy to fit a position, and they didn't always take the best guy available," Morgan said. "If you didn't fit the mold, you didn't get an offer. Unfortunately, with high school kids, it's not like the NFL draft. You've got to find the best players and then incorporate them into the best spot you can find in college."

It’s regrettable that “Morgan was told by U.Va. that All-American linebacker Jerod Askew wasn't big enough at 6-foot-1 and 230 pounds to play middle linebacker in Groh's 3-4 defensive alignment.”


11. Poor media relations. 

Groh wasn’t exactly a media darling, often coming across as arrogant and crotchety in his press conferences, especially when asked a question that he considered vacuous or accusatory. 

As a coach, it’s important to get reporters on your side because most of the public gets their view of the program through the media. 

His one-voice policy didn’t allow his assistant coaches contact with reporters—except in rare instances—which didn’t win him friends in the media. 

By all reports, Groh is a kind, caring person who often went out of his way to help people in need.  But it would have served him well to let this softer side show in his press conferences.


12. Academic challenges for players at UVA. 

Virginia is not an easy place to survive academically.  Most of the students there earned straight A’s in high school.  Like all big colleges, UVA admits athletes that have significantly lower high school academic qualifications than their average student. 

The problem is that there are no easy majors, and the players are required to work hard and compete in the classroom, which isn’t the case in many schools with prominent football programs. 

I would guess that players have less time to put in extra work lifting weights or watching football film compared to many schools.

As I mentioned earlier, Groh has lost quite a few players because of poor academics, which scares away future recruits who are afraid they won’t be able to hack it. 

According to an article where Jerry Ratcliffe talked to several former Cavalier assistants , opposing coaches used this to recruit against Virginia. 

13. Lack of support from the UVA administration.

According to the aforementioned Ratcliffe article, Virginia has one of the smallest non-coach support staffs in the conference.  Many fans have wondered if we’d have fewer academic casualties if there was better academic support for the players. 

In another Ratcliffe article, after Groh was hired by Georgia Tech, Al said, “There’s four teams on this side of the ACC that are pretty heavily invested in trying to win this thing.” 

He didn’t give specifics, but the implication is that there wasn’t enough support from the administration. 

If I was Groh, I would have suggested early in my tenure that the administration take a few hundred thousand dollars out of my salary to provide the needed support. 

I am not in a position to know exactly what support is needed, or whether this was just an excuse from Groh. 

One example could be the handling of Peter Lalich, who was the Cavaliers’ upcoming star quarterback at one point.  Lalich was dismissed from the team by Craig Littlepage near the beginning of the 2008 season because of legal troubles involving underage drinking. 

Though Groh publicly supported the decision, it was widely known he did not agree with it. 

Another example of lacking support would be Virginia not allowing mid-year admissions, i.e. players entering school in January rather than September. 

This is a practice that is quite rare at Virginia but common at most other schools, in which a player can graduate from high school early or come a semester late. 

Not only does this allow a player to have an extra spring semester practicing with the team, but it can make the difference in winning certain recruits who are intent on matriculating in January. 

UVA has admitted one player this spring and one last spring, so the stricture appears to be loosening, but there have been prospects who decided to go elsewhere because of the issue. 

Off the top of my mind, two prospects that were reportedly leaning toward the Cavaliers until it became apparent they wouldn’t be admitted in January are Jacoby Ford and Anthony Castonzo, who starred at Clemson and Boston College, respectively.

14. Groh’s poorly written contract. 

His contract did not have a buyout clause, but did have a clause stipulating that at the end of every season, UVA had the option of rolling over his contract to extend it another year. 

It helps recruiting efforts to have at least four years left on the coach’s contract, because it communicates to prospects that the school is committed to keeping the coach around long-term. 

In the Ratcliffe article I mentioned above, a former assistant said that it hurt recruiting efforts when UVA didn’t roll over the contract at the end of 2006, the first losing season since 2001. 

Opposing coaches were able to use it to communicate to prospects that the administration wasn’t committed to Groh.  His contract was also not extended at the end of the losing 2008 campaign. 

Again, I am not in the position to know how much this really affected things, or whether it’s just an excuse by the former assistants. 

I do know that winning is possibly the most important ingredient to recruiting—players want to come to a program that will win and gain national prominence. 

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Cavalier’s three lowest-ranked recruiting classes were the ones put together after their three recent losing seasons. 

I think it would be better for the contract to automatically roll over and always have at least four years left on it, but also to have a reasonable buyout clause. 

Another contract mistake was that Groh was given a ridiculous raise before the 2005 season, when things were looking good, to make him one of the top 20 best paid coaches in the country for the rest of his tenure. 

I use the word “ridiculous” because the raise wasn’t necessary to keep Groh as coach—he wasn’t looking around for another job—and we obviously haven’t gotten top 20 results on the field.  Though this raise didn’t contribute to his teams losing, it did contribute to fans being disgruntled about Groh.

15. Just coaching the team. 

Several times over the years, when Groh was asked for his reaction to outside criticism, he would respond by mentioning the sign on his desk given to him by his mentor Bill Parcells.  The sign says: "Just coach the team." 

This is Al’s way of saying that he coaches his team as he thinks best without considering what outsiders think.  He commented on one occasion that the pilot doesn’t ask the passengers for their opinion on how to fly the plane. 

The problem is that it does matter what others think.  It matters what fans, reporters, alumni, recruits, and players think.  Aaron McFarling wrote a masterful piece about how this attitude was one reason that Groh isn’t cut out to be a college head coach

I will also note that Groh was infamous for micromanaging every part of the program.  In fact, he said early in his tenure “I am the head coach of the team.  As a result, I intend to be involved in every facet of the operation: offense, defense, special teams, off-season program, academic advisement and recruiting.  I’m going to coach the team, day-to-day, the way I think it needs to be coached.” 

I think he would have been better served by delegating more authority and trusting his assistants—it’s even been rumored that this might have been a reason that his assistants were happy to go elsewhere.

I would agree with McFarling that Groh doesn’t have what it takes to be a college head football coach.  A coach’s duties include, among other things:

* Hiring and overseeing assistant coaches
* Developing schemes
* Scouting opponents
* Identifying talent
* Recruiting talent
* Slotting talent
* Developing talent
* Motivating players
* Developing character in players
* Keeping players academically eligible and off police blotters
* Schmoozing with fans and donors
* Dazzling the media
* Liaising with the rest of the university (e.g. the athletic and admissions departments)

Groh was good at some of these things, but not good enough at enough of them to field a consistent winner on the field.  I think he’d be perfect as a defensive coordinator, which happens to be his new position at Georgia Tech.

There were some good times in the past decade for the Virginia football program.  I, for one, want to genuinely say, “Thank you, Al, for you service to the University.” 

But there were also some pretty disappointing times.  The later years were especially disappointing compared to the success we were used to under George Welsh, and even Groh’s early years. 

I think all of us fans were ready for a change.  Let’s hope the next decade has a few more good times.  Let’s go, Hoos!


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