Al Groh: How to Lose Friends and Alienate People

Ben GibsonSenior Analyst IAugust 5, 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 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)

Let's play a little word association game, shall we?

I'll give you the name of a coach and you tell me what pops in your head.

Urban Meyer.

Winner?  Rich?

Mike Leach.

Crazy? Pirate?

Turner Gill

Rising star?

Al Groh


Go ahead, fill in the blank.  Please try to avoid four letter words.

Recently, the Virginia sports radio show "Best Seat In The House" had Jed Williams of the ACC Journal to discuss how Groh is perceived, particularly by the media outside of our beloved city of Charlottesville.

The former Cavalier announcer spared no punches when speaking of Groh who is now entering his ninth season as the head coach of the Virginia football program.

Let's face it, Al Groh is not a cuddly figure.

His scowl is permanently attached to his face, and he is not one to crack a joke or appear particularly approachable to media members outside his weekly press conference.

That's not to say coach Groh is not a good man, he really is.

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A fan called in to defend Groh last Monday and explain how he paid last year for the surgery of a Virginia sports employee who otherwise would have had her leg amputated.  A complete random act of kindness from the sweatshirt-wearing stalwart who has given a great deal to the school he dearly loves.

Even when looking at Groh's interactions with his players on and off the field it is clear he respects and works tirelessly to make his team successful.  Everything he has done, he believes, is in the best interest of the University.

However, Groh's distaste with the media simply underscores the biggest problem facing the Virginia alum.

The bottom line is that even though Groh is an extremely intelligent football mind, he is not a head coach.

Let's be clear, I am not saying every coach has to patronize the media with anecdotes and cheesy smiles.  We have enough fake people in the world.

Plenty of football coaches hate the media.  It's practically a pastime.

Football will always ultimately come down to one thing and one thing only: winning.

You can be a complete jerk to the media and others as long as you win.

Bill Belichick can pull it off because he has Super Bowl rings, his disciples cannot.

If you don't win every game you play, you will quickly discover that being a college football head coach is more than just winning football games.

College football coaches are advertisers.  They're selling a brand.

You do not see that in the NFL where coaches need no loyalty to their ownership. 

In college, though, you have to make a product enticing to the media, to fans, to the recruits, to everyone, and winning is a central part of that.

Exposure is also important.

The names you hear on College Gameday are the teams that pick up the big recruits.

Is it the chicken or the egg?  Does success give you exposure or does exposure give you success?

The short answer is both.  However, if you don't have wins and you remain prickly to the media, you have taken away your two best selling points.

Today if you say Virginia football nationally, most people will assume you're talking about the Hokies and forgot to add the word "Tech" at the end.

The Hokies are in the limelight and the Cavaliers are somewhere in the cheap seats.

It's not a heart-warming thought to Virginia fans but it's the truth.

After all, the only thing worse than being bad is being irrelevant and Virginia is precariously close to that edge.

Groh, for better or worse, is the symbol of Virginia football and that symbol has begun to represent some very negative aspects of the University.

Groh's image, accurate or not, is of an arrogant, condescending, cold and unsympathetic figure.

Sure his teams work hard and produce NFL caliber talent.  Virginia has one of the best home records in the ACC since Groh took over, and the Cavaliers have actually been close in 2005 and even last year to winning the Coastal Division.

The Cavaliers actually led the division entering November.

That's not what people outside of Scott Stadium see though.

They see a team of NFL talent and they wonder why Groh can't win more.

They see a team playing a boring, pro-style offense and see Virginia as uninteresting and bland.

They see his program as mediocre, even though his predecessor George Welsh (also not a media lover) made a legendary career off of the 7-5 record.

Granted Welsh inherited a program near rock bottom, Groh inherited the 23rd best program of the 1990s and arguably Virginia's greatest quarterback of all-time Matt Schaub.

If Groh is indeed entering his final season with the Cavaliers, people will say that his downfall resulted from two disastrous decisions.

The first was making his son Mike Groh offensive coordinator for three seasons.

This nepotism put the younger Groh in a no-win situation, and just like Bobby Bowden did at Florida State, Al Groh had to fire his son in a very ugly and public situation.

Virginia's offense for three years stayed ranked around 100th in the country.  Last year, the Cavaliers scored over 20 points just three times and suffered a humbling 31-3 loss to Duke.

The second mistake was letting Vic Hall play cornerback for three seasons before finally giving him the chance to play under center.

Hall was not a good quarterback in high school, he was great.  He was the greatest in VHSL history according to the record books, from the same state which brought us Michael Vick and Aaron Brooks.

Of course he is a bit small but so was Marques Hagans.

Hall is a play-maker and if you're going to keep him away from the quarterback position, why would you ever put him in the defensive backfield where height is one of the most important attributes you can have?

Sure Hall is fast, but it makes more sense for him to try and score touchdowns than stop them.

Fans never understood this odd decision and they certainly lost patience in Hall's first ever start, the final game of his junior year, when he nearly single-handedly knocked out the Virginia Tech Hokies in Lane Stadium in a 17-14 loss.

Groh's mistake cost him a great deal.  Granted, it took a great deal of courage to make the change, but outsiders see it as desperation not humility.

You see, as terrible as those two mistakes were, they are only underscored by the fact that Groh's media persona did not help matters.

Myron Ripley, a Virginia correspondent, quoted the late great Jack Kent Cooke last Monday with words that ring true for Groh.

"Be nice to the media because they'll write good things about you when you do well, and they might write nice things about you when you don't."

Groh has lost many friends on his nine-year trek as Virginia head coach.

Is it all his fault?

Of course not.

It's not his fault his coordinators continually get offered head coaching jobs at major programs.

It's not his fault that media members sometimes ask stupid or offensive questions to try and make a name for themselves.

If any other school except the one a few hours down the I-29 was dominating the ACC, Virginia fans would not be so upset.

If he avoided saying things like "I'm the pilot" and smugly telling a sideline reporter "We don't wait until halftime to make adjustments" in a game that Virginia is eventually going to lose, he would save himself from some sticky situations.

Which leads back to the main point of this article.

Al Groh is not a head football coach.

He understands football and loves it with all his heart.  He could talk X's and O's for hours and is one of the best defensive minds in the game.

He has shut down star wide receivers like Michael Crabtree, Larry Fitzgerald, and Calvin Johnson.

Al Groh is the best defensive coordinator or NFL linebackers coach you could find.

A head coach is more than that.

A head coach knows how to play the game.

They know how to work the media.

They know how to talk to high school coaches without sounding haughty.

They know how to sell their school.

It's easy to think of more than one head coach who may not be the best guy, but handles himself so well under the spotlight that you can't help but like him.

I'm not saying Al Groh should act fake because he does not have to.  He is a genuinely good person.

On the other hand, you cannot convince people of that when you are staring them down for asking a question you don't like.

As a result, you lose people.

Ultimately, it does not matter who Al Groh may rub the wrong way as long as he keeps his two most important friends: University President John Casteen and Athletic Director Craig Littlepage.

However, if he does lose their support, he should not look at the media or the fans or even the folks at Blacksburg.

He should look at the mirror.


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