Sunday, November 29, 2009

requiem for an era: Let It Go In Peace

Now it's official. We can debate until we win a national title over what sealed it, but the Al Groh era came to its official end just under nine years after its beginning, less than 24 hours after the final game of the 2000 decade. Just as the '80s and '90s belonged to George Welsh and the '00s belonged to Groh, the '10s will belong to a new head coach. Or let's hope. Because if the decade has to be split any time too soon, we're in trouble.

There is no event in sports quite like the firing of a head football coach at a major Division I-A school. A coach in the pros is just a coach. A college coach is a coach, general manager, surrogate father, and public representative of an entire university. It's a rare event (and the rarer the better) and has the potential to permanently change the fortunes of the program for better or for worse, and every realm of possibility in between.

Besides that, for me, it's a little bit personal. My first year as a Virginia fan was 2000 - the last year of the Welsh era, and by that time, it was already more or less understood that Welsh was in his last year. Groh is, for all intents and purposes, the only UVA coach I've ever known. He's been around long enough that some of our most junior fans weren't even alive when Groh was hired. With all that said, this is the first in a week-ish long series looking back at the decade. Today I just get on my soapbox. In the coming days, we'll look at the games and players that made the 2000s what they were.

The voices in my head had a lively, sometimes angry debate around the FOV boardroom table about what kind of tone this post would take. That lasted weeks. Sometimes, I wanted to launch a full-bore, R-rated, profanity-laced assault on those who say things like this:

Too bad we'll never see them again as long as the Charlottesville Charlatan wears the whistle. Dump this a-hole already and get someone in there who can stop the bleeding or at least knows how to coach someone else to tie a f-ing tourniquet!
Because I hate that shit.

Another option on the table was just to ignore that there was any controversy at all, and write what would no doubt have been a very moving tribute to a man who wears his oversized UVA heart on his sleeve. Let the haters hate, I'll just be over here waving my flag.

Whatever the ideas that sprang to mind, they still had one common theme: In Defense of Al Groh. Because, you see, I consider myself an Al Groh fan. Maybe even an apologist, even though I crossed the line this year and put myself in the camp that was ready for the ax to fall. How can I not? How can I not want to shake his hand and thank him wholeheartedly for his efforts? Here's a guy who left behind a job that 100% of football coaches in the country would do anything for. Including Al. Head Coach in the National Football League. Only 32 men can say that. (31, when Al was coaching the Jets.) The Fortune 500 has 500 CEOs. There are 100 U.S. Senators. Hell, 400,000 people show up every year at the Indy 500 and only 33 drivers get to race in it. But only 32 people at any one time can claim to be an NFL head coach. Al gave it up to coach at the University of Virginia: his dream job. And then he spent every single day of the next nine years proving he damn sure meant it when he said at his hiring, "The University of Virginia is my school."

Well dammit, the University of Virginia is my school too. And anyone who's as good a man as Al Groh appears to be on all counts (I've never met him, but I've never heard anything bad about him from those that have) and has that kind of loyalty to my school, that's a guy I'll stick up for when I can. So let's run down some of the personality knocks on Groh. Arrogant. Curmudgeonly. Not personable, engaging, or particularly friendly with those on the "outside." Jerk to the media. This is the stuff that gets repeated. Occasionally, someone might even say something true when they're harping on this theme. It still gets old real fast. Look: the man hasn't changed. In 2003 when he was winning, he was still the same guy as he is now - the supposedly arrogant, curmudgeonly, prickly jerk that he is now, if you listen to the critics. Makes you wonder why nobody said anything then. No, wait, I know: it's because he was winning games back then. Now that he's losing, he's all that stuff and more.

Here's a better idea. Man up and say you want him gone because we're losing too much. Is that so hard? Sometimes, yes. It requires you to admit that the reason you want him gone is all about you. If we're losing games, you have to go back to work and listen to that stupid Hokie bastard in the office run his fat mouth off. Your autumns - especially your Saturdays - aren't as much fun. This would be selfish, so you decide that you want Groh gone because he's arrogant, because he's selfish himself, because he's narcissistic, nepotistic, and prickly. Not a good representative of the school, and after all, we're all about the school here, right?

The simple fact is, Groh is a fan just like the rest of us, and a man just like the rest of us (figuratively speaking, ladies) and the difference between him and us is he committed the cardinal sin of losing too many games. And for that he is, apparently, a charlatan and an asshole. I just don't get it.

So the Groh era is over with, and no, this isn't a plea for UVA fans to come together in some kind of bipartisan show of unity now that we don't have Al Groh to disagree over any more. Frankly, I'd be more interested in bagging up every fan who ever used the phrase "good riddance" or called Groh an asshole for the crime of losing football games, and chucking them over the same cliff they've been trying to punt Groh over for the past three years. "Good riddance"? The guy wears his UVA heart on his sleeve, leaves a Holy Grail job for Charlottesville, works and coaches his ass off every day of the year, involves himself in numerous charities, makes a thousand small gestures that mean everything to somebody, and inspires his players to pour their heart and soul out on the field for him, and "GOOD RIDDANCE" is what he gets for his troubles? And on top of that, the insult to injury of calling for him to return his salary and buyout? I would keep Groh and go 0-12 next year if it somehow made some of the greedier, selfish, what-have-you-done-for-me-lately fans open their eyes to the side of Al Groh that doesn't involve his wins-and-losses record.

Failing that, what I'd realistically like to see is an end to all that. It wasn't right before, but there was at least the thin veneer of wanting-what's-best-for-the-program to hide behind - even if the losses were simply an excuse to make stuff up. Now there's no point. Yes, it's still happening, the criticism and the name-calling and the good-riddance-ing, and yes, it's pissing the rest of us off and that's all it's accomplishing. So help me, if I see another good-riddance style post on any UVA message board the rest of the year, I'm gonna go off on someone. You got what you wanted - Groh is fired. You also got a 3-9 season to go with it, which has been just all sorts of fun, but hey, you got what you wanted.

I know as well as anyone it's time for the Groh era to end, because I'm just as guilty as the average fan of the sin of what-have-you-done-for-me-lately. A winning record, five bowl games, and two ACC COY awards just aren't enough, you know? It's that time. I'm not happy about it. But I will remind everyone to be careful what they wish for. Al Groh was King of Charlottesville in 2003, but 99.5% of coaching hires end badly. All you can really hope for is for that bad end to come much later rather than sooner. At the time he was fired, Groh was tied for the third-longest tenure among ACC coaches - if the next hire lasts that long, it will be a success. Like this one has been.


Anonymous said...

Hey guys, this is thedabokoolaid, i'm a member of Block-C and friend of Willy Mac and Chili. I wanted to say great blog and wanted to let you know I along with a few friends have created, a Clemson blog. I wanted to add you guys to my blogroll and kinda just say hello and see if ya'll were interested in becoming friend blogs. Just email me at or reply on here and let me know.

Rational Centrist said...

This is the best post I have seen regarding the end of the Al Groh era at Virginia! I salute you for expressing my thoughts! Yes, it indeed was time for changing of the guard, but never time to ride the man out of town! He didn't get better results and he is gone. But, he still bleeds Virginia. I appreciate what he contributed. I regret he didn't have better success! I stand with him as we both, with others, cheer for better results to come!

Dave said...

Well said. Thank you for expressing my own thoughts so eloquently!

And thank you, Al Groh, for being a class act from start to finish.

MoonPie said...


We may find somebody who is consistently better at winning, but I think we'll be hard pressed to find a better man.

cgb said...

Very well said Brendan and good luck in the coaching search. We've (Hokies) have all taken our shots at Al (I've been a man on a mission this past week), but regardless of your allegiances you have to tip your hat to a guy who tried to do it the right way for all of those years.

Anonymous said...

Absolutely. The most telling thing was that Littlepage took away his QB, Lalich, and then Lalich's dad came out and said something to the effect of "If you want your son to turn into a man, and do so the right way, then send him to Al Groh." And I don't recall Groh saying anything implying he couldn't win because the AD took away the only player who could throw the ball well. How many people in that situation wouldn't point blame at either Littlepage or Lalich? That silence proved his class. Good luck Al.

The Miz said...

I'm with CGB on this. As Hokies, we've ripped on Al, and this week was our final bashing party. That's just part of the rivalry. He always seemed like he ran the program the right way, and he had a tough situation to deal with in losing Lalich. Fans are fickle and they'll never be fully happy, but the impact he had on the guys that went through the program is invaluable. Hopefully you'll find another man to run the program well and for your sakes, win a little more often.

Brendan said...

Thanks a ton all.

Koolaid, I'll get you up on the blogroll.

Brent Hobbs said...

Hokie fan here. Good post. I've always been kind of ambivalent about Groh - didn't know much about him. After reading I have more respect for him. Hope he does well wherever he goes. Go Hokies!

Anonymous said...

jeez, what exactly are all these hokies doing here? lord knows i ain't never heading over to a hokie site.

Simon said...

As a Jet fan I think its kind of hard not to dislike Al Groh. The man was our coach for a single season and then bounced for a vastly inferior job.

But in reality the man had a dream job and when it came up he took it, inferior or not. At some point you have to admire that decision and hope put in the same spot you'd make the same.

For UVA fans, if you get a coach that cares half as much for the school as Groh did, you'll be lucky.

Plus he'll probably be a better coach too.