Thursday, July 16, 2009

my stance on Al Groh

I anticipate a lot of ups and downs this season. I think there will be games in which I'm cussing out at least half the coaching staff, and others that prove everyone involved with UVA football is a bloody genius. This is, I think, a Season of Truth, so to speak. With that in mind, I want to get this on the record so there will no confusion and no accusations of waffling. Going to put it out there for all to critique, how exactly I feel about our esteemed head coach and what the future should hold.

To sum up in one tidy sentence: I am absolutely not in the Groh Must Go camp, but I am getting there.

How is this? Let's bulletize:

- Groh is as loyal a Virginia Cavalier as you're ever likely to see. That's worth something in my book. This is a guy that had a taste of the biggest of the big-times. Of all the tiers of football coaching in the country, "head coach in the National Football League" is the rarest, and the pinnacle. And Groh wasn't coaching just anywhere, he was coaching in New York, the hand-picked successor of the most respected mind in professional football, Bill Parcells. The opinion of Parcells is pure, solid gold as far as football minds are concerned. Groh had it made. You just don't get a better deal than that.

And then he left. Gave it up to come to Charlottesville and coach his alma mater. Here's a guy whose dream job was not the New York Jets, or Dallas Cowboys, or Notre Dame or Alabama or USC. It was the University of Virginia. If that doesn't count for something, then you might as well pack up now and buy an ugly maroon sweatshirt. Groh busts his ass every day for this team, and his players notice it and support him. I've no doubt that whenever Groh's tenure is over, there will be much sentimentality and well-wishing because of this stuff; it would be nice to take a moment out of the Groh-bashing to recognize it before he moves on.

- That said, I also think it's clear we've seen what Groh's ceiling is. It should be noted that one thing Groh has never done is win less than five games in a season. It's nice that we've never been Duke-bad, but Groh has also shown he's capable of taking any recruiting class, be it all five-stars or all two-stars, and turning it into an 8-win team. That's the baseline. Anything more is rare and sometimes takes 14 games to achieve (see 2002); anything less tends to be considered a disappointment. Eight years of Al Groh has shown us that the Groh regime isn't cut out to turn this team into a perennial contender.

That's fine for now, if Groh can keep us expecting that level of success all the way until the end of his tenure. He's 65; he's not gonna be coaching ten more years. It's fine because it keeps expectations high enough that the admin won't have to settle for a retread or roll the dice on an unknown assistant.

But two of Groh's three 5-7 seasons have come in the past three years, right at a time when the ACC is ripe for the taking for anyone opportunistic enough. We can't be going 5-7 again. And I needn't remind you that Groh has beaten VPISU just once, five seasons ago.

- This season, then, needs to be make-or-break. People will set specific conditions on this season: have to go to a bowl, have to beat Tech, etc. etc. I won't. Say we do both, but it's a 6-7 season with ugly blowouts and a sorry-looking loss to some crummy MAC team in a bowl? Do you keep Groh then? I don't. We need a successful season, the exact definition of which will come sometime after November 1, but will probably include some combination of enough wins to keep us contending in the Coastal all year, a bowl game not played in Mobile, and yes, a win over Tech.

More important, though, is the desperate need for a sense of direction and purpose. We don't need a successful season for a successful season's sake. We need one because certain personnel decisions last year (Mike Groh, Peter Lalich) displayed loud and clear that Groh is hanging on a thread. Two years in a row of letting him dangle like that ain't fair to Groh and it ain't right for the program. I promise you every recruit we've ever been in touch with this year is being told Groh is a lame duck, and how can we refute that when that's how we feel ourselves? The worst thing that can happen is to have another weak-ass season floundering in the wilderness and for the admin to allow the lame duck to continue. It's not the right thing to do by the program, but not only that, it's not the right thing to do by Groh: making him coach with a sword of Damocles over his head, crippling him on the recruiting trail and taking decisions out of his hands that 119 other D-IA coaches have control over.

At some point this season, the decision needs to be made. And frankly, we should know the answer before Thanksgiving - before the Tech game. If the admin silently decides Groh should be fired but allows him to coach out the season, that's fine, but no one criterion should be the deciding factor here. Because it's not about this coming season, it's about this coming decade. I hope for the best here. I really do. I don't want to see Groh fired, I want him to come out blazing this year and set himself up to go out on his own terms, whenever that might be. But as my take on Dave Leitao might have tipped you off to, I tend to stick by a coach long after most everyone else has called for his head. If I start thinking it might be time to go, it probably is. And we're in real danger of getting there.

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