November 28, 2009
Al Groh coaches the University of Virginia's football team for the last time today against the most fitting opponent.
No rival, trend or event more defined Groh's nine seasons. None contributed more to his demise.
Groh guided the Cavaliers to five bowls — they won three — and two top-25 finishes. He worked tirelessly, earned two ACC Coach of the Year honors and oversaw the development of five first-round NFL draft choices.
Groh irritated superiors and donors with unapologetic arrogance. He installed his ill-equipped son as offensive coordinator, mismanaged the roster and twice lost to Duke.
Yet no matter what he did — good, bad or indifferent — the chasm between the state's two premier football programs appeared to widen.
Virginia administrators and fans deemed the latter untenable, and shortly after the Cavaliers conclude their third losing season in four years today at Scott Stadium, the school will jettison Groh.
Dismissal? Coerced resignation? It doesn't matter. For the sake of all concerned, Groh must go.
Virginia enters today's contest 3-8 overall and 2-5 in the ACC. If only Groh had been that good against Tech.
The Cavaliers are 1-7 against the Hokies on his watch, 0-5 since Tech (8-3, 5-2) joined Virginia in the ACC.
Some of the games were hauntingly close — the Hokies prevailed 17-14 last year in Blacksburg with a late defensive stand.
Others were startlingly lopsided — Tech dismantled Virginia 52-14 in Charlottesville four years ago.
But Groh detests what-ifs, and the harsh truth is he's the first Cavaliers coach to lose five consecutive games to the Hokies.
Sharing conference membership makes it worse.
Losing to blood rivals from another league is bad enough. Losing and staring up at them in the standings is a large slice of hell.
For example, Virginia joined the ACC in 1954 but has yet to win an outright football championship. Tech has won three in six seasons.
The Hokies earned three similar titles as Big East members during the 1990s, but Cavaliers faithful could dismiss the Big East as inferior. Now the programs encounter virtually identical conference competition, and the results are jarring.
Tech is an ACC-best 37-10 in league play since joining in 2004. Virginia is 23-24 during the same stretch.
The Hokies boast no such domination of the Cavaliers in any other sport. In fact, Virginia is superior in most.
The cruel irony is that Groh and other athletic department chieftains opposed including Tech in the ACC's football-driven expansion. Administrators and politicians had other ideas.
Groh this week attributed his struggles against the Hokies to merely a "good team" and "close games." He minimized the results' effect on in-state recruiting.
Perhaps, but as the good folks at Alabama and Auburn, Michigan and Ohio State, and Army and Navy can attest, success against your foremost rival is paramount to a coach's survival.
Consider Groh's counterpart today, Tech's Frank Beamer. Five losses to Virginia in his first six seasons had fans howling.
But a 20-17 victory at Scott Stadium in 1993 capped an 8-3 regular season and quieted the critics. Beamer is now 13-9 against Virginia.
"I think I got the message that we needed to beat Virginia," Beamer said. "If you had ears, you heard that."
Then there's Groh's predecessor, George Welsh. After losing his first two encounters against Tech, including a 48-0 beatdown at home in 1983, Welsh took the Cavaliers to Blacksburg in mid-September of '84.
Trailing by 10 points early in the fourth quarter, Virginia faced fourth-and-1 from Tech's 34. John Ford's subsequent fingertip catch of Don Majkowski's play-action pass gained 33 yards and kick-started not only a come-from-behind victory, but also a landmark season that concluded with the program's first bowl appearance.
His bona fides secured, Welsh finished his Virginia career 9-10 against the Hokies.
Groh's win over Tech, 35-21 in 2003, included another bold call — a fake field goal that holder/quarterback Matt Schaub converted with a 10-yard pass to tight end Heath Miller. But unlike Welsh in 1984, Groh could not sustain the momentum and goodwill generated that day.
In 2004, a victory against the Hokies would have given his Cavaliers a share of the ACC title. Tech won 24-10 and claimed the crown outright.
In 2007, the Hokies and Cavs played for a berth in the conference championship game. Tech prevailed 33-21 and defeated Boston College for the title.
Reverse either or both of those results, and Groh's job could be secure. Now, nothing can save him.
Despite that pall, Groh insists that the season has been no different than others.
"When you win, it's a grind," he said prior to last week's defeat at Clemson. "OK, when you lose, it's a grind. But it's positive. It's good. It's what we choose for it to be. But to do 100 hours a week and go through the whole process again every week, there is no carryover. …
"That's what we like to do. We enjoy getting ready for games. We enjoy teaching the players. We enjoy the competition. …
"The result is paramount, but the process is fun. … Every season is challenging in that respect. Every season has things to deal with. Every season you get guys hurt. That's why we don't make a big deal out of it. … When you start making a big deal out of it, you create built-in excuses for the players, or you create built-in excuses for yourself."
There is no bigger deal for Virginia's football coach than beating Virginia Tech, and Groh has no excuses for failing to.
"Improvements in football and men's basketball are a priority," Littlepage wrote to donors in February.
"Like you, I expect us to win our in-state battles, and to compete for ACC and national championships."
Less than two months later, Littlepage fired basketball coach Dave Leitao after four seasons. Groh is next, his tenure long, his epitaph brief.
He lost to Virginia Tech.
David Teel can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/teeltime.