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Groh looks back

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Posted: Tuesday, October 5, 2010 9:40 pm | Updated: 3:32 pm, Thu Jan 31, 2013.

Ten months have passed since Al Groh delivered a poetic farewell to Virginia football. At last glance, he walked with his family, arm-in-arm away from Scott Stadium, an arena where he both played and coached for the Cavaliers.

Since then, both Groh and UVa have moved on but will meet again this Saturday when the Cavaliers visit Georgia Tech, where the former nine-year Cavs' head coach is now defensive coordinator. Mike London, who was hired twice by Groh at Virginia, has taken his place.

While media and fans have been attempting to make this weekend's clash more about Groh vs. London or Groh vs. Virginia than the game itself, both sides have played down that notion.

"I understand why," Groh told The Daily Progress on Tuesday. "There's too many columns to be written and too many talk shows for the limited amount of actual material there is between games, so they have to be filled with something. Once a story gets legs, it usually runs for a while. I understand it, but I think [the notion] is inaccurate."

Clearly there were bitter feelings when Groh was fired after UVa's third losing season over a four-year period. In between, Groh was voted ACC Coach of the Year and led the Cavaliers to a Gator Bowl appearance and a nine-win season. The Groh era was filled with peaks and valleys, and a once-popular coach with the fans fell from grace in some circles.

He said that facing his old team will not be that awkward for him because as long as he has been in the football business, this isn't his first rodeo in that respect.

"This is the eighth time I've coached against the team that I've previously coached for, including doing it against Virginia once before (when he was head coach at Wake Forest)," Groh said. "I have the veteran professional's perspective on that.

"I'm not sentimental about institutions," Groh said. "I'm sentimental about people. I have a great affection for so many players and coaches who were part of our successes and they continue to be among my best friends and the most admired people in the whole world. Those relationships have remained where I happened to reside. Those are the things I remember the most and mean the most to me."

Groh, who compiled a 59-53 record, took the Cavs to five bowl games and was named ACC Coach of the Year twice, said he gave Virginia all he had.

"For nine years, I was focused on doing my job every single day and giving my team the best that I could give them," Groh said. "Now, it's my responsibility to do the same thing for [Georgia Tech]."

Still, he is attached to most of the players in the Virginia program, having had a hand in recruiting all of them other than some of the true freshmen.

"When I said I have great appreciation and great affection for so many players and coaches that were part of our program for nine years, that certainly includes many, many players on the current Virginia roster," Groh said. "I've been through a lot of those living rooms and had a lot of individual counseling sessions with those players and they've been a part of my life, and it's nice to know that maybe they think I might still be part of theirs.

"There is still a number of them that I appreciate their willingness to stay in touch with me," Groh said of his former UVa players.

While there will be buildup from the Groh and UVa angles, he said that all games are pretty much the same from a professional view.

"Every game I've ever been in, I do it for the feelings that you have afterwards, even the sense of satisfaction and feeling good about it, or the haunting feelings you get from losing," said Groh. "It doesn't make any difference what color jersey your team is wearing.

"I'm sure that for whatever attachment that I might have with the Virginia players, they don't want to feel those haunting feelings after the game, so I doubt their intentions are to come down here and make Al Groh feel good."

No one other than the current UVa coaching staff is more familiar with the Cavaliers' personnel than Groh, who has spent time looking mostly at Virginia's offense during his film study. He likes what he has seen thus far from the Cavalier players and the coaching.

"As I look at it, I see some of the players who are changing," Groh said. "There's a lot of talent on that team and any coach would be happy to have a lot of the young talent they have.

"Offensively, where I have concentrated, they are actually very similar to the offense we ran there for several of my years at Virginia," Groh said. "Many plays are the same as those that we ran in 2002, 2007 and 2008, and actually some other years, too. And, we would have run them last year if the administration hadn't messed with the continuity of the coaching staff."

It's no secret that Groh was considered a quality defensive coach, having taken on the responsibilities of the Virginia defensive coordinator during the Music City Bowl in 2005 and keeping it until the bitter end. The Cavaliers' shortcomings from that stretch onward were mostly on the offensive side of the ball.

Virginia's administration forced Groh to fire his son, Mike, after the 2008 season and thus followed the change in offensive philosophy when UVa uncharacteristically and unsuccessfully transformed to the spread offense last season, leading to a disastrous season.

Groh said that if 2009 was removed as a small gap in the learning curve, that the transition might have been even easier for the players.

"I'm sure the plays have different names, but the lines in the playbooks are going to the same places," Groh said. "That certainly aids in the transition. I do see so many of the plays that we ran over the years.

"Heck, Billy McMullen is still the third-leading receiver in ACC history and there's one particular pattern I've noticed (in UVa's offense) that gets run quite often. Without that pattern, McMullen wouldn't be the third-leading receiver in conference history," Groh continued. "He caught so many balls on that pattern. It's obviously good for the [UVa] quarterback because he can go back to three previous years of training. I think [Virginia's] operation for a first year transition is very smooth and I think the players are performing well."

Georgia Tech has given Groh a refreshing look at football. Friends tried to discourage him from continuing to coach, advised him to travel to Europe, relax and forget about the game. He just couldn't do that. He loves the game too much.

Having turned age 66 in July, Groh said that working for Paul Johnson at Georgia Tech has reenergized him and that he feels less stress by working as a coordinator and allowing someone else to handle all the other headaches associated with being a head coach.

Johnson said earlier this year that he is amazed at how much Groh loves the game, that Groh's idea of a vacation is going to Boston for a week to watch game film with Patriots' head coach Bill Belichick.

Someone asked Johnson during his press conference in Atlanta on Tuesday if Groh had to convince him that Groh still had the fire to coach.

"I figured that if he didn't want to do it and have the fire he wouldn't do it," Johnson replied. "I didn't think he needed the money. I figured he loves football, loves to coach and loves to teach and if you watch him work and run around at practice, it is pretty easy to see he is a high energy guy. He wears our young guys out during practice."

Groh said that football is serious business at Georgia Tech and he likes that attitude toward the game.

"When you walk into the offices here, there's a 12-foot statue of John Heisman," Groh said. "We have that type of tradition and that type of legacy. At Georgia Tech, football is important to the institution for its own sake and not just for what it can do in the overall big picture."

Before his departure at UVa, and confirmed by several of his former assistant coaches from various staffs throughout the nine-year era, Groh said that Virginia was one of only two schools in the ACC's Coastal Division that was not heavily invested into a winning football program.

There's no question that Georgia Tech wasn't the other one.

"Historically, Atlanta has pretty much been the capitol of football in the South," Groh said. "Whether it's because of Georgia or Georgia Tech, or both, the fact that it's right in the middle of the ACC and SEC football means that all conferences in the South pass through Atlanta. Football is a year-round sport down here."

The reigning ACC champions suffered a blow in the offseason when four of Tech's top players, two on offense, two on defense, bolted early to the NFL. Groh was hired to build a defense that had been prone to give up points faster than the Yellow Jackets' offense could score them.

Tech's transition from the 4-3 to the 3-4 hasn't been an easy one because the personnel doesn't really fit the scheme, but Groh is encouraged by the progress. His defense shut down North Carolina and Wake Forest (both on the road) in the fourth quarter with both games on the line, yielding a combined three points.

"We appreciate the fact that we've been given a lot of responsibility and latitude to do that," Groh said. "The players have really tried to embrace what's being asked of them and starting to get a real good feel for it and starting to make some progress.

"This is the fourth place we've put [the 3-4] in and each time it has been a little bit different," Groh continued. "Hopefully the curve will be the same as it was at Virginia, that in the early going, until we got the right guys in there and the players had some background, we didn't play to the same degree that we did in latter years when we were able to be one of the better defensive teams in the conference."

The Groh's still have their home in Charlottesville but currently have a new apartment in Buckhead. They still get back to Charlottesville a few times a year and plan to eventually retire here.

Groh looks back on his years as UVa's coach with pride even though things unraveled at the end, some circumstances not under his control.

"You can't change history," Groh said. "There may be some people there who try to erase what went on, but some of the best teams, best wins and greatest players in the history of Virginia football were during those nine years. The Miami win at the Orange Bowl, beating that Larry Fitzgerald (Pitt) team in the Charlotte Bowl, beating Florida State, beating Clemson on the road, a lot of great moments, great players.

"For my sake, I don't care what some people say," Groh explained. "But for those players and assistant coaches who did all those things, it's only right to them that their achievements are well remembered and well respected."