This is season one P.A.G. (Post Al Groh) for the University of Virginia football program, and when Groh, the first-year defensive coordinator for Georgia Tech, and the Yellow Jackets play the Cavaliers on Saturday they will see a team that has mostly remained in the same position as it was when he was fired 11 months ago.
Virginia is still rebuilding, still searching for an identity and still trying to relive the brief glory days it had in the first seven years of Groh’s tenure when the Cavaliers had five winning seasons and five bowl appearances with three victories. More importantly, the team is trying to overcome the previous two seasons when it was a combined 8-16 overall and 5-11 in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
The imprints Groh had on Virginia are still there. The new coach is Mike London, who was Groh’s former assistant, and some of his old assistant coaches and his former players remain as well.
But in this game there won’t be much time for reminiscing and reliving old times. Virginia knows it has too much work to do and a long way to go to get the program to the level where it once was.
London, who served as a defensive line coach, recruiting coordinator and defensive coordinator in six seasons under Groh at Virginia, said he doubts he’ll talk to Groh in the days leading up to the game.
“I’m sure before game time or after game time we’ll have a chance to exchange pleasantries,” London said.
Still, London doesn't want people to misconstrue that as a negative.
“Coach Groh once hired me,” London said. “I just doubt I’ll have an opportunity to talk to him. I know the season and the obligations that coaches face on a daily basis.”
London made the typical new coach moves when he got the job at Virginia, changing most of the coaching staff and re-evaluating the players. The result has provided Virginia with a spark but no consistency.
The Cavaliers (2-2, 0-1) have alternated between wins and losses in each game this season, and are still trying to find their identity as a team. Are they the upstart group that lost 17-14 at Southern California, which was ranked 16th at the time, on Sept. 11? Or are they the same team that was outclassed in a 34-14 home loss to Florida State in its conference opener last week?
“We are a work in progress,” London said.
And progress is something that the Virginia administration and fans felt they weren’t making under Groh the last two seasons.
That eventually is the main reason why Groh was fired. Frank Quayle, the color analyst for the Virginia Sports Network, which does radio broadcasts of the Cavaliers games, said that when Groh was fired the team struggling, and he had poor relationships with the media and the fans.
Quayle said Groh is a good coach, who worked very hard and had a bond with his players, but he just couldn’t turn things around the last two seasons, especially last season.
Virginia finished last season with a six-game losing streak.
“It was spiraling down, and I think the change was needed,” Quayle said.
Both Virginia and Groh have moved on. London, the first African-American head football coach in the history of Virginia athletics, has brought excitement to a program needing a boost.
Groh has helped to solidify the Georgia Tech defense.
“I know the media will play (the first game between Groh and Virginia) up,” Quayle said.
London understands the situation better than most.
"It's not personally awkward. I've been coaching college ball for quite a time. He and I know this is the reality of the business. ... Your paths cross so many different ways. The bottom line is we are competitors. There's much respect that I have for him."