Friday, August 14, 2009

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Optimism growing for UVa football fans

CHARLOTTESVILLE -- Jeremy Rinaca would prefer Duke fans never get another chance to heckle him. At least not after a football game.

The depressing scene unfolded last year for the 28-year-old Charlottesville resident and die-hard Virginia supporter. He was walking out of Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham, N.C., the pain of a 31-3 defeat still sinking in, when the Blue Devils fans let him hear it.

"What can you say?" Rinaca said. "They had lost 25 straight in the league, and they pound Virginia. It was one of the more embarrassing moments.

"I mean, really, what can you say to a Duke fan at that point? You know you've hit rock bottom when you lose to Duke."

Here's what you can say: We'll get you next year.

And thankfully, next year is almost here.

The past 12 months have not been easy for UVa fans. Their football team went 5-7. Their men's basketball coach got fired after one of the worst seasons in decades. And their rivals down in Blacksburg might be more loaded than they've ever been heading into a season.

But the great thing about being a sports fan is that the calendar always turns, and with it the expectations. For Rinaca and the roughly 300 others who showed up to UVa's final open practice Thursday, the widespread changes in Charlottesville have restored their optimism -- if not entirely removing their reservations.

"I think there's a lot of excitement around the program," said Rinaca, watching the Cavaliers run 11-on-11 plays out of the spread formation installed by new offensive coordinator Gregg Brandon. "If Virginia starts off with a 3-1 or 4-1 record, I think the excitement will start to build around the entire fan base. You won't see such an empty Scott Stadium during the season like you did last year."

John Ritchie has seen the stadium full, empty and everywhere in between. The 1954 UVa graduate has been attending Cavaliers football games for nearly 60 years. After a disappointing 2008 campaign, he was pleased to see them replace Mike Groh with a proven coordinator in Brandon as well as give senior Vic Hall a full-time shot at quarterback.

"They've done enough to create hope again," Ritchie said, leaning over a railing as practice raged below. "If you don't have hope, you don't have much at all. And I think there's hope that things could turn out well."

These are the people coach Al Groh must please. It's not the media. It's not the voters. It's these people in the stands who live and die with each play.

Dave Leitao lost those people this winter. That's why Tony Bennett is now the basketball coach instead of Leitao, a man athletic director Craig Littlepage hired and greatly admired.

Groh's defenses have regularly performed well. But it's offense that excites the masses, and his job security hinges on the success of Brandon's spread.

"I think the biggest thing they've done is that Groh is perhaps recognizing that he doesn't have a grind-it-out, dominant kind of team on offense," said season ticket holder Ed Barber of Charlottesville, a retired book editor who stopped by practice Thursday. "Aside from all-star left tackles and so forth, it's been a very ordinary offense.

"He's got to do what the guy at Wake Forest did: Spread the field, and try to get a quarterback that both can run and pass and that can hit the side of the barn. Run some more tricky plays; not just four yards and a cloud of dust. That hasn't been working."

Practice can be dry, but there were some crowd-pleasing moments Thursday. Like when receiver Raynard Horne caught a quick pass from Jameel Sewell in traffic, split two defenders and zipped to the end zone. Or when Mikell Simpson made some nifty moves on special teams, an area of intense focus for Groh this spring and fall.

Groh is at his best here, in practice. Players argue he works as hard as any coach in the country, and he seems to have their attention throughout.

But again, the players aren't the folks he has to please. Not this year.

"Everybody in this town is so bandwagony on him," said Charlottesville's John Meade, a high school freshman who attends every home game. "I mean, if he loses a game, everybody wants him out. If he wins a game, everybody wants him to stay and thinks he's the greatest coach ever. So I really don't know what to think."

Rinaca does: Start with beating the Dukes of the world and erasing the memories of last season.

"It was a tough year because I thought we were a better team than that," he said of 2008. "But somehow as Virginia fans, we always remain overly optimistic that they can do a lot better.

"I guess we'll see what happens."

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