Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: It's Groh's show

CHARLOTTESVILLE -- Al Groh watched football last weekend. A lot of football.

He says he took in Indiana-Michigan, Miami-Virginia Tech, Texas Tech-Houston and a bunch of other games. He said he even watched a little Yale-Dartmouth (although those two teams didn't actually play each other -- he must have meant Cornell at Yale, which was viewed by dozens on Versus) "for the fun of it." Because we can all agree that few things are more fun than watching Ivy League gridders get after each other.

But that's Al. He's a football nut. Games were on all day, so he watched them. He did the same thing Sunday.

The one thing Groh did not do last weekend was get the axe as the football coach at the University of Virginia. The Cavaliers' bye week came and went, and rumors had swirled since the preseason that this was the two-week period when something might happen.

Yet there was Groh at his weekly press conference Monday, looking sharp and refreshed in a black suit, informing us media types about the latest circumstances surrounding his 0-3 team.

And this is for the best. Even those who want Groh gone at the end of the year -- and that's a pretty strong consensus these days -- should want Groh here now. As lame-duck coaches go, you could do a lot worse than Al. He's going to fight the remaining battles for his alma mater even if he's lost the war for his job. The last thing he would do is mail it in, and you can't say that about all embattled men.

Besides, you've at least got to give the guy October. That's his time to harvest. He's 7-1 the past two seasons during Filipino American History Month, including 4-0 last year. He's 17-10 in October since 2002, the year UVa began its memorable run of back-to-back Continental Tire Bowl championships.

And for better or worse, this weekend's ACC opener against North Carolina truly does have a fresh-start feel to it. Look around. See any similarities at all to the preseason? The two biggest topics in August outside of Groh's job security -- Vic Hall getting his shot at quarterback and Gregg Brandon bringing the spread offense to Charlottesville -- both turned out to be nonstarters.

Hall is hurt, leaving Jameel Sewell as the guy at QB. The senior threw for 312 yards and two touchdowns against Southern Mississippi, a sign that perhaps he could heat up like he did in the nine-win season of two years ago.

"As the season picked up momentum, so did Jameel," Groh said of 2007. "At least we have a little bit of precedent in that case, and we can only be positive and think that history might have a chance to continue."

If it does, we won't have Brandon's spread to thank. The system essentially has been thrown to the scrap heap -- at least for now -- as Groh has determined that his current personnel isn't suited to run it effectively.

Against Southern Miss, the Cavs cut down on their linemen splits, occasionally brought dual running backs in for max protection and threw to their tight ends -- all elements more characteristic of last year's offense than the one Brandon is known for.

"We are not a knee-jerk operation," Groh said. "But sometimes when we see things that are reality, we react to reality."

The timing of the move speaks to an evaluation failure in the spring and summer. But it also speaks to continued maintenance of institutional control by Groh. The coach says he and Brandon collaborated on the changes, but you can bet Al did most of the talking.

If this hybrid offense can continue to produce like it did against Southern Miss, then Groh will have done his team a great service. If it can't, then he's an oaf again.

Either way, there's no question who is in charge here. No question who is doing everything he can to win a few in the ACC. No question who deserves the blame or praise for the remainder of 2009, even if he won't be around in 2010.

And like an Ivy League gridiron showdown, there's something refreshingly simple about that.

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