Monday, November 30, 2009

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Groh not cut out to be college football coach

The past 24 hours have resembled an English literature class for many of us who follow Virginia football.

Rarely, if ever, have we gotten more out of a poem.

Al Groh's recitation of "The Guy in the Glass" in his postgame press conference Saturday sent us all back to 10th grade, where we're told to interpret a piece, draw out the symbolism and discuss what it all means to us.

Here's one thing I gleaned from this homework assignment: The Cavaliers just got confirmation of Groh's fatal flaw, and that will be useful as they decide the next coach to lead this program.

Groh was fired Sunday. It's over, we knew it was coming, and (sadly) there's no more reason to poke fun at the Sultan of Circumstances as he exits Charlottesville with $4.33 million.

But athletic director Craig Littlepage would be foolish not to learn from this. He must seek a man who uses an approach contrary to the one Groh took for nine years at the helm -- the one encapsulated perfectly by the bizarre poetry reading.

"The Guy in the Glass," written by Dale Wimbrow in 1934, is a good piece with a noble message. Essentially, it argues that no matter what kind of successes or failures you encounter in life, the most important thing is to be able to look in the mirror and respect what you see.

One problem: This poem had absolutely zero to do with Groh's situation.

Nobody was assailing Groh's commitment, integrity, dependability or loyalty -- all attributes the coach said he saw when he gazed into the glass. We questioned his win-loss record, which was a lousy 3-9.

While it's nice to know that Groh has a high opinion of himself, the reality is this: Achieving success in college football requires going well beyond pleasing the guy in the glass.


Poem: The Guy in the Glass by Dale Wimbrow

When you get what you want in your struggle for pelf,
And the world makes you King for a day,
Then go to the mirror and look at yourself,
And see what that guy has to say.

For it isn’t your Father, or Mother, or Wife,
Who judgement upon you must pass.
The feller whose verdict counts most in your life
Is the guy staring back from the glass.

He’s the feller to please, never mind all the rest,
For he’s with you clear up to the end,
And you’ve passed your most dangerous, difficult test
If the guy in the glass is your friend.

You may be like Jack Horner and "chisel" a plum,
And think you’re a wonderful guy,
But the man in the glass says you’re only a bum
If you can’t look him straight in the eye.

You can fool the whole world down the pathway of years,
And get pats on the back as you pass,
But your final reward will be heartaches and tears
If you’ve cheated the guy in the glass.

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Being a college football coach in 2009 is like serving as a host at a five-star Las Vegas casino: Your most important role is pleasing others.

You've got to please boosters and fans, whose money builds the facilities and pays the outrageous coaching salaries. That doesn't mean you have to value their opinion when you make decisions -- most times, you might be better off not listening -- but you have to at least make them THINK that you care what they're saying. You've got to shake hands, smile and schmooze even when you don't want to.

Disingenuous? Sure, but necessary. And if the guy in the glass doesn't like that, the guy in the glass should become a position coach and not a head man.

You've got to please recruits, whose talents fuel your victories. You've got to win the in-state battles for strength and speed. You've got to tell these youngsters that they're awesome. You've got to grovel before their parents.

Demeaning to a man three times the players' ages? Absolutely. But if the guy in the glass doesn't like that, the guy in the glass should coach in the NFL, where somebody else picks the players for him.

And ultimately, if you gain national relevance by succeeding at the first two steps, you've got to please voters. After all, two-thirds of the BCS still comes down to polls. That means you need to play an interesting style of football as well as an effective one.

Unfair? You bet. But if the guy in the glass doesn't like that, the guy in the glass should coach a sport with a playoff system.

The most celebrated college football coaches of today -- Urban Meyer, Nick Saban, Pete Carroll, Brian Kelly -- all bring a strong element of salesmanship to their positions. They know the game, but they also know how to peddle their programs to the masses.

Groh didn't. One of his favorite quotes was that his job was to "just coach the team." His unwillingness to move beyond that scope led to his undoing, even if that approach still pleased the guy in the glass.

In other words, if Groh had looked deeply into the mirror 10 years ago, honestly assessing his strengths and weaknesses, he would have realized that he was never cut out to be a successful college football coach.

Littlepage's job is to find somebody who is.

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