Sunday, October 10, 2010

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Players, former coach Groh share goodbye

ATLANTA -- They came up to him one-by-one, like wedding guests heading through the receiving line. They were all there -- players he'd defended, players he'd started, players he'd benched.

Some gave handshakes.

Most gave hugs.

All gave respect.

Call it Al Groh's true goodbye to Virginia. The scene that played out on the 35-yard line of Bobby Dodd Stadium moments after Georgia Tech beat the Cavaliers 33-21 was more appropriate than all the weird parting attempts that came before it.

It was infinitely less awkward than the cryptic poetry reading after his final game as UVa's coach.

It was void of the acrimony that accompanied his firing after nine years at his alma mater.

It was less pachydermatous than the interviews he did this week, where he insisted this matchup was no big deal to him personally.

Baloney. It meant something. And frankly, it's nice that it did.

For as much as I've enjoyed poking fun at Al's quirks over the years -- and as much as part of me wanted to see Groh moon the Virginia sideline while smoking a pipe and reading "Leaves of Grass" -- this was what needed to happen.

Both sides needed closure.

Both sides needed to show a little humanity.

If Groh had his way, this is how it would have been all along: No media. No boosters. No fans. Just him and his guys, thanking each other in the only place they have much in common: a football stadium.

"Seeing those players was a very confirming feeling," Groh said. "Besides the competition and winning games, one thing that we think we are able to do [as coaches] is touch lives and do something to make their lives better.

"For those kids to come over, it was very confirming that I have the opportunity to keep them in my life and that they want to keep me in their lives."

The word "confirming" can have an "I told you so" connotation to it, but Groh didn't mean it that way. He wasn't speaking to us reporters in the postgame interview room as much as he was speaking to himself. He wanted to know that those other guys still cared. And by eschewing the Yellow Jackets and coming straight to him -- even after a disappointing loss -- they showed that they did.

"That is what you are left with at the end of your career: the relationships," Groh said. "Those rings and watches you can put away, but those relationships never tarnish."

The relationships took a week off as Groh prepared for this game. While he did field calls from former UVa players and coaches wishing him luck, the current Cavaliers were reduced to numbers and skill sets, like any other ghosts on game film.

Oday Aboushi became "No. 72." Keith Payne became "No. 22." Marc Verica became "No. 6."

"Coach Groh, he's one of those people who never brought it up during the week," Georgia Tech cornerback Mario Butler said. "He just kept on coaching like he normally does."

Until the game ended.

Groh had a few players in the back of his mind that he wanted to seek out, but he never got the chance to lead the dance.

"There were so many players there immediately," Groh said. "I was just pleased to see all of them, and I want to thank each and every one of them for coming over."

Groh's defense was far from dominant Saturday. The Cavaliers put up 376 yards and three touchdowns, after all. This game came down to Josh Nesbitt's legs and Anthony Allen's three rushing scores more than anything Groh did as Georgia Tech's defensive coordinator.

Still, the spotlight had tried to find Groh all week, and it finally did -- in a way he could not avoid.

"Their greeting was very heartfelt," Groh said, after the moderator had signaled that this would be the last question. "I felt the same way in greeting them. But by the same token, some of those players will be my friends for life, but this is my team. My team won tonight. So I feel really good for my team, I feel really good for our players, I feel really good for our coaches. I feel really good that Georgia Tech won."

And with that, he got up and left quietly.

He's never been big on goodbyes.

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