Al Groh coached the 2009 Cavaliers to a 3-9 record, the worst season for Virginia in 27 years.
As Al Groh left the press room of Scott Stadium on Saturday evening, a smile caressed his face, worn by his 65 years of age and doubtless from 40 years of coaching at the college and professional levels. He held one of his grandchildren in his arms, with his wife, a second grandchild, and other family members at his side. They stood by him, both physically and in spirit, on the heels of the final game of the Virginia football program’s worst season in 27 years.
Regardless of whether you approve of his play-calling, or whether you disagree with his use of true freshmen, or whether you buy into him as a recruiter, if you were in the press room following Virginia’s 42-13 loss to Virginia Tech Saturday, you couldn’t help but feel a lump in your throat as Al Groh departed Scott Stadium for likely the last time in his coaching career.
But this wasn’t the only heart-clenching moment as Virginia closed the season. Nine minutes into his postgame press conference, Groh was asked a question to which just about everyone has speculated the answer to for several weeks: his future. He paused, and pulled out a folded sheet of paper from his back pocket. As he unfolded it, he said quietly, “Here’s what I’ve got for you.” He went on to recite the poem “The Guy in the Glass” by Dale Wimbrow.
Continuing to read his own notes from the same sheet of paper, Groh went on to make his own remarks.
“When I visited the guy in the glass, I saw that he’s a guy of commitment, of integrity, of dependability, and accountability,” he said. “He’s loyal, his spirit is indomitable, and he’s caring and loving. I’m sure I will always call the guy in the glass a friend.”
With that, Groh stood up, offered a smile, said, “I appreciate you,” and strode away from the podium. He presented himself not as a man beaten by losses and overwhelming criticism from the outside, but as a man who was secure in himself as a coach and as a person. And his players echoed that vote of confidence.
“It’s a sad time,” senior Nate Collins said. “I feel like Coach Groh is one of the best coaches in the country. He gets his players ready for the NFL, him being a former NFL coach.
“It’s sad to see him go like this. I know me and the seniors talked this week, and we were just doing everything we could to get this win for him and for the coaches, because none of the coaches know what their futures are going to be like after this game. It’s just tough. I hope the best for Coach Groh. I love Coach Groh like he’s a father, and he’s been a father-figure to everyone here, and I don’t think anyone can really say otherwise.”
Jameel Sewell ran for a career-high 104 yards and a touchdown against Virginia Tech.
And, much like against Clemson a week ago and against Virginia Tech at Lane Stadium a year ago, Groh appeared to have a gameplan with upset potential – for a half. Quarterback Jameel Sewell ran for 91 yards on his first seven carries, most of those designed quarterback keepers. The Hoos ran Vic Hall out of the Wildcat and in jet motion for big yardage. At the half, Virginia trailed its in-state rival Virginia Tech 14-13 not because of poor schemes, but largely due to corner Ras-I Dowling getting beat three times in man-to-man coverage, resulting in three Tyrod Taylor completions for 115 yards.
And UVa even seemed to garner some rarefied second-half momentum as the third quarter began. As the Hokies threatened from the 25-yard line on 3rd-and-8, Taylor tested Chris Cook in one-on-one coverage; Cook won the battle, coming up with a leaping interception in the end zone. Trailing by one point, a previously efficient offense took the field.
“We’re thinking we’re going to win the game, simple as that,” Sewell said of his team’s mentality at that point. “We’re going to go down there and take the lead, and the defense is going to continue to do what they do: hold ’em, stop ’em, and we’re just going to maintain that lead and win the game.”
Like so many other occasions this year, however, the Hoos’ chances of a victory were killed by one play gone awry. On the second play of a Virginia third-quarter drive from the 20-yard line, the Hoos ran an option play for Sewell and tailback Mikell Simpson . Sewell’s pitch, though, was just a tad high and behind his target, and Simpson’s hands were just a tad slow. The ball caromed off of Simpson’s helmet and fell to the ground, and VT safety Kam Chancellor scooped up the ball and returned it 15 yards to the Cavalier 10. Two plays later, Virginia Tech tailback Ryan Williams was in the end zone for the third time on the afternoon and the Hokies led 21-13.
From there, Virginia never moved beyond the VT 45-yard line, and the Cavaliers never kept the Hokies out of the end zone until they kneeled away the waning seconds of the fourth quarter. Behind Williams – who trampled the Hoos for 183 rushing yards on 24 carries, including four touchdowns – Virginia Tech defeated Virginia for the 10th time in 11 years, and handed the Cavaliers their sixth straight loss and ninth loss overall to end the season.
“That one score seemed to pull all our dominos out of the pile,” Groh said. “After that, it just all fell down.”
But, to a man, the Cavaliers said they will not be torn apart. Not by the fact that the seniors leave having never beaten Virginia Tech nor by ending their college careers with Virginia’s lowest win total since 1982, nor by failing to make a bowl game for the third time in the last four years. And, even as the final domino likely fell on the career of Groh, the current coach and a UVa alum, the Hoos remained adamantly supportive of Groh, as they have throughout his nine-year tenure.
“He’s having a tough time just like we’re having a tough time, but we’ve got each other’s back,” Sewell said. “We’re a real team. No matter what it is, we’re going to stick it out together, all of us.”
And, like some reporters in the press room, the players too were touched by the recitation of “The Guy in the Glass.” Inasmuch as the poem referred to Groh in answer to a reporter’s question, it also served as words of advice for Groh’s players when he recited it in the locker room. For the departing seniors in particular, the poem provided a lasting image of the man whom they already held so dear to their hearts.
“He’s a great guy, he’s a great coach,” senior Aaron Clark said. “I love the guy.”