His CD collection includes The Cowboy Junkies, Sade and Van Halen. his vocabulary is liberally sprinkled with "cool,'' and he's crazy enough to wear a sweatshirt during practice on a 95-degree day. He's as polished as Bill Clinton -- minus the baggage, naturally -- and could chat for hours with a total stranger.
Yes, Al Groh is a different breed of cat from his predecessor. In replacing the man who single-handedly changed the perception of Virginia football, the Cavaliers did not hire a George Welsh clone. Not that there are many of those out there. How many football coaches hate golf and have voluntarily read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich?"
Groh -- U.Va. Class of '67, a former Cavalier defensive end and an apparent NFL lifer until last December -- represents new blood. True, at 57 Groh is only 10 years and 11 months younger than Welsh, who was the third-oldest coach in Division I-A last fall. But he's younger than Mick Jagger. Six of his nine full- time assistants are 35 or younger, including 33-year- old offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave and 32-year-old defensive coordinator Al Golden.
"I'm sure they'd all like to put on pads and come out there with us," quarterback Matt Schaub said.
Of course, with youth comes inexperience. Three of Groh's assistants have spent two seasons or less on a college staff. That includes 29-year-old receivers coach Mike Groh, Al's son, and 31-year-old special teams coach Corwin Brown, who just finished an eight- year NFL playing career. But Al Groh chose his staff carefully, and youth was served.
"In the National Football League in this day and age, it's very important to be willing to interject young talent into your team," Groh said. "The teams that continue to move ahead and stay vibrant are the teams that interject young talent. They draft a rookie and start him, or they cut a veteran and start a second- year player. So I was thinking, if I had that mentality toward players last year, I'm going to take the same mentality toward coaches.
"I thought back to when I was in the same age range, and I hope that I've improved myself since then. I can remember certain jobs I had when I was 29 or 30 or 31, and looking back on it I thought I did a pretty good job. And I thought, 'If I can do it, why couldn't these guys do it?' "
Make no mistake, Groh is an NFL guy. When Virginia hired him on Dec. 30, he was less than a week removed from the last play of his first season as coach of the New York Jets. Before that, he had spent 12 of the last 13 years as an NFL assistant, 10 under Bill Parcells. He had coached in two Super Bowls -- first with the New York Giants in 1991, then with the New England Patriots in '97.
You don't have to look far to see the NFL influence. On the inside cover of the media guide is a picture of the Vince Lombardi Trophy won by the Giants in '91. Above the trophy are the words, "Bringing the NFL to the ACC." On Groh's right hand he wears his Super Bowl XXV championship ring, which is roughly the size of a telephone and is a guaranteed recruiting magnet.
"I wear it more now than I used to," Groh admits. "There's a certain understated credibility that goes with it."
Groh brought along two of his Jet assistants: Mike Groh, who served as his dad's quality control coach, and linebackers coach Dan Rocco. Musgrave was the Carolina Panthers' offensive coordinator for four games last season and the team's quarterbacks coach the year before. Golden and Brown played in the NFL; defensive line coach Mike London and offensive line coach Ron Prince served NFL internships.
The Cavaliers didn't begin "fall practice" on Aug. 4, they began "training camp." Groh tweaked the uniforms by adding "a cool stripe" to the helmet and the player's last name to the back of the jersey. The first six practices were open to the public, and afterward the locker room was open to the media. Welsh would have allowed that over his dead body.
"He's changed the whole system," tailback Antwoine Womack said. "The uniforms, the program, everything is like it is in the NFL. We call it the 'Baby NFL' because everything has been switched to the NFL scheme."
That's exactly the mentality Groh hoped to establish.
"I think there are an awful lot of similarities between college football and pro football," he said. "The same things that make you win or cause you to lose are the same at any level."
Virginia football has become stale, at least by the standards Welsh created. The Cavaliers finished 6-6 last season, the first time since 1986 they had failed to win at least seven games. Virginia's 37-14 loss to Georgia in the O'ahu Bowl last Christmas Eve followed a 63-21 hammering by Illinois a year earlier in the Micronpc.com Bowl. And after years of bringing in talent like Thomas Jones, Anthony Poindexter and Tiki and Ronde Barber, recruiting has hit a lull.
Expectations haven't been this low in years, which probably is a good thing. In addition to coming off a disappointing year and breaking in a new coaching staff, Virginia will begin the season with an inexperienced quarterback, either Bryson Spinner (25 of 61, 436 yards) or Schaub (7 of 8, 50). The defense, which gave up 24 points and 422 total yards per game in 2000, lost all three starting linebackers. It does return all four starters up front, but considering the Cavaliers had a league-worst 15 quarterback sacks last year, that's probably little comfort.
With so many gaps, Virginia picked a bad year to play its most challenging schedule ever. The Cavaliers open Aug. 25 at Wisconsin, picked among the upper half of the always-tough Big Ten, in the Eddie Robinson Classic. Nineteen days later, Virginia plays host to Penn State in a Thursday night ESPN game. The Cavaliers conclude the regular season at home against Virginia Tech.
Even the conference schedule conspires against Virginia. The three "toss-up" games ? Maryland, N.C. State and North Carolina ? are all on the road. But Groh understands challenges. And considering the resume he has, he's not ready to punt yet.
"I don't think there are too many problems you can face, either during the course of the game or in preparation with the team, that I haven't been exposed to," be said. "I'm not saying that out of arrogance. But I'm not a kid coach. I've hung around here a while, and I've been exposed to a lot of things.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun