By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — For at least 12 Saturdays this season, starting Sept. 5, the University of Virginia’s head football coach will be on the sideline, in full view of the fans.
The large majority of Al Groh’s work, however, is done out of the public eye. Training camp opened for the Cavaliers on Aug. 7, and they’ve been practicing and meeting for hours every day since.
Groh oversees it all. And as a new season approaches, VirginiaSports.com wondered: What’s his schedule like this time of year? How does he fill his waking hours, and with whom?
To try to answer those questions, Todd Goodale and I shadowed Groh on Aug. 12, the sixth day of the Cavaliers’ training camp.
Goodale is UVa’s associate athletics director for marketing and video services, and he did the heavy lifting, lugging around a video camera all day. (Look for his feature on VirginiaSportsTV.com). My load – a pen and a legal pad – was considerably lighter.
The day started early and ended late. Here’s some of what we saw and heard:
Headlights pierce the pre-dawn darkness in eastern Albemarle County. A white BMW idles in Al Groh’s driveway, and UVa’s ninth-year coach sits inside the car.
The sounds of Bon Jovi greet us when Groh lowers the window.
“I’m a little hoarse from a little football. It’s time for some more football. Got a little wake-up music going here. See you in the office in a few minutes,” Groh says before driving off.
About 10 miles away, the first day of two-a-days for his team awaits him.
Groh pulls into the McCue Center parking lot. UVa’s director of strength and conditioning for football, Brandon Hourigan, and his assistant, Emmanuel Ashamu, arrive around the same time. Linebackers coach Bob Trott is already upstairs in his office.
Inside the McCue Center, Rob Skinner, UVa’s director of sports nutrition, stands outside the entrance of the locker room. Behind him, on tables, is breakfast for players and coaches who want it.
Lunch and dinner are mandatory for players, but breakfast is optional before the 8:45 a.m. practice.
“Some players eat, some players don’t,” Groh says.
Inside his office, Groh leans back in his desk chair and watches video from training camp. It plays on a large flat-screen TV to his left.
“This is a good time to get something done without a lot of administrative interruptions,” he says.
Above the TV is a striking photo of The Lawn. Groh’s UVa diploma hangs on the wall behind his desk. On his desk is a large three-ring notebook, inside of which are the daily practice schedules.
Displayed around the room are family photos, footballs commemorating significant victories in Groh’s coaching career, and autographed photos of some of the former UVa players who made it to the NFL.
Facing Groh on his desk is a locker nameplate that says: Just Coach the Team. It was a gift from his mentor, Bill Parcells.
Groh, who’s wearing blue shorts, a white Nike T-shirt and a fishing cap, spends much of his time reviewing videos from practices.
He’ll watch a play eight or nine or a dozen times in rapid succession, focusing on different Cavaliers each time. He makes notes on a small white piece of paper, and he’ll share his thoughts with players and his assistants throughout the day.
Groh walks down the hall outside his office, stopping to talk to secondary coach Anthony Poindexter and other staff members.
Back in his office, Groh works on Thursday’s practice schedule. Prioritizing is essential, he says.
“There’s a saying we have: Major in the major and minor in the minor,” he says. “Not everything is of equal importance … The coach of the team has to decide how he wants his team to look. You have to decide what the majors and the minors are, and the tradeoffs.”
Groh cites the legendary basketball coach Pete Carril, who once said, “If you want to get good at dribbling, dribble.”
Offensive coordinator Gregg Brandon pops into Groh’s office with a question about the hurry-up drill to be run in practice that night.
Planning takes up a significant chunk of Groh’s time ahead of training camp. The first 11 practices are mapped out well in advance.
“Between plan it, install it, coach it, review it, meet on it with players to reinforce it or correct it, you can see where a day can be filled up from 6 [a.m.] to 11 [p.m.],” Groh says.
His secretary, Dot Kirby, screens Groh’s e-mails. Other than calls to his wife, Anne, and their children, Groh has little contact this time of year with people not connected to his team.
On one side of his desk sit three piles of paper.
“This is my football pile, this is my recruiting pile, and this is my administrative pile,” Groh says. His priorities: “Coach the team, recruit the players, try to get to the administrative things when possible.”
Brandon comes in again and updates Groh on injuries to offensive players. A few minutes later, Prince drops by to discuss the special-teams schedule for the next day’s practice.
Groh rises from his chair and heads toward the door.
“It’s time for some football,” he says. UVa’s sixth practice of training camp is about to begin.
Groh emerges from the staff locker room on the ground floor of the McCue Center, now wearing khaki shorts, a tattered gray sweatshirt and a blue UVa cap.
The first players he encounters are cornerback Chris Cook and safety Corey Mosley.
“Hey, Cookie,” Groh says. “Corey, are you ready for some football today?”
As the team loosens up, Groh walks among the players. He likes few things better than football practice.
“It’s like Christmas and Thanksgiving on the same day!” Groh shouts.
Officials are brought in for every practice to help simulate game conditions for the players and coaches. On the edge of the field next to the McCue Center, Groh meets with the officiating crew to go over that day’s schedule.
It’s an unseasonably cool morning, with a light breeze.
Nothing in practice fires up the team more than the Wahoo Drill, which matches five offensive players – quarterback, running back and three blockers – against three defenders.
In an area 10 yards long and about five yards wide, with players ringing the perimeter, the groups clash, as one running back after another gets three downs apiece to try to score.
The defense wins some battles, stopping Mikell Simpson and Dominique Wallace, among other backs, but Max Milien crosses the goal line, as does Perry Jones.
A true freshman who’s listed, perhaps generously, at 5-8, Jones bedevils the defense twice. His second TD ends the drill, to the delight of the offense.
“You can’t see the [young gentleman]!” screams receivers coach Latrell Scott.
Groh, who’s also the Cavaliers’ defensive coordinator, works with secondary members during a drill in which they practice jamming receivers.
“To be a physical player, you gotta play physical,” Groh says. “The purpose of the jam is to disrupt the receiver.”
In an offense vs. defense drill, safety Brandon Woods corrals Javaris Brown near the left sideline after a reception by the redshirt freshman wideout.
“Very nice,” Groh tells Woods. “That’s the best you’ve ever done it.”
Situational work follows. The offense — in blue jerseys except for the orange-clad quarterbacks — starts drive on the minus-20, the minus-39 and the plus-48 yard lines. The defense wears white.
With his players kneeling around him, Groh closes practice with several comments. He talks about the value of Chris Gould’s punting, and how that contributed to an edge in field position, in UVa’s come-from-behind win at Maryland in 2007. He singles out Brown for a leaping catch he’d made moments earlier.
Groh also stresses the need for every member of the organization, from the coaches on down, to become more relentless, more aggressive and better prepared heading into the season.
“Let’s keep trying to find a new limit,” Groh says. “It’s not business as usual … A lot of us, starting here, have got to find a new comfort zone.”
Groh carries his lunch back from the John Paul Jones Arena dining room to his office.
He woke up at 5 a.m., and his energy level has yet to flag. By the time he arrives home tonight, however, he’ll be ready to rest.
During the season, he may occasionally toss and turn all night, but the “good news at this time of year,” Groh says, “is that falling asleep is never a problem.”
Groh gets on a teleconference with reporters, as he does nearly every day during camp. He’s asked, among other things, about how UVa lines its outside linebackers up, and he responds by talking about how in 2008 Clint Sintim played all over the field.
Later, Groh answers questions about safety Rodney McLeod, who’s fast becoming one of the Cavaliers’ top players, and Isaac Cain, a walk-on from Hampton who’s competing for playing time at offensive guard.
“We have great respect for Isaac and how he got to this position,” Groh says.
The teleconference ends, and Groh opens the styrofoam container that holds his lunch. His assistants wait for him in a meeting room down the hall.
“You know the old saying about some players is they can’t walk and chew gum at the same time,” Groh says. “We’ll see if at least I can talk and chew ham at the same time.”
Waiting for Groh in a meeting room down the hall are his assistants. Seated around a long table are Brandon, Poindexter, Scott, Trott, Prince, Dave Borbely (offensive line), Wayne Lineburg (running backs), Bob Price (tight ends) and Chad Wilt (defensive line).
Graduate assistants Josh Zidenberg, Rich Bedesem, Devin Fitzsimmons and Thurston Childrey sit along the wall to Groh’s left.
Video review begins. Groh has the remote, and plays are shown over and over and over and over again. Each assistant focuses on specific areas.
“We look at every play every day, every player on every play,” Groh says later.
After a rookie receiver struggles on a play, Scott says, “That’s not a priority in high school.”
“Blocking?” Brandon says.
The coaches watch a play in which true freshman Quintin Hunter, who’s been moved to wide receiver, at least for this season, makes an impressive catch.
“I think this is pretty good for a guy who’s seven days removed from being a quarterback,” Groh says to Scott.
About a second-year player, however, Groh says: “Every day is the first day for him, huh?”
Back in his office, Groh looks at a printout of a newspaper article about the Patriots, whose coach, Bill Belichick, is a former colleague. Belichick and Groh are close friends whose coaching philosophies could not be much more similar.
Not only are videos of UVa practices and games archived from previous years, Groh demonstrates to his guests, but he also has footage of the Steelers and Patriots defenses, courtesy of those NFL teams.
The team gathers in the large conference room at the McCue Center. The offense sits on one side, the defense on the other.
At the start of this short meeting, the players are shown video clips of highlights from the special-team drills at that morning’s practice.
Groh then addresses the team before it splits into separate meetings and details the schedule for the evening practice, about four hours away.
“Every day it’s up to us to generate our own energy and enthusiasm,” Groh says. “We all gotta find a new comfort zone. We gotta push the bar higher and the ceiling higher. Put more into it to get more out of it.”
A partition is pulled out to divide the meeting room down the middle. Groh stays on the left side with the defense. Clicker in hand, he shows plays from practice. This is Groh as teacher, and he talks patiently to his pupils, never raising his voice.
After watching a play in which quarterback Vic Hall pitches the ball to wideout Javaris Brown for a substantial gain, Groh reminds outside linebacker Billy Schautz to be conscious of pursuit angles.
The defense watches sophomore end Zane Parr bottle up quarterback Jameel Sewell on a run.
“That’s it, Zane,” Groh says. “He tried to get your edge. He never got it.”
A player’s phone interrupts Groh’s lesson, and the musical ringtone causes defenders to cast nervous looks at each other. Their teacher is not amused.
“The next cell that goes off, I own,” Groh says.
Groh tells the players: “If we do things right and pay attention to detail, we got a chance to be a good team. If we beat ourselves with mental errors, we got no chance.”
He talks about the principles on which UVa’s defense is built and emphasizes the importance of “fast and violent hands,” particularly on the line of scrimmage.
“It’s a ‘beat-blocks’ defense,” Groh says. “That’s a simple thing to say. Now the next thing to do is learn how to beat blocks.
“We want to be the best hands team in the country. I don’t know if we can be the fastest or the biggest team, but we can be the best hands team.”
Groh dismisses the defensive backs. Linemen and linebackers remain in the room, and they’re shown a play in which 230-pound linebacker Darren Childs successfully takes on 320-pound offensive guard Austin Pasztor.
Later comes a play that prompts Groh to praise ends Nate Collins and Matt Conrath and nose tackle Nick Jenkins for their use of “fast and violent hands,” grunt work that allows Childs to make the tackle.
On another play, reserve inside linebacker Darnell Carter executes his assignment flawlessly.
“Don’t be satisfied with this, Darnell,” Groh says. “It’s an improvement. You moved out of one comfort zone. Move out of the next.”
The meeting over, Groh heads across the street to the JPJ to grab some dinner.
“I learned the hard way that if I don’t eat now, I won’t eat,” he says.
Groh turned 65 last month, but his stamina amazes those who work with and for him.
“This time of year, I can probably do with less [sleep] than some other people,” Groh says. “I feel pretty good. I like to sleep as much as the next person. I get my share at other times of the year.”
Time for another defensive meeting. At this one Groh discusses the different fronts UVa will use and its various pass-rushing schemes.
At a dizzying clip, Groh talks about Granite and Cheeseburger and Hot Dog and Laker and Brooklyn and Okie and Bobcat, terms that tell the players where to line up and what their assignments are.
The veterans comprehend. Many of the true freshmen look lost, and for good reason.
“It sounds like a foreign language,” says Collins, a senior who played as a true freshman in 2006. “It’s tough for some of these guys. That’s one of the challenges of camp. My head used to spin all the time.”
“We doing OK so far?” Groh asks the players. No one answers. On the screen now are shown diagrams of the defenses UVa will use in various situations.
The topic has shifted to red-zone defense. A cardinal rule, Groh says, is this: “Just don’t let the quarterback run the ball in.”
To the players, Groh reads an excerpt from an article that appeared in Sporting News Today. It quotes an anonymous opponent who discusses the Steelers’ defense. (Pittsburgh uses the 3-4 as its base defense, as does UVa).
Some of the comments:
“This team is so strong defensively, and one of the reasons they are is because they run to the ball better than any other defense. They get to spots where they are extremely hard to cut off. They’re always staying ahead of you. Every year, when you look back at all their games and who ran best against them, you still have a tough time figuring it out.
“[Defensive coordinator] Dick LeBeau has them put together extremely well. They have developed a sense of pride. You have a lot of teams who have more individual interests in mind. But when you get it like the Steelers get it, when you have 11 guys gang-tackling and running to the ball, that’s what’s special about them.”
Groh says to his players: “That’s the model. That’s within every player’s reach and every player’s capacity. Do this as a habit all the time.”
He then shows some video clips of the Steelers’ vaunted D, whose leaders include former UVa linebacker James Farrior. Groh asks his players, “Wouldn’t it be fun to be that kind of team? Who wants to play against these guys?”
The players also see some highlights of the Patriots’ defense, which also runs the 3-4.
Before dismissing the players, Groh reads the quote about the Steelers’ defense to them again.
Back in his office, Groh proudly reports that his players had a combined 2.84 grade-point average in summer school.
Then, with the day’s second practice little more than an hour away, he heads downstairs.
“Time to go work out,” Groh says.
After another change of clothes – he’s now wearing an orange sweatshirt and blue shorts — Groh climbs the StairMaster in a nearly empty weight room at the McCue Center.
Time for practice. Groh enters the field through a side gate and greets the usher there. The gray sweatshirt is back.
The day’s second practice begins – this is No. 7 overall in training camp – and Groh starts installing the schemes that were introduced at the afternoon meetings.
Groh spots his wife, Anne, sitting in the bleachers on the north side of the practice fields. He walks over for a quick chat.
McLeod, who played in the storied program at DeMatha High in Hyattsville, Md., forces a fumble in a red-zone drill. Groh, on the sideline with the defense, nods his head slightly and allows himself a small smile.
Sophomore linebacker Cameron Johnson ends the practice by reaching out and touching Sewell. Quarterbacks are not allowed to be tackled, so that qualifies as a sack.
Groh addresses the team and talks about the next day’s schedule. He praises the defense in general and singles out such players as McLeod, John-Kevin Dolce, Trey Womack and Dom Joseph.
He’s not as pleased with the offense, which had struggled in third-down situations. The guys in blue – and orange – run sprints.
After showering, Groh is back in his office, where he reviews video of the first half of the evening practice. He’ll look at the rest in the morning.
Groh leaves the McCue Center and heads home. Not everything he saw today delighted him, but that’s not unusual during training camp.
“At this time of the year, the team kind of goes forwards in starts and spurts,” Groh says. “When training camp starts, it’s like there’s fog covering everything. With each day the fog kind of lifts a little, not only for the players but the coaches.”
Night has long since fallen when Groh pulls into his driveway, and his neighborhood is quiet.
“Well, that’s what a day of football looks like.” Groh says. “Hope you enjoyed the life of Virginia Cavalier football. It was a good day. We got a lot of done … But it’s just one foot in front of the other here for another two weeks.”
He heads inside. About six hours later, he’ll emerge, ready to do it all again.