ATLANTA — Al Groh likes to think of his time at Virginia in only one way: it’s history; over and done, ancient history.
“You can’t change history. Some people might try to erase history, but that’s what it is. I’m proud to acknowledge it, but that’s history,” the Virginia graduate and former embattled Cavaliers head coach said.
It was clear early Tuesday afternoon that as he spoke to Atlanta-area media, the veteran coach had long begun the process of moving on from his days in Charlottesville, Va., and was instead looking toward his present and hopeful future with his new team.
“As I say, myself and other members of my family, we’re Virginia graduates. But right now,” he said, “I’m a Georgia Tech man.”
The Yellow Jackets, he added, are the ones who now will give him personal satisfaction in victory or shame in defeat. It is with this new football family that he feels whole.
So that said, when he races out of the northeast end zone tunnel at Bobby Dodd Stadium on Saturday when his Yellow Jackets host Virginia, his gait to the sideline may appear the same as any other he has taken the past 42 seasons.
“I’m not sentimental towards institutions; whether they’re NFL institutions or NCAA institutions,” Groh said. “My sentiments and my emotions and my affection and my appreciation is for individuals.”
That means he won’t shed a tear about facing Virginia, the same program he led the past nine seasons and pushed to five winning ones. Instead, he may get choked up after the contest when either some of his former players either win or lose.
“Most of my best friends in this world are people that I’ve coached or coached with,” said Groh, who owns a Super Bowl ring after a stint as an assistant and head coach in the NFL. “There’s a lot of players they’re now playing for teams in St. Louis and Houston and New York and San Francisco and Atlanta, and they’re still amongst my best friends even though they’re not on my team anymore. That’ll always be the case.
“And there are still many players on the current Virginia team that I’d look forward to having that relationship with in the future. I’ve really appreciated the good number of them who have chosen to stay in touch with me over the last few months.”
He declined to name the players who have kept in contact with him because to do so “might not be well-received in certain circles up there,” he said.
Groh’s departure from Virginia came with much fanfare and high drama.
Following a tenure that placed his 3-4 defense into the national conversation about defensive schemes, and an early string of bowl berths, Groh was let go by Virginia athletic director Craig Littlepage last November. Groh’s ouster came less than 24 hours after the Cavaliers were beaten by rival Virginia Tech 42-13, and it occurred on the heels of season-long campaigns by pocketed groups of fans who had long wanted him removed.
Despite the firing, however, Groh’s contract remained on Virginia’s books, and he remains paid by them. Due in part to that fact, friends of the 66-year-old asked him to leave football behind following his firing.
“That’s what I do, that’s who I am,” Groh said about coaching. “It lets me be the person that I am.
“(Wife) Anne and I spoke, as you can imagine, very quickly afterwards, despite what people were saying. They really were trying to give good advice. (They said) You’ve had a lot of time in the NFL, you’ve been to Super Bowls, you’ve been the head coach in the NFL, you’ve been the head coach in college, you’re well set financially. Why don’t you take a little time off and see what you want to do. Go to Europe. Why go through all this some more?”
Groh said he turned to his wife and acknowledged their advice, but it wasn’t enough.
“I could probably retire from football right now; I’m just not ready to retire from me,” he said.
When he thought about hiring Groh to be his defensive coordinator last January to replace Dave Wommack, Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson said there was no hesitation.
“I figured if he didn’t want to do it and have the fire, he wouldn’t do it. Clearly, I don’t think he needed the money,” Johnson said. “He loves football and loves to teach. If you watch him work and watch him run around at practice, it’s pretty easy to see he’s a high-energy guy. He wears our young guys out.”
Groh said he gets that energy from being around football.
“When you’re in competition, or let’s say, you’ve been in it for a while and you’re a veteran of competition, then it really doesn’t make any difference what color jersey the team you’re coaching for wears. All that matters is the result,” Groh said. “That’s what I work for every week.”