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University culture establishes glass ceiling for Cavalier football

In the hoopla that surrounded the coronation of Al Groh as Virginia's new football coach, Athletic Director Terry Holland whispered the magic words. So did University President John T. Casteen III and even Groh himself. All three expressed the belief that Groh will build on George Welsh's foundation to make the Cavalier program, as Casteen put it, "periodically a winner on the level of a national championship."

Hold on there, fellas. Pull that bus over to the side of the pretentiousness turnpike. I anticipate great things from Groh, who just celebrated his four-week anniversary at the Virginia helm, but a national championship is not one of them. For the Cavs to elevate themselves to serious national title contenders, the University's core attitude about football would have to change. Unfortunately for Groh, the head coach can't make that change, nor should he.

The University's challenging academic standards represent the foremost and most plainly obvious obstacle to a quantum leap into the college football upper echelon. In the statement he released when Groh was hired, Casteen put forth the notion that the Cavaliers can field an elite football team while maintaining its academic principles, but that notion seems more than a tad Pollyanna.

The Virginia program has proven itself capable of fielding bowl-quality teams comprised largely of actual student-athletes. But to have a realistic shot at a national championship, the University would have to become like any other State U., at least in terms of the academic demands it places on its intercollegiate athletes.

This maxim holds especially true in football, where it's nearly impossible to compile the necessary championship-quality talent without reaching down to plumb the depths of the academic barrel. Since this is not a sacrifice the University is willing to make, it follows that there won't be a need to start clearing space for the Sears Trophy any time soon.

The alumni fan base certainly has no desire to see the Tay Codys of the world frolicking on Mr. Jefferson's Lawn. For every Virginia alumnus pining for a top-notch football team, there are scores more who demand nothing more from the Cavs than a crisp day for tailgating and an occasional win over UNC and Virginia Tech.

And you know what? That's fine. The lukewarm dedication of those alumni is often frustrating, but it sure beats the alternative. The day our hallowed University joins Florida State and Nebraska as football factories is the day I turn in my Wahoo-wah. Give me all the Top 25 finishes and bowl bids you can muster without turning the team into a collection of mutant athletic freaks who bear no resemblance to the rest of the student body.

Plainly put, for Groh to have any realistic hope of winning a national title (barring the second coming of Shawn Moore), the University would need to make exceptions for dozens of academically mediocre football players. It's the stark reality of the game these days.

Groh knows he will have to pass up plenty of athletic prodigies for more well-rounded young men, but he nevertheless maintains championship aspirations for his alma mater.

"We believe the best players don't always make the best team," he said at his introductory press conference Jan. 5. "There's a lot that goes into that, into creating the best team."

Groh has the football acumen and the experience to take the Cavalier program up that proverbial notch. But considering the academic climate at the University, don't get your knickers in a twist if the Groh era, like the Welsh era before it, comes and goes without a national title trophy.