When George Welsh announced Dec. 11 his intention to step down as Virginia football coach at the end of the season, the rumors already had begun to swirl. Everyone had a guess as to who would succeed the 67-year-old Welsh, the man who took a conference laughingstock and transformed it into a postseason regular.
Some said it would be Tom O'Brien, the Boston College coach who had served as Welsh's faithful lieutenant for 22 years. Others expected Florida State offensive coordinator Mark Richt, the boy genius behind the mighty Seminole offense. Still others predicted Jerry Sandusky, who spent more than three decades at Joe Paterno's side before retiring as Penn State defensive coordinator after the 1999 season.
But when the puff of orange and blue smoke went up from Scott Stadium Dec. 30, Virginia Director of Athletics Terry Holland and University President John T. Casteen III had a surprise choice: Al Groh, a Virginia alumnus who recently completed his first year as head coach of the New York Jets.
The 56-year-old Groh, who lettered for the Cavaliers from 1963-65 as a defensive end, spent 13 seasons coaching in the NFL, including 11 years working alongside Super Bowl-winning coach Bill Parcells.
The hiring stunned many who were following the coaching search. Groh's name had barely surfaced on the radar screen of potential candidates, but Holland, Casteen and other Virginia officials decided to offer him the job after a whirlwind courtship.
The Virginia contingent had its sights honed on Sandusky, but the former Penn State coordinator reportedly did not give the impression that he was 100 percent ready to reassume the demands of high-level college coaching. The Virginia representatives quickly seized a sudden brief window of opportunity to discuss the position with Groh and less than two days later, he was hired.
"When we began the search, Al Groh would have been at the very top of that list," Holland said. "Unfortunately, about a year ago, when he accepted the head job of the New York Jets, we felt that he might be off our list. But we never gave up hope."
For his part, Groh maintained he was content to stay with the Jets but could not pass up a "dream job" at his alma mater.
"I was fortunate enough to be the coach of the Jets last year and enjoyed it tremendously," Groh said. "I planned to continue on with doing that and it was only for this particular opportunity that I would have ever left that particular situation"