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The dark knight

Out with the old, in with the new. Groh is gone, Mike London returns. After a nine-loss season, including one to FCS school William & Mary, Athletic Director Craig Littlepage decided he had had enough. But it wasn't just the AD. Students, fans, media and even the players to some extent - from what I heard through the grapevine - were ready for change. Some insiders believe select alumni even took it upon themselves to raise the money to buy out the rest of Groh's contract. So in case you were wondering just how badly the University wanted Al Groh gone, you have your answer: $4.33 million bad.

Just two years removed from a 9-4 season that included a bowl appearance and ACC Coach of the Year honors, Groh was run out of town on the horse he rode in on.

Pretty long way to fall. And quickly.

Now, it probably sounds like I'm about to set up a long diatribe about how firing Groh was the unfair and the wrong thing to do. But I'm not. I think a change was what the Cavaliers needed. But given the atmosphere at Virginia now created by the firing of Groh and the recent firing of Dave Leitao, I believe it's important to examine exactly why we are ready for that change.

As early as I can remember - I can only remember four years back - Virginia fans have been hot and cold about Al. I remember seeing a group of people wearing "Fire Groh" shirts at the first Cavalier football game I ever attended. I'm not sure why they wanted him fired that year, I just know the next year was when our team went 9-4. What was it he didn't do right four years ago that he did right three years ago? And what did he stop doing the last two years?

After a disappointing 5-7 season two years ago, the first shake-up happened. Groh's job was already on the line at the end of the season, and as an apparent compromise to appease the restless fans and cure the anemic offense, then-offensive coordinator Mike Groh - son of Al Groh - was removed in favor of Gregg Brandon. Now this is just an assumption - but I'm guessing that was not a decision Groh came to on his own, but rather a not so subtle suggestion by Littlepage and the powers that be.

So this season was Groh's last chance. His career at Virginia hinged on a gimmicky new offensive strategy run by a coach he was essentially forced (I'm guessing) to hire. And boy, did it not pan out. (See 26-14 in favor of W&M.) After a devastating loss to the Tribe, the Cavaliers limped through a few more games and finally notched their first win - despite a feeble offense. Meanwhile, their defense was praised for its ability to continually give their counterparts on the other side of the ball chances to win games.

In fact, as the season continued and Virginia slipped further and further into the depths of Division I, the perception was that defense was the one thing the Cavaliers were doing right.

Yet the criticism was being heaped on Groh. Everything was his fault. Everything. It wasn't even clear that Groh was calling the plays on offense. The one part of the team everyone was sure he was in charge of was doing well.

When I saw the media try to get any blame out of him, though, they were woefully unsuccessful. Granted I only attended two post-games with Groh, but neither time would he discuss anything leading down the road of "it wasn't my fault."

During one such press conference, when asked his thoughts about Brandon, Groh curtly refused to answer the question and even went so far as to rhetorically pose the question, "Would I ask your editor to publicly comment on your performance?"

Groh just took it like a man - he let fans use him as the scapegoat. Never were Jameel Sewell's interceptions or failure to convert in key situations the center of attention. Never were the offensive turnovers or poor touchdown-conversion rate in the red zone heavily criticized. Never Brandon's inability to find consistent offensive production out of the experience of Sewell or the talented Cavalier running game. Or abysmal fan support.

I'm not trying to say that Groh is the man, or that none of this was his fault, or that he didn't need to be fired. Sometimes, even a good coach has to be let go to get a fresh start. Sometimes a good coach doesn't mesh well with the players or community (i.e., Dave Leitao). I just wanted to point out what the man did for us.

I recall a column my fellow senior associate wrote for our paper a while back: The Guy in the Glass. During the press conference following the Virginia Tech game, Groh read a poem.

"The fellow whose verdict counts most in your life\nIs the guy staring back from the glass."

Now I'm just speculating when I say I think Groh was trying to say the judgment of fans was unimportant to him relative to how he judged himself deep down. And if this is what he was trying to say, I get the implication. He bore the brunt of our awful season. While we were comfortably blaming him for all our woes, he took it, because he could.

Groh knows: You either retire a hero, or coach long enough to see yourself become the failure.

So Groh is whatever Virginia needs him to be.

Virginia needs its true heroes: the team. Coaches will always come and go, but the Cavaliers - our boys in blue - will always be there.

And in comes Mike London, 24-5 at Richmond, former FCS National Coach of the Year. Not the hero we deserve, but the hero we need.

We need to blame Groh - that's what needs to happen. Because sometimes the truth isn't good enough. Sometimes people need more. Those fans who sit through hours of hot sun or shiver through freezing rain. The any-weather fans that tailgate all day. The season-ticket holders. All those who bleed orange and blue. Sometimes fans deserve to have their faith rewarded.

The fans have to believe a change can happen, and so we have to believe it's Al Groh's fault. We have to hope Mike London can save our football team, and to believe it's saveable, we have to believe it wasn't our players, but our coach who's at fault. And Groh let us do that. He may not be a good coach, but he is a hero.

So why is he leaving? Because we have to blame him.

Because he's the hero Virginia deserves, but not the one it needs right now. So we'll curse him because he can take it. Because he's not our hero. He's a sideline guardian, a play-calling protector. A dark knight.


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