The NFL invasion of the collegiate wilderness has not fared spectacularly well. Sturdy, conservative men of sructure, professionalism and unlimited practice time have, by and large, circled along the same winding hallways back to the coaching pink slip lobby, where they'll fill out the paperwork and be assigned a nice coordinator position somewhere, probably with that guy, that old G.A., what's his name, caught on somehow out in wherever.
Where you headed next year? I hear the Titans may be in the market for a linebackers coach.
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The most cited current member of the slumming ex-pros, Pete Carroll, is usually held as an example of how much easier it is to succeed in college. In reality, though, he's proven a high profile exception, an example that collegiate success isn't lesser success; it's just different. Carroll succeeds with younger players by rejecting the stale, business-like "No Fun" mantra: teenagers want to play for hyperactives who openly whoop on the sideline, hold freewheeling touch football games at open workouts on opponents' fields and pretend to throw star players from the tops of buildings far more than they do scowling maestros of risk aversion. Steve Spurrier's folksy subversion belongs in the SEC; even Nick Saban (who was not bad in the NFL, and has a long background there) couldn't endure the pre-packaged soul-suck of Sunday afternoons.
What has curmudgeonly, Belichickian stoicism wrought for Carroll's contemporaries? Bill Callahan - who, as he'll remind you, coached a team to the Super Bowl (and was widely favored to win it) - inherited the most collegiate of offensive schemes at a program two years removed from a mythical championship appearance and zero years removed from ten wins under disgraced Frank Solich, instituted the philosophy and system that had dominated the League and produced its MVP, and in just four short, mystique-crushing years has delivered the worst two single seasons at Nebraska in half a century. Dave Wannstedt, captain of multiple playoff teams with two different franchises, has deftly guided Pittsburgh to a 14-16 record and zero bowl berths on the heels of a Big East championship and BCS bid the year before his arrival - the ex-defensive coordinator's defenses at Pitt have ranked 94th, 107th and 54th nationally against the run and can't stop an archaic triple option run by sub-I-A talent (or any kind of option, really. Why won't those damn rag-armed quarterbacks stand still like Bledsoe?). Chan Gailey's middle-seeking blah has produced the same perpetual 58.3 percent blah it did with the Cowboys, who appreciated Wild Card playoff losses like Georgia Tech appreciates six consecutive trips to the Emerald Bowl. Charlie Weis' offense was productive against bad defenses and when it was most aggressive against better ones, liberally pushing fourth down attempts in direct defiance of the punt-first mindset in the pros, but now verges on becoming the single worst of all time. Ron Zook coordinated one of the top five defenses in the NFL in 2000, and six years later was watching his successor at Florida, late of Bowling Green and Utah, hoist a crystal ball with a vastly better defense and an offense his detractors didn't even think could function in the big, bad SEC. Sylvester Croom's stab at implementing the "West Coast" at Mississippi State has proved an unmitigated disaster. Longtime Jets and Chiefs defensive coordinator Greg Robinson immediately ran perennially competitive Syracuse into the ground with consistently horrible efforts in every phase. Tim Brewster at Minnesota...my god, Tim Brewster. With the exception of Zook, who's already been fired once, there is no reasonable expectation that any of these coaches will be employed at his current school by the start of the 2009 season.
And then...and then there's Al Groh, an intensely unpleasant, frowning man cut from the same dour Parcellian cloth as Belichick, who by all rights should be the patron saint of the foregoing damned. His initial hotness at Virginia, born of a rapid, Continental Tire Bowl-capped turnaround in 2002 and 2003, fizzled into diminished returns and looked prone to wither and blow away in the wind with UVA's 110th-ranked offense after a 5-7 finish last year that was every bit as dismal as the record implies. And if you gave me one coach on Sept. 2 of this year to nominate for the inevitable axe, after his team's absolutely woeful, 100-yard, three-point disgrace at Wyoming, of all places, I would have given you Groh.
Since then, his team has managed to win seven games in a row, four of them in ACC play, by the following margins:
Four wins by two points or less, five by a touchdown or less. If you're wondering what happened against Pittsburgh, I can only point to a) Wannstedt, as previously stated, and b) a 27-point first quarter as the result of, partially, a failed onside kick by Pitt to open the game (see "a"), a Panther fumble on a kickoff at its own 26 and another 21-yard drive set up by a big punt return. Pittsburgh, coached by another NFL retread and quarterbacked by a true freshman, is not designed to survive in that scenario.
Virginia, however, appears to be specifically designed to survive close games in the parity-driven mashup that is the post-Florida State ACC (we can all agree FSU, 4-10 in conference games since late 2005, is not the driving force it was when it was in the process of going 70-2 from 1993-2000, and no other team has filled the vacuum, right?), and in that context, maybe Groh is a perfect fit. Virginia only outscores opponents by about four points per game, and only outgains them by 12 yards, but that translates to a very solid defense (21st in total and scoring) and an offense that only does what it needs to do - the Cavaliers currently rank 101st in total offense and 89th in scoring, but since the opener have the most eerily consistent offense in the country (within a 50-yard window between 324-374 yards in every game prior to last week's more prolific effort against Maryland) and has produced the winning points in the fourth quarter of all five single-digit wins, usually coming from behind:
Real coaches never smile. They just point and swear.
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• Georgia Tech: Virginia mounts two long touchdown drives early and returns an interception for 21-7 lead out of the gate, but goes into a hole offensively and trails late, 23-21. Tech bails the Cavs out by fumbling a punt at its own 26, setting up a short field, go-ahead touchdown that held over the last nine minutes amid a barrage of incomplete passes by Taylor Bennett.
• at Middle Tennessee State: Down 21-20 after a Raider interception led to a one-yard scoring drive midway through the fourth, the Cavs drive 63 yards in the final 1:26 to kick the winning field goal with eight seconds on the clock.
• UConn: Virginia drives 79 yards to go up 18-17 with a little over three minutes to play, then forces a fumble on the Huskies' last realistic drive.
• at Maryland: The Terps do zip on offense but lead 17-12 entering the fourth quarter after a UVA safety to close the third. The lead holds until the Cavs take over their own ten and march 90 yards on 15 plays, taking half a quarter off the clock and scoring the winning touchdown on a one-yard run with 16 seconds to play.
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So we have Virginia sitting on seven straight wins, at 4-0 in the league very largely by not completely screwing up and responding with necessary - not that there's anything wrong with that. No, no, of course not - and with three more very winnable games (at NC State, vs. Wake Forest, at Miami) before it hosts Virginia Tech, a finale that in all likelihood will decide the Coastal Division. I think Wake Forest and Georgia Tech adequately proved this last year, with their horrid offenses and opportunism: in the ACC, it's not always about being good. It's just about hanging around.