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Back to School
Ivan Maisel
November 05, 2001
Three former NFL coaches do the unusual: leave the pros for college
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November 05, 2001

Back To School

Three former NFL coaches do the unusual: leave the pros for college

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The difference between coaching football in the NFL and coaching it in college may be measured in a number of ways: the talent of the players, their experience, the complexity of game plans, to cite a few examples. In the case of Al Groh, who left the New York Jets last December to coach at Virginia, there's another way to measure the difference. A year ago Groh was so demanding in practice that he alienated some Jets veterans. This season, after Virginia lost 41-21 to Maryland on Oct. 6, Groh responded by denying the Cavaliers' players of the week their usual reward—a plate of chocolate chip cookies baked by his wife, Anne. Instead, the student managers took home the treats.

Groh, 57, was one of three NFL coaches to make the reverse commute from the pros to the NCAA last year. Groh, who graduated from Virginia in 1967, made the move for the love of his alma mater. John Bunting, a '72 North Carolina alumnus and most recently the linebackers' coach of the New Orleans Saints, wanted to get the Tar Heels' top post so badly that he took time off during the Saints' playoff drive last December to interview for the job. "If it had been any other college," New Orleans coach Jim Haslett says, "I probably wouldn't have let him do it. But I knew how he felt about that school."

North Carolina athletic director Dick Baddour, who had been left at the altar by Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer two weeks earlier, met with Bunting and realized that no big-name coach would have the same ardor for the Tar Heels' position that Bunting did. "I felt that if I got to interview for the job, they would understand [my passion]," says the 51-year-old Bunting, who was a linebacker with the Philadelphia Eagles from 1972 through '82. "I'm going to push the players on the football field. I played at Carolina. I have a lot of pride in Carolina."

Groh, Bunting and former NFL head man Pete Carroll (the Jets, in 1994, and the New England Patriots, from '97 through '99), who took over at USC last Dec. 15, are immersed in rebuilding the programs at their respective schools. Groh's Cavaliers are 3-5, including a 26-24 upset victory at Clem-son. After an 0-3 start Bunting's Tar Heels have won five consecutive games, including a 41-9 rout of Florida State, and are ranked No. 22. Carroll, 50, is a graduate of Pacific, but the ambience of the college game wherever it's played excites him. "I like what's going on around campus, the spirit," says Carroll, whose Trojans are 3-5, their losses having come by a total of 25 points. "It's refreshing. In the NFL you're sequestered."

The pro and college games may look alike, but they're no more similar than two dialects of the same language. For instance, every college coach must pass a 90-minute open-book exam about NCAA recruiting regulations. Groh says the difference between coaching college players and pros is like the difference between teaching undergraduates and postgraduates. That's a nice way of saying that pro coaches must dumb down their play-books. Carroll recalled working with Trojans redshirt freshman linebacker Matt Grootegoed in spring practice last March. "I said to Matt, 'I want you to collapse on the seam route,' " Carroll says. "He got this look on his face. His question was, What's a seam route? You can't assume that guys understand what you're talking about."

Although Groh had been a college coach before—he went 26-40 at Wake Forest from 1981 through '86—he's better known for his 10 seasons as an assistant to Bill Parcells with the New York Giants, the Patriots and the Jets. He became the coach of the Jets in 2000 and guided them to a 9-7 record, yet his heart was always in Virginia. He grew up on Long Island, but his family left for Charlottesville, Va., in the mid-1960s, and for many years they lived down the street from Scott Stadium. When Al and Anne's oldest son, Mike, played quarterback for the Cavaliers from 1991 through '95, "we would walk out of Grandma's house and to the game," recalls Matt, the younger son and a reserve junior quarterback at Princeton. "It was a great experience."

Mike is his father's wide receivers coach, and Matt talks to his dad almost every night. When Al considered the Virginia job, he felt he had remained in touch with college athletes because of his sons and their friends. "We've kept him young," Matt says. "He knows what's going on with Limp Bizkit. He went to the Dave Matthews Band concert last summer. We buy CDs together, although we go to different aisles."

Groh brought four assistants from the NFL to Charlottesville to help him bring pro methods to college. For example, the starting offense and defense at Virginia often serve as each other's scout team, a necessity in the NFL because teams have only 53 players on their active roster. That's a break from convention in college, in which the scout team is usually manned by younger, less talented players. Groh likes the pro way because "we're all on one field. We're getting more practice time. All the coaches are on the field with what we call the 'show' team."

The Cavaliers see the positives in the system too. "It's like playing an ACC team at every practice," senior nosetackle Monsanto Pope says. "It's not fun every day. You get used to it. I tell my friends in the NFL about our practices. They say, 'Y'all are doing exactly what we're doing.' "

The pro system allows players to learn more quickly, which is crucial. NCAA rules limit practice and competition to no more than 20 hours a week. "In the NFL the players come in by 8:30 in the morning," Groh says of a typical Tuesday. "They're in meetings until 11:30 before they go to practice. There's a great opportunity for them to understand the first part of the game plan. In college we have one hour to meet. If a player studies an opponent, he has to be willing to do so on his own time."

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