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

November 05, 2001

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 Clemson. 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 playbooks. 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."

Groh also increased emphasis on the Cavaliers' two-minute drill,
which they practice every day. He announces the yard line, down
and time remaining at the start of the drill, information he
doesn't tell anyone beforehand so that his coaches can't prepare
their respective units. When Virginia had to drive 44 yards in
the final 1:44 to beat Clemson, the players seemed at ease. "We
were poised," guard Evan Routzahn says. "We do it all the time."

Groh has also placed a special emphasis on special teams. In
fact, all three former NFL coaches have. Groh and Carroll each
has an assistant whose sole responsibility is the kicking game, a
luxury on staffs that NCAA rules limit to nine full-time
assistants. Bunting's linebackers coach, Dave Huxtable, is also
the special teams coordinator, thus putting the kicking game on
the same level as the offense and defense.

The Tar Heels were winless after a 44-14 loss to Texas on Sept.
8, in which Nathan Vasher set a Longhorns record with 153 punt
return yards. In the next two weeks of practice--North Carolina
had no game the weekend of Sept. 15--Bunting says, "it was made
clear to players how important special teams are." In the
following five games, all Tar Heels wins, opponents returned only
one kickoff for more than 31 yards and no punt for more than 11
yards. Bunting considers the improved special teams the key to
North Carolina's turnaround.

The NFL players Bunting coached loved him for his attention to
detail. "He demands a lot from himself, and he expresses that,"
says Saints linebacker Charlie Clemons, who also played for
Bunting with the St. Louis Rams. "He's a technician. He's also a
disciplinarian, and he wants his guys to be the most disciplined
and well-organized group on the field."

Unlike Groh, Bunting hired an all-collegiate staff, including
veteran coordinators Jon Tenuta (defense) and Gary Tranquill
(offense). When Bunting met with his new team, he brought two
pieces of jewelry with him: the Super Bowl ring he earned with
the Rams in 1999 and the ACC championship ring he won in '71.
"You see this?" he asked his players, holding up the ACC ring.
"I'm an ACC champ. Is that what you want to be? Do you want to
work to get to that? If you do, I know how to get it."

Senior defensive tackle Ryan Sims was sold. "That was enough for
me," he says.

Carroll has the resume needed to woo recruits. To assemble a
staff, however, he used money. To run his offense Carroll lured
Norm Chow from North Carolina State for a salary that can reach
$300,000 with incentives, about double the usual pay for this
position at a major college. Chow, who held various jobs at BYU
from 1973 through '99, made a big splash as offensive
coordinator-quarterbacks coach with the Wolfpack in 2000 by
installing a freshman, Philip Rivers, at quarterback. Rivers led
North Carolina State to an 8-4 record. Carroll also paid $135,000
to bring in running backs coach Wayne Moses from Washington,
where he earned a reputation as a hardworking recruiter in the
Los Angeles area.

Groh, meanwhile, has been a big change from his predecessor,
George Welsh, a Navy man who was such a control freak that he
assigned seats on team planes. Earlier this season Groh, taking a
page from the NFL, had buses depart the team hotel for home games
at two times. Players chose to leave three or two hours before
game time. "It's a professional atmosphere," says Routzahn, a
Virginia co-captain. "The coaches are more like our bosses than
our parents. He puts it on the older guys to take care of the
younger players."

In Bunting's first team meeting at North Carolina, a player
asked him what his rules were. He announced only one: "Just
don't f--- up."

With 25 bowl games this season, earning a postseason bid is
likely for North Carolina but doubtful for both Virginia and USC.
Carroll has tried to camouflage a lack of defensive talent by
relying on speed, converting two of his safeties into
linebackers. The Trojans, however, have been overpowered against
a schedule filled with physical teams (Kansas State and Notre
Dame) and veteran offensive lines (Stanford and Oregon). To avoid
a losing season USC must win its three remaining games, including
the season finale against its archrival, No. 9 UCLA.

At North Carolina, Virginia and USC the rebuilding remains
long-term. It's not as if Groh and Bunting have anywhere else
they want to coach. Bunting's wife, Dawn, attends every practice
and often shows up in the football office to help with
administrative tasks. A couple of weeks into the season she
passed her husband's office and saw him staring out the window
behind his desk at Kenan Stadium. "He turned around and sat down
and there were tears in his eyes," Dawn says. "I asked him, 'Are
you all right?' That's how he feels about this place."

COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS COLOR PHOTO: DARREN CARROLL THE COLLEGE TRY Under Bunting (left) the Tar Heels have rebounded after a slow start, while Carroll and USC are still struggling. COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK [See caption above]

Groh is one of three coaches to make the reverse commute this
season from the NFL to the NCAA.

"You see this [ring]?" Bunting told his players. "I'm an ACC
champ. Is that what you want to be?"

"I like the spirit," Carroll says about college ball. "It's
refreshing. In the NFL you're sequestered."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)