Al Groh will receive an unwanted respite from his 100-hour work weeks and his intricate game plans. After a 32-game term, the Georgia Tech defensive coordinator was relieved of his duties Monday.
In coach Paul Johnson’s analysis, Groh did not fall short in his effort or smarts.
“What’s inside his head, he’s very knowledgeable,” Johnson said. “There’s no questioning that. The problem was becoming, what’s in there, we weren’t seeing on the field.”
Groh’s tenure concluded in a blizzard of points, yards and missed tackles. In Tech’s past three games, losses to Miami, Middle Tennessee State and Clemson, the Yellow Jackets gave up an average of 46 points and 573.3 yards. Opponents converted 31 of 46 third downs into first downs. Improbably, Tech fared slightly worse when opponents faced 3rd-and-7 or longer than 3rd-and-6 or less.
Tech gave up more than 40 points in the three consecutive games, the first time that has happened in school history.
“I think it’s a call to everybody, the coaches, the players, myself, everybody, that we need to do better, that we’re not giving up on the season and the way we’ve played is not acceptable,” Johnson said.
Hired following the 2009 season as a replacement for Dave Wommack because of his ability to teach his scheme and adjust, Groh came to Tech after nine seasons as head coach at Virginia and boasting an NFL pedigree. A longtime friend and colleague of NFL coaching legends Bill Belichick and Bill Parcells, Groh brought a 3-4 scheme and a confident, professorial manner.
“We’re impatient to make it look good,” he said shortly after his hire. “How fast we can do it, we’ll have to see.”
Instead, the Jackets were bogged by problems with communication and alignment and had trouble tackling. Poor finishes also began to plague the team. After Tech’s 6-0 start last season, the Jackets were outscored 48-14 in the fourth quarter of the final seven games of the season and finished 8-5. Particularly devastating was a 30-27 overtime loss to Utah in the Sun Bowl, a game that Tech led 27-13 with less than seven minutes to go.
This season, Tech has been outscored 71-48 in the fourth quarter, its worst quarter on offense and defense and the only period (besides overtime) in which it has been outscored. In losses to Virginia Tech, Miami and Clemson, Tech has held fourth-quarter leads in each only to lose.
Wommack was fired after the defense ranked 54th in yards allowed and 56th in scoring in FBS. Under Groh, Tech finished roughly the same in his first two seasons before plunging to 90th in yards and 89th in scoring this season.
“It was inevitable, at least to me, that it wasn’t getting better,” Johnson said.
Groh will be replaced on an interim basis by secondary coach Charles Kelly, who has been on staff since 2006. Kelly has previously served as a defensive coordinator at Nicholls State and Jacksonville State, two FCS teams. Andy McCollum will move from coaching the defensive line to inside linebackers and Joe Speed will shift from inside linebackers to outside linebackers. Special-teams coordinator David Walkosky will coach the defensive line. Walkosky and McCollum also have experience as defensive coordinators. Johnson said he will provide assistance, as well.
Johnson said he wants to simplify the defense, have players spend more time with their position coaches and conduct more live-hitting drills in practice.
“To me, defense is energy and playing fast and enthusiasm and all those things,” Johnson said. “I think it’s hard to get that if you don’t go live some.”
Johnson made the decision Monday morning. He met with Groh later, and told the team at a meeting in the afternoon. In a statement, Groh said he respected the decision and thanked the defensive assistants and the team. Groh’s contract, a two-year deal with a school option for a third, called for him to make “a minimum of $344,000” this season in his option year.
“I aimed to give the best that I had every day,” he said in the statement. “It’s been an honor to be a part of the legacy of Georgia Tech. I feel positive that this is a good time in life to move on to a new situation.”
Former linebacker and team captain Steven Sylvester said Monday that he enjoyed playing for Groh, citing his knowledge base and his ability to explain difficult concepts easily. Despite the age difference, players related well with the 68-year-old Groh, often stopping in to his office to find him listening to anything from Jay-Z to Maroon 5 to Bruce Springsteen.
“He was a friend and he was a coach,” Sylvester said. “I know a lot of the guys down there are really going to miss him.”
With Tech in its bye week, the team had Monday off and will resume practicing Tuesday. The Jackets’ next game will be Oct. 20 at home against Boston College.
“I didn’t want to give up the rest of the season,” Johnson said. “I still think we can come back and have a good season. That’s why I did it now.”
Ken Sugiura, Georgia Tech blog