|Friday, June 23
Jets' Groh shows who's the boss
By Greg Garber
Special to ESPN.com
Al Groh has been in the football business for 33 years now, but outside of six seasons at Wake Forest he has never been a big-time head coach. After a bizzare turn of events involving Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick, Groh finds himself the head coach of the New York Jets.
On May 22, the first day of minicamp, Groh made it quite clear.
"I've made the point that even though there has been an ongoing relationship with the players, we've never dealt with each other as a head coach to his players," he said later that day. "They should expect and want something different. We need for me to be the head coach talking to them."
Groh has been closely associated with Parcells, who after the 1999 season elevated himself from the Jets head coach to chief of football operations. His first choice was Belichick, but when he resigned after a day on the job Groh became Parcells' successor. After working as an assistant with Parcells for 13 seasons at Army, Air Force, the Giants, Patriots and Jets, Groh, 55, is finally the lead dog.
He couldn't be stepping into a job laced with more pressure or expectation.
The Jets reached the AFC Championship Game in 1998, losing 23-10 to the eventual Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos. Last season, which opened with a season-ending Achilles injury to quarterback Vinny Testaverde, was a disaster. Still, the Jets rallied to finish the season 8-8 with four consecutive victories over playoff teams.
"There was a very strong sense of accomplishment," Groh explained. "I think very few football teams who at the point we were last year -- and with the lofty expectations we carried into the season -- would have rallied up and showed what they did."
Assuming the 36-year-old Testaverde is healthy (which he seems to be), the Jets were thought to be a Super Bowl contender for the 2000 season. But with the draft approaching, the Jets dealt their best player, wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson, to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to avoid a salary dispute. The Jets wound up with four first-round draft choices thanks to the Bucs and the Patriots (their compensation for Belichick), but none of the players New York took with those picks are wide receivers.
Nevertheless, the perception is that the Jets are a serious player in the Super Bowl sweepstakes.
The reality: The Indianapolis Colts (13-3 in 1999) could be even better this year, while the Bills (11-5) and Dolphins (9-7) are also coming off playoff seasons. The Patriots (8-8), energized by Belichick, will be a threat. And that's just the AFC East. Tennessee and Jacksonville, the AFC's best two teams a year ago, shouldn't fall back too much.
If anyone can get the Jets to play hard, it will be Groh. He's an articulate, personable fellow -- off the field, anyway. His players report that he can be, well, a bit strident when it comes to discipline. His speeches, according to players, can be a bit long-winded. Sometimes, he gets a little fired up. Quite often, his players follow him in that vein.
Sports metaphors are Groh's specialty.
In 1994, with the Patriots struggling at 4-6, Groh pulled out a classic prop. He brought a shovel to the last defensive meeting before a game against San Diego. He wanted his players, he emphasized, to dig deep. Groh brought the shovel on the field at Foxboro Stadium and pushed it into the ground near the Patriots' bench. New England handled San Diego 23-17 and finished the season with seven consecutive victories to make the playoffs.
Groh always has been surrounded by greatness, both coaching and athletic talent. He and Parcells were assistants on Tom Cahill's staff at Army in 1968, and he recruited and coached Lawrence Taylor at North Carolina. Nor is Groh a stranger to swift and unlikely promotions. Back at Wake Forest, he was hired as the defensive coordinator in 1981, but when John Mackovic was promoted to the NFL, he got the top job.
At an age when many NFL assistants are thinking about retirement, Groh continued to dream that he might get the chance for a head coaching position. He watched Belichick get a chance in Cleveland. He was there after the 1990 season when the Giants, in the wake of Parcells' departure, elevated Ray Handley to head coach. Dutifully, he accepted the job as Handley's defensive coordinator before moving to Cleveland to work with Belichick's linebackers.
Had Groh given up hope?
"Sometimes you need circumstances ... beyond expertise for this opportunity to come along," Groh says.
Ultimately, was he surprised the way the Jets' job came down?
"Very few brides," he says, "are surprised to get the ring."
And now the bride must find a way to maneuver this team down the crowded aisle that is the NFL.
Says Groh, "I'm as ready as I'll ever be."
Greg Garber is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.