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Monday, April 9, 2001
Carroll, Groh enjoying the college experience

By Wayne Drehs
ESPN.com

Helicopters hovered above. Rows of limosuines stretched for miles. And clusters of fans gathered near the practice field on the USC campus.

It was new coach Pete Carroll's first practice and there was a feeling of excitement. Of anticipation.

The warm, somewhat chaotic L.A. reception was one that Carroll had dreamed of three months earlier when he was hired by Trojan athletics director Mike Garrett

Of course, the Academy Awards were about to begin just down the street. That might have had something to do with the buzz. But don't think that dampened Carroll's spirit one bit.

Al Groh
Al Groh surprised many by leaving the New York Jets to return to his alma mater Virginia.
After all, this was his first spring college football practice in 18 years, his first coaching job in two years. So when the lively two-hour session came to an end, Carroll was smiles from ear to ear.

"'See guys,'" Carroll told his team, "'One practice and already everybody wants to be a part of this.'"

Carroll's new life is a long way from the sometimes me-first, prima donna world of the NFL, where Carroll coached from 1984-1999 as a coordinator and head coach. But don't think he's upset about that.

He's just the latest in a continuing line of coaches who are clogging the once fluid college-to-NFL coaching pipeline by reversing the flow and returning to college. From June Jones and Dennis Erickson two seasons ago to Carroll and Al Groh, more and more coaches with NFL head coaching experience are heading back to school.

This year, the group is led by Groh, who shocked many when he left the New York Jets to replace the retired George Welsh at Virginia. Carroll, who was fired by the New England Patriots after going 8-8 in 1999, replaces Paul Hackett at USC.

"I think there's a certain attraction about getting back to college," Carroll said. "I had fun in the NFL, but I look forward to a different environment, to walking on campus with all the different things going on. To be able to cheer for the different teams and feel a university's mission. In the NFL, you're sequestered a bit from the everyday world. In college you don't have that."

Yes, life is quickly changing for these two. From the NFL world of oversized egos and contract squabbles, to the college life of alumni luncheons, recruiting trips and academic advisors.

Groh got an early lesson on where he stood on the totem pole at Virginia when the team's April 21 spring game had to be moved from Scott Stadium to the school's Lacrosse field to accommodate a Dave Matthews Band concert the same night.

"Hey, how can anybody be against Dave Matthews, right?" Groh joked.

Welcome Back
Pete Carroll and Al Groh join a growing list of former NFL head coaches who went back to coach college. Here's a look back at serveral who made the jump and how the schools fared in their first year back.
Coach
(School, years)
Year before 1st year
Dennis Erickson
(OSU, '99-present)
5-6 7-5
Lou Holtz
(Arkansas, '77-83)
5-5-1 11-1
June Jones
(Hawaii, '99-present)
0-12 9-4
John Robinson*
(USC, '93-97)
6-5-1 8-5
Gene Stallings
(Alabama, '90-96)
10-2 7-5
*-This was Robinson's second stint with the Trojans. He coached USC from 1976-82 as well.

Though the paths that brought the two coaches back to college are different, the intentions and goals are ultimately the same -- bring a once proud college program back to national glory.

For Groh, who had just finished refurbishing his family's New York home when Virginia came calling, it was a difficult decision. Virginia, the school he graduated from in 1967, is the only job that could have lured him from the Jets, he said.

"I enjoyed pro football very much, I was sure that's what I was going to be doing for a long time," Groh said. "Just look at the house -- I spent a lot of money to upgrade everything.

"But with my ties to Virginia, my background in the state and all this job had to offer, I couldn't resist. It was a uniquely good fit for me given the opportunity."

The past few weeks, things have started to return to normal for both coaches as spring practice has allowed them to stop watching film and start doing what they do best -- coach. For Groh, it marked his first chance to live up to the hype that grew after he left the Jets following a 9-7 season.

"It's a time to find out if the new coach can do anything but talk," Groh said. "You can believe I am anxious to do that."

And so the college life beckons. Carroll, who had never been a college coach until now, says he couldn't be happier. His last stop in the college game was in 1983, as the offensive coordinator on a Pacific team that finished 3-9.

"I like the heck out of it, I really do," said Carroll. "I've enjoyed the relationships with players and owners everywhere I've been, but there is really a freshness and an innocence about college kids. There's something special there."

Of added excitement for Groh, whose last college job was in 1988 as offensive coordinator at South Carolina, is working with son Mike, who will coach wide receivers.

"Just before practice, to watch him and all the other assistants coach is fun for me," Groh said. "They're all very similar in the energy and exuberance they have and that keeps the energy level high on the practice field."

At this early point in the season, both coaches have tried to build trusting relationships with players that two months ago, they didn't even know.

Carroll organized a 3-on-3 basketball tournament for such reasons. The coaches' team made it all the way to the finals, where they defeated a group led by senior safety Frank Strong.

Carroll hit the game-winning shot.

"Right in my face," Strong said. "He hit the game-winning jumper right in my face. More than anything, that showed that we have something in common, that we're all just a big family here.

"And not to down talk anybody, but this is the most fun we've had and the most united this team has been in a long time."

At Virginia, Groh's changes have been a little more noticeable to the public. Fans and media accustomed to the closed practices of Welsh were pleased when Groh announced a handful of open practices.

He's also put names back on the Virginia jerseys. And spoken on media teleconferences every other day. The newfound enthusiasm for the program is quickly spreading to the players.

"The new staff has a lot of young guys who are very enthusiastic and can relate more to us," said quarterback Matt Schaub. "They are running around and screaming, and that translates into high intensity on the practice field."

At USC, Carroll has made it a habit to offer extra help to anyone after practice. Whether it's throwing out patterns to a receiver or reviewing tackling fundamentals with a linebacker, Carroll is often the last one off the field at night.

"He's out there until it's dark, until they are ready to turn the lights off," Strong said. "And it's great knowing that a head coach is willing to stay out there with you."

Groh does much of the same. After all, for these two college coaches, the approach is simple: Whatever it takes.

"You can't count on these guys having a backlog of information," Carroll said. "You have to teach fundamentals and connect all the dots from beginning to end.

"That is the challenge -- it's all about teaching."

Wayne Drehs is a staff writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at wayne.drehs@espn.com.