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Merry-go-round not so merry for ACC coaches

Seven schools in the past three seasons have made a switch.

By BRIAN LANDMAN

© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 25, 2001


ISLE OF PALMS, S.C. -- On the fourth finger of their right hands, for the world to see, Virginia's Al Groh and North Carolina's John Bunting display the unmistakable sign of the times in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Each wears a Super Bowl championship ring.

Each is a symbol of past success and the hope for the future, not only for their schools but for a league that has been perceived as Florida State and the eight dwarfs for the past decade.

"Florida State has raised the level," said Maryland's Ralph Friedgen. "We're all competing for the money. That was one of the reasons why we brought them into the league. They've done a great job and the league is better for having them in."

Friedgen, a former Georgia Tech offensive coordinator who spent five years as an NFL assistant, is one of four new ACC coaches. The other newcomer is Wake Forest's Jim Grobe.

Only two other times in the ACC's 49 years has it seen such coaching turnover -- 1956 and 1987. If you factor in the changes the past three seasons, three others have been hired: Carl Franks at Duke and Tommy Bowden at Clemson in December 1998; and Chuck Amato at North Carolina State in January 2000.

Not long ago, new coaches came to town trumpeting a five-year plan to turn a perennial loser into a perennial winner. Now, the honeymoon period is shorter and the expectations higher. A six- or seven-win season and a bowl trip to Jacksonville or Atlanta isn't enough. But does having NFL on the resume portend a quick fix? Folks in this league will tell you it can't hurt.

Consider Georgia Tech's George O'Leary. He spent two seasons as an assistant with the San Diego Chargers before taking over the Yellow Jackets for the final two games of the 1994 season. His team has finished in the Top 25 four straight years and looms as FSU's chief threat in the ACC.

"We lost four coaches, but I really think we've upgraded ourselves," O'Leary said. "I'm not knocking anybody who left. I'm just saying the people we've brought in, they're going to bring a toughness to the conference I think that was somewhat lacking. All four are get-after-you guys."

Groh is Exhibit I. He had no intention of returning to the college ranks, but Virginia, his alma mater, where he once coached and his son and assistant, Mike, played, represented a unique opportunity to be happy. And to win. Big.

"We've always drilled hard," said Groh, who spent 13 years in the NFL with Atlanta, Cleveland, the New York Giants, with whom he won a Super Bowl, New England and as coach of the Jets last season. "That's why over the years our teams have generally closed well. The fundamentals don't deteriorate. The attention to detail remains the same."

Bunting, an eight-year NFL assistant who was co-defensive coordinator of the Super Bowl champ Rams in 1999 and was New Orleans linebackers coach last season, comes off as even more serious than Groh. A North Carolina alumnus, he abhors the mediocrity the Tar Heels sank to after an 11-1 season and a flirtation with a national title in 1997.

"I think they lost an edge in the weight room, lost an edge in recruiting, lost an edge in the excitement to play this great game of football and what it takes," he said. "The game is a long game. ... You're going to make a mistake, but you can't let that get you down on the next play. You can't give in. I saw it sometimes in spring ball; they gave in if something didn't go right. It can't happen anymore."

It's about changing the mind-set, he said. If a player missed a practice or a class or committed some other mistake, as a handful did in the spring, Bunting had them running at 5 a.m.

"There were no repeat offenders," senior defensive tackle Ryan Sims said.

Bunting also wanted to challenge his youthful, oft-maligned offensive line immediately, so he scheduled defending national champion Oklahoma for the opener. In Norman.

"That shows me something," FSU's Bobby Bowden said.

Wake Forest players say their practices also have become more intense under Grobe, who spent the past six years at Ohio.

"I think the league has a very bright future and, again, I think it goes back to what Florida State has done," Amato said. "Everybody wants to catch them. Not just in our league. Everywhere."

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