Season Preview: Virginia's Civil War

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Football Preview Schedule
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Aug. 10, 2005

By Jessica Garrison (UVA, '04)


There's a war on in Virginia. A war between Southern tradition and a Northern coach, fought in Virginia's Scott Stadium six Saturdays a year. It's venerable vs. vibrant, history vs. progress, image vs. ease, and it all comes down to one simple thing: the Virginia fans' dress code.


Should Wahoos wear the traditional shirt-and-tie or sundress-and-pearls that have been staples of Virginia football for years, or should they, as coach Al Groh wishes, infect themselves with "Orange Fever" and trade in their blue button-down for a titian t-shirt?


Fact is, the war may be over. A blue-and-orange striped "football tie" is now most commonly worn around a Wahoo's head. Groh himself is the mastermind behind the monumental shift in the Virginia fans' psyche. He has successfully sold his brand of program to recruits, administrators and fans alike. He has made a solid conference team into a buzzworthy title contender, and he has helped make football, not basketball, the talk of this year's ACC.


Groh's tactics provide an interesting flashpoint for the direction of college football. Not only does it signal the increasingly commercial direction of the game - bowl games, TV deals, coach endorsements - but also the potential growth of parity in a sport that has a historical hierarchy like few others. No one's kidding themselves: Virginia is not Oklahoma, Notre Dame, or Michigan, but now we Wahoos are allowing ourselves to believe that we could be, someday.


For a school like UVA, academically a perennial pick for top public university, the prospect of big-time football can make people nervous. Will we compromise our academic quality with this focus on our athletic achievements? Are we giving up valuable social traditions with the exchange of Southern gentleman for Wahoo wildman? Is the glitter of football fame and fortune blinding us to the purpose of an educational institution?


There are no easy answers for Virginia or any other school that hopes to ratchet up the reputation of its athletic program. Cautionary tales abound - even with some of the highest graduation rates around, the poor press and scandal out of Florida's football teams will give any university president the heebie-jeebies.


The Cavaliers are making their way as best they know how. When last year's potential bid to the Champs Sports Bowl meant players would miss final exams, President Casteen turned the bowl down. He took plenty of criticism for it, all the way through Virginia's drubbing on Boise State's blue field at the MPC Computers Bowl, but he took a stand for his school. It was not in opposition to Groh's goals, but rather a reminder that no team should be bigger than the school it represents.


Tradition has taken a bigger hit. My first year at Virginia, George Welsh was our ol' ball coach. We had a solid string of winning seasons, a Peach Bowl to our name and that 1995 victory over Florida State. Still, I was instructed to wear a sundress to my first football game. Bourbon and starch were the smells of the stands, as frat boys tossed their navy blazers to the benches. We sang the Good Old Song and laughed at the pep band, and sometimes even watched the game.


This fall, my sister starts her second year at UVA. Her first-year football instructions came in the form of an "Orange Fever" t-shirt handed out during orientation. Her team has a former NFL coach, a formidable defense and a really cool entrance video. There may still be bourbon in the air, but now it mingles with face paint. My kid sister, never before terribly interested in football, pays attention to almost every single down.


There are those who still bemoan the demise of the shirt and tie as part of the sins of big-time college football. They blame Groh for the loss of a unique quirk in the college landscape - not unlike the demise of Virginia's pep band in favor of a marching band several years ago. Of course, as a friend and fellow alum put it, "there's nothing more lame than 19-year-olds walking around dressed up, complaining that Coach Groh knows nothing about tradition when he's pushing 60." Lest we forget, Groh is a member of Virginia's Class of 1967. Tradition is no stranger to him.


Virginia's culture shift is not without its dangers for Groh. Previously lukewarm fans are heating up and getting restless. Five years into the plan to make Virginia a big-name football program, Groh is starting to get big-name coach criticism. Times was, a message board post plugging Virginia for the ACC title would've been laughed out of cyberspace. Now, even with the addition of Miami, BC and Virginia Tech, Wahoos are beginning to ask when Groh is going to bring home the bacon. Every year we pull in a few more formidable linebackers, get a few more snaps with a steady signal caller, watch another hard-nosed running back break through opposing defenses. Those ACC wins are so close we can almost taste them.


When we do get to bite into that title, it may be as sour as it is sweet. My guess is, we'll take it.


Jessica Garrison is an Assistant Editor at She can be reached here for comments or questions.



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