Friday, December 8, 2000
<i>Jerry Ratcliffe is the sports editor of the Charlottesville (Va.) Daily Progress.
Vol. XXIII No. 21, July 21 - August 17, 2000 Virginia football coach George Welsh would prefer to be left alone, locked up in a football laboratory with his vast years of coaching knowledge with
a big sign on the door that reads, "Go Away."
But he is the winningest coach in ACC football history, he is regarded as one of the brightest minds in the sport, and he is (don't tell him we said this) in the twilight of his career. He even told the ACC Sports Journal an exclusive story about how - as a teenager, more than 50 years ago - he used to line up 22 Vanilla Wafers on his kitchen table, searching for ways to maximize the productivity of the old T Formation. He's also a former Navy officer, a former Heisman Trophy candidate, a close friend (and former assistant) to Penn State legend Joe Paterno. He's an avid reader of Russian literature, he once danced a mean polka, and he used to celebrate Nittany Lions victories by singing "Good Night, Irene" in the lockerroom after the game. Oh, and by the way, he still thinks Virginia can win a national championship in football, possibly even before he retires.
So, given that background and despite his desire to be left alone, we had to write a story about him, right?
CHARLOTTESVILLE - George Welsh bristles these days when someone brings up the fact that he will turn 67 years old about a week before the season opener against pass-happy BYU. That's just another invasion of Welsh's privacy, an annoyance that won't seem to go away these days no matter how much he tries to ignore questions about age and longevity.
Opposing programs pick away at Welsh's birthdays the way vultures dine over roadkill. They use his age as a recruiting weapon, constantly reminding prospects that Welsh's clock is ticking toward retirement. Such tactics are the easiest way to raise the Virginia football master's ire. He still has a few years remaining on what is essentially an open-ended contract. While Cavalier fans realize that Welsh can't coach forever - he is entering his 19th year as captain of the USS Virginia this season - even they hope he can take the Wahoos to football's Promised Land before he hangs up his whistle. Welsh insists he still has the fire burning bright in his belly. He still gets butterflies before a game. He still loves being on the practice field and on the sidelines. He is looking forward to this season, when UVa will begin playing in the renovated Scott Stadium. After an $86-million facelift, it has jumped from the third-smallest stadium in the ACC to the third-largest, behind only Clemson's Memorial Stadium (81,474) and Florida State's Doak Campbell Stadium (80,000). "Why is it that Joe Paterno or Bobby Bowden don't get all these questions about how long they're going to keep coaching?" Welsh said recently. "Those guys are older than me, but they aren't hassled about it all the time. I'm going to coach as long as I enjoy it, as long as I'm healthy. If I were mired in mediocrity, I wouldn't be doing it." Welsh would prefer to be left alone, locked up in a football laboratory with his vast years of coaching knowledge with a big sign on the door that reads, "Go Away." Football has been his life even though he is a worldly man, well-read enough to conduct a conversation with any professor on the storied UVa campus. The former naval officer converted that leadership and his love of football into one of the most successful coaching careers in college football.
<div align="center"> <b>Success In Two Graveyards
Consider that, in the 30 years prior to Welsh's arrival in Charlottesville, there had been only two winning seasons, and eight coaches had a collective record of 90-207-3. Consider that before Welsh, UVa had never been to a bowl game, had never won an ACC championship, had never had a 10-win season, and had never been ranked higher than ninth in the Associated Press poll. <div align="center"> <b> A Brilliant, Consistent Winner
Rival coaches marvel at what he has done at Virginia, and at what a brilliant coach Welsh has been.
Former Georgia Tech coach Bill Curry once said, "George Welsh can beat you with his brain," and added that looking across the field on game day and seeing Welsh can make another coach tremble.
Paterno, whom Welsh used to work for (the two men are the godfathers of each other's children), said of his old friend: "George is the finest judge of football talent I have ever seen. He has always been a guy who smelled of confidence. Once you get to know him, it's tough not to like him. He is a thoughtful man, a bright man and he thinks out everything he says." Bowden always considers Virginia a threat because of Welsh.
"I've always been impressed with Welsh," said Bowden. "He's as good as any of them. He does an excellent job of picking out a weakness in your system. Remember the time they beat us up there? They did just that to us. He picks you apart pretty good with his offense, and his teams are sound ... they don't beat themselves." From Wafers To The Heisman Perhaps Welsh was destined to be a coach. His work ethic derived from his upbringing in the mining community of Coaldale, Pa., in the 1940s and '50s. "I think, looking back, growing up there shaped me subconsciously," Welsh said. "It wasn't like we were poor. We didn't have money, but we had food and clothes. But there was an extended family, a long line of aunts and uncles around. I learned quickly that I didn't want to be a miner, and I became influenced by athletics and academics." His dad, Thomas, an electrician for the Lehigh Navigation Coal Company, had always been a Navy fan. From the time George entered high school, the two annually attended a Navy football game. One year, after seeing the ultimate, the Army-Navy game, George became hooked on the Middies. A quality high school athlete, Welsh was a quarterback on his high school team.
The strategy of the game drew his keen attention at an early age.
"I've never told anyone this, but after we went to the T-formation in high school, sometimes I used to get cookies out on the kitchen table after dinner, line up the cookies in T-formation," Welsh said. "Nothin' fancy in 1949. Just Vanilla Wafers. I'd put in a defense of cookies and move them around and try to figure out the best way to get past them." Welsh did enough maneuvering on the high school field to earn a scholarship to the Naval Academy, where he became a 5-10, 155-pound terror at quarterback by his junior year. As a senior, Welsh was one of college football's true stars, leading the nation in passing and total offense before finishing third in the Heisman Trophy balloting - ahead of Michigan State's Earl Morrall and Notre Dame's Paul Horning - in 1955.
"George is not always an officer and a gentleman," said UVa defensive coordinator Rick Lantz, who worked for Welsh at both Navy and (still) UVa. "The coal miner comes out in him sometimes. He's high-tech in how he studies others, but he has basic beliefs that certain things have to be done to be successful, and he pays absolute attention that those things are done."
Woe be the man who doesn't pay attention to Welsh's details. "He can be very blunt, and sometimes he can be a pain in the rear," Lantz said with a chuckle. "But he is terribly loyal to his people, players and coaches."
Many of Welsh's qualities as a head coach can be traced back to his experiences at Navy. "I think I had certain leadership qualities coming out of high school, but I think the Naval Academy helps you develop them," Welsh said. "I still believe in what they said then about leadership. I learned about what it takes to be a really good leader. The first thing they would say was, 'Know your stuff.' If you want to be a good naval officer, you've got to know what the hell you're talking about and what you're doing with the ship. That applies to football, too. And then they'd used to say, 'And be a man about it.' Stand up for what you believe. If you make a mistake, admit it. If you're the guy in charge, you have got to take responsibility. That applies in football." A confessed landlubber who used to get seasick even though he prowled the high seas on tours of duty during the Cuban Missile Crisis and conflicts in Beirut and the Suez Canal, Welsh had a lot of responsibility standing on the bridge of a ship at 23 years old. While he didn't become a coach until age 30, he already had accumulated a great deal of responsibility.
"I think you learn more when you win than you do when you lose. I don't know what you learn from losing. I've never bought into this thing about losing building character." He is a man who thrives on privacy, both on the field and off. He has never allowed media to come to practice, a throwback to his Navy days (loose lips sink ships). He can't go to dinner anywhere in the state of Virginia without being recognized and often approached. He hates flying, loves the Boston Red Sox, enjoys the privacy of a second home on Nantucket, where he goes to escape the rat race. There he can fish, relax and read. Welsh is an avid reader and has enjoyed Russian literature ever since the Cold War heated up during his naval career. Tolstoy, Solzhenitsyn and Push-kin. He also reads best-seller novels. "A lot of those spy things," he says.
Welsh has spent years studying the great pro football teams, Lombardi's Green Bay Packers, among others. He was fascinated that Lombardi's teams never seemed to fumble, and he wondered why. "I think that's how you really learn, see how other people are doing it," Welsh said. "You pick up a lot of techniques, learn a lot of football by doing that."
While the Cavaliers may be thin in several areas on the defensive side of the ball, Welsh hasn't surrendered his notion of winning the ACC title again before he retires. Anyone who wins the ACC title will at least be in contention for a national title in most years, thanks to FSU's presence in the league. "It's possible," Welsh said. "It has to be the right year, the right bounces. Georgia Tech did it in 1990. If they can do it, we can do it." Welsh's '95 team came within 14 points of an undefeated season, with gut-wrenching, last-second losses at Michigan and Texas."I feel like I have one more swing through, a few more years left," Welsh said. "I'd like to make them good ones." Somehow you get the feeling that no one, especially Welsh, will settle for less.