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Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

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

While his name is either at or near the top of every short list of America's best football coaches, he isn't exactly a household term outside of the ACC. That's largely due to the fact that he has coached only two football programs over the past 28 years, the U.S. Naval Academy and Virginia. He rebuilt both programs, which were in shambles with no sign of life until Welsh turned them into winners, into bowl champions. A humble man, Welsh never seeks credit for the success. He credits it rather to good fortune. When you examine the old salt as a football coach, you don't look at the number of wins, which are impressive alone, but rather at where those wins were. Welsh's resume will say he won at Navy, during the anti-Vietnam sentiment that made the academy a particularly difficult sell to recruits. And it will say he won at UVa, which was known as one of the Sad Sacks of college football until Welsh did for the Cavaliers what Iacocca did for Chrysler. In his last four seasons at Navy, the Midshipmen went 31-15 and to three bowl games. During his past 13 seasons at Virginia, the Cavs have gone 104-51-1. That includes 10 bowl games, two ACC championships, the first win by a league school over Florida State (1995) and the nation's No. 1 ranking during a magical three-week span in 1990. During those 13 seasons, Virginia is one of only four Division I-A schools in the country to win at least seven games each year, joining Florida State (declared an official dynasty by the NCAA over that same stretch), Nebraska and Michigan in accomplishing the feat. What separates Virginia from the other three is a breakthrough season, a national championship, something Welsh still believes is possible, if not during his time, then soon afterward. His detractors admire Welsh for what he has built at Virginia, something once thought impossible. At the same time they admonish him, critically pointing out that they believe he has taken the program as far as he can. Supporters still believe Welsh can deliver that one elusive season.

    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

So, what about this complicated man, who abides by such simple philosophies as power football, stick with the system, keep an even keel?

    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.

On Navy's Leadership Detail
It was at the Academy that Welsh learned about and accepted leadership, which helped mold him into a forceful football coach, not afraid to bark orders, step on toes, take the heat in order to do what needed to be done. He has been known to throw his entire football team and coaching staff out of practice when things get sloppier than he would like. He has accosted players coming off the field after they have made mistakes and is demanding of his assistant coaches.

    &quot;George is not always an officer and a gentleman,&quot; said UVa defensive coordinator Rick Lantz, who worked for Welsh at both Navy and (still) UVa. &quot;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.&quot;

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.

On Singing, Flying And Privacy
While eventually winding up on Rip Engle's staff at Penn State, Welsh became a close friend of Paterno, who succeeded Engle and relied heavily on Welsh as an assistant. As a member of the Nittany Lions staff, Welsh discovered Jack Ham and coached a backfield that included Franco Harris and Lydell Mitchell. Welsh was a fun-loving guy back in the golden era of college football. He danced a mean polka, and it became a tradition after each Penn State victory for Welsh to seal the win by singing "Good Night, Irene" in the lockerroom after the game. While Sandra Welsh always insisted that George had a lovely tenor singing voice, Paterno cracked, "Put it this way: George couldn't make a living at it." When he was convinced by former UVa athletic director Dick Schultz to accept the Cavaliers job, Welsh was asked at his first press conference why he would choose to come to a place that had been known as a coach's graveyard? "It's a lovely graveyard," Welsh said, then quickly pointed out there was no reason Virginia couldn't become a winner, a top-20 football program. Within three seasons after inheriting a 1-10 team, Welsh put Virginia in its first bowl game, the 1984 Peach Bowl. The Wahoos won the game, beating a Jim Everett-led Purdue team. It wasn't as easy as he thought it would be. "Players here did not know what it took to win when I first came," Welsh said. "I was appalled by the attitude. In fact, some players came to me after I got here and said that I was working them too hard. But it was no different than what we did at Penn State and what I did at Navy. It was difficult to do it here because of the long decades of losing. It was hard to get it started.

"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."

Firm, Flexible To The End
While he is a firm believer in conservative, power football and will always center UVa's offense around running the football, he has been flexible enough to allow some pizzazz into the game. The Cavaliers have had enough quality quarterbacks and receivers over the 1990s to enable Virginia to lead the ACC in passing efficiency over the decade. Some believe Welsh did his best coaching job last season, in leading a troubled UVa team to a 7-5 record and another bowl appearance. Most believed that, with the most injuries a Welsh team had suffered in nearly 30 years and with suspensions due to academic failings and legal issues, the Cavaliers would win five games or less in '99. Somehow the Cavs won seven, upset seventh-ranked Georgia Tech, defeated BYU in a high-scoring game on the road and finished in a tie for second in the ACC. A landslide loss to Illinois in the postseason smeared all of the glory the team had gained in the regular season and caused Welsh to put his entire program under a magnifying glass during the offseason. Changes have been made, and Welsh is ready to go again.

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.