Virginia's George Welsh Proves to Be an Enduring Coach


It's fitting George Welsh found his way here to Mr. Jefferson's University. Jefferson said, "Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people," and that's precisely how it came to be that Welsh won for the 100th time as a college football coach last Saturday. How else but with sheer effort could he win that many games at academically oriented Navy and Virginia, two places, a coaching colleague once marveled, "Where it couldn't be done"?

It wasn't by gimmicks. Can anyone remember George Welsh cooking up a scheme to win a football game? A self-promoter he isn't. Think of a college football coach and chances are he'll never come to mind. Charismatic? He's never given a Gipper speech, although playing to a good part of his audience he has quoted Solzhenitsyn at halftime.

At 56 he's college coaching's marathon man.

Obstacles don't daunt him. His teams have been blown off the field by Goliaths such as Notre Dame and Clemson, kicked in the shins by a David, William and Mary. Setbacks, his wife Sandra says, turn him from quiet to "very, very quiet." But like a long-distance runner, he shakes off the hole he stepped into and soon can be seen coming over the next ridge, dirty-kneed, perhaps, but relentless.

The book on Welsh, a trim man with a hawk's nose, is this: bright, hard-working, knows his X's and O's, up-to-date with an increasingly wide-open offense. His day begins at 5 a.m. when he starts writing out a detailed daily practice schedule. No dinosaur in his thinking, he is "constantly changing, constantly looking for new ideas and methods," according to Penn State Coach Joe Paterno. Alabama Coach Bill Curry has said, "George Welsh can beat you with his brain."

Welsh and Paterno are friends from way back, when both were assistants at Penn State under Rip Engle. By mutual agreement they virtually stopped speaking to one another several years ago when Penn State-Virginia games for 1988 and 1989 were scheduled. (Typically of Welsh's determination, Virginia lost to Penn State 42-14 last season at home, then this season stunned an improved Nittany Lions team up there, 14-6.) As soon as he has time, Welsh wants to resume talking football with Paterno -- and read Solzhenitsyn's "August 1914."

"It's out now," Welsh said eagerly, but as a man with priorities, he won't get to the book until after the season. After all, it's 857 pages.

First comes football and to Welsh that means practice.

"We try to emphasize getting better in practice," he said, "to improve individually and collectively." If players don't practice, they don't play. If they don't practice well, they may learn their coach isn't as laid-back as some people say. He's been known to chase a player off the practice field, or throw his cap down and stomp on it. Jefferson also said it was all right to stir things up occasionally.

Once Welsh overdid it. Illustrating a move, he broke his ankle and had to coach the final game of 1986 in a wheelchair. But on better afternoons on the practice field out behind University Hall, Welsh is like a professor lecturing to a large group, making his points. Football men who believe he has something to impart entrust their sons to him. The current roster includes former Georgia coach Vince Dooley's son Derek, former Dolphins quarterback Bob Griese's son Scott and Curry's son Bill.

Welsh seems suited to Virginia. "Virginia promotes a kind of exploring among its students in terms of outside interests," said Athletic Director Jim Copeland, "and he doesn't stymie that. Just be a football player when you're supposed to be a football player. But he thinks you can be something else, and that's a great lesson for anybody to learn."

Virginia won the College Football Association Academic Achievement Award for the highest graduation of scholarship football players in 1985 (92.6 percent) and 1986 (88.9 percent) and received honorable mention in 1984, 1987, 1988 and 1989. Welsh is as proud of his quarterback who went to medical school as the one he sent to the Green Bay Packers. (Virginia's fifth-year students with playing eligibility usually aren't stringing out their courses; last season one already was in law school and a captain this year, Roy Brown is studying for his master's in international relations.)

Welsh said: "I didn't necessarily come to Virginia because it was a good academic school. It didn't deter me, though."

It just happened that way. Virginia was looking for a coach just when Welsh turned 48 and thought that if he ever was going to move it was about time. As thoroughly as he plans football games and seasons, he seems to have had no game plan for his career. He doesn't like to change jobs, and the times he has he's done it pretty much on instinct.

"It's a matter of timing with George," Sandra Welsh said. "I don't think he plans. He didn't get into football until he was 30."

He was an officer before he was a Virginia gentleman. Eight years in the Navy after graduating from the academy probably had something to do with his decorum and officer-enlisted man relationship with his players. He's sometimes described as aloof. He isn't; he's just not pals with the players.

"I never have been, even when I was younger," he said. "When I was an assistant coach, in my early 30s, I tried to keep a professional relationship. I've tried to encourage the idea that the door is open. I've tried to be available. But there's a line there that I never wanted to cross."

One of his former Navy players once likened him to "the captain of a ship. You certainly get the feeling he's off by himself."

What he is, is organized. He may have learned about that from Engle. "Rip knew how to handle a staff," Welsh said. "One of Rip's great strengths was that he'd allow everybody to talk in a meeting and he would sit and not say much, maybe for a couple of hours. Then he'd pull it all together and make the decision. He was good at that."

So is Welsh, his peers say. "He's an intelligent person, probably able to analyze things as well as anybody and make deductions and then implement from there," said Gary Tranquill, Welsh's assistant at Navy and again here. "He may not say much, but when he does, it's exactly what he wants."

Welsh was high in leadership qualities as a Midshipman, a small but instinctive and winning quarterback. He came out of Coaldale, Pa., with "no idea" what he was getting into at the academy. Yale and Columbia were among his possibilities, but his father was a Navy fan and had taken him to Baltimore a couple of times to see the Midshipmen play. As a 162-pound field general, he became the heart of Navy's 1954 "Team of Desire," which had a 7-2 record and upset Mississippi, 21-0, in the Sugar Bowl.

"The '54 team was one of the great Navy teams," he said. "Maybe not as good as the (Roger) Staubach teams, but almost. Because I was no Staubach."

In 1955 Welsh led the nation in total offense, and when he speaks of that season he can't help mentioning the Army game. "We probably had a better team than Army that year, but they were better than us that day and we just didn't win. We turned the ball over six or seven times."

As a Midshipman he met his wife on a blind date. As a young officer, he was assigned for a while to the academy and helped out coaching football in 1960 and 1961. Sandra remembered him saying one day, "I could be very good at this."

Still he went back to sea. He stayed in the Navy eight years. "I didn't get out of the Navy to coach. I got out to change a profession. I just decided it was not the thing for me," he said of what was hardly a snap decision. He thought of going to law school ("Maybe I wouldn't have gotten in anyway," he added). "But I had two small children and I didn't seem to be able to do it." (He has four grown children now.) He applied for a few assistant coaching jobs, but appeared headed for business when Engle hired him for Penn State.

From 1963 through 1972 he worked under Engle, then Paterno. Sue Paterno and Sandra Welsh became like sisters. Disappointed that the Welshes would be leaving when Navy came looking for a coach, Sue Paterno said to her husband, "You didn't recommend him, did you?"

Welsh had been content to be an assistant, just as he would become content as Navy's coach. In that job he proved unsinkable. "It took me five years," he said, "to get my head above water."

Again he minimizes his accomplishments; unlike many coaches, he doesn't have a big ego. His wife told him recently, "With all those losses, you deserve a hundred wins."

But even Welsh's early losing teams at Navy beat Army (he was 7-1-1 against the Cadets in all). He finished with four winning seasons (55-46-1 for nine years) and took Navy to three bowl games. Often his name came up when there were coaching vacancies elsewhere. But stories invariably followed that he was staying, usually accompanied by speculation as to what motivated him to remain put. He simply wasn't aggressive about leaving, and even when he accepted Virginia in December 1981, he said, "My family didn't particularly want to leave."

He laughed gently. "But I had worked in a military organization as a Midshipman, seven years as a commissioned officer, nine years as a coach there. That was my 20, I figured. I'd paid the government back."

This is his eighth season at Virginia. He's had winning teams five of the last six seasons. He's 5-2 this year, 45-39-2 overall, including two bowl victories in two appearances. Yet in the 29 years before he came, Virginia had only two winning seasons. It had never been to a bowl. (Navy has had only one winning season since he left, and that was the year after.) Welsh thought he could win at Virginia, but confesses to underestimating the climb during that first 2-9 season.

Basketball coach Terry Holland and his wife Ann were among those welcoming the Welsh family. Sandra Welsh said, "They were the first people on our doorstep."

"He came with a good attitude," Terry Holland said. "People by and large try to make excuses. I've seen coaches come through here and after a year or two they say this is the reason we can't be successful.

"He's a fierce competitor. He takes what he does seriously. He has a good staff that's loyal and been with him for a while. He's been an effective recruiter, especially in the last few years. But he also coaches players to be better than maybe their press clippings are. And that's what you have to do at a place like Virginia. He always has a walk-on or two."

Lately Welsh has been keeping more good in-state players in state. His most heralded recruit has been freshman Terry Kirby, who had been perhaps the most sought-after running back in the nation and who also will play basketball. "Recruiting is hell," Kirby said the other day, but he appreciated Welsh and his assistants "for being kind of laid-back. ... He came in and told me exactly what they had. He said you're going to have to work your butt off to get your position. Nothing's promised you. And that really impressed me."

Welsh believes freshmen should be ineligible for varsity football because they need a chance to mature while facing the new demands of college. He's also "not sure players now have as much fun. We never spent 10 to 11 months of the year on football."

He believes everyone should have time off. He squeezes in vacation at the home he had built on Nantucket a couple of years ago. He takes one week in February and three weeks in the summer. He fishes, he reads (his interest in Russian literature began with a college course), he runs. He began running long before it was popular.

"I still want to have a third career," Welsh said. That's after coaching, and no time soon. It could be athletic administration, business; he isn't sure. He wouldn't mind a six-month sabbatical at sea to think about it, but after that it should come as no surprise that anyone so indefatigable would want to keep on running.

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