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Dirty Harry or Mr. Clean? : Canyon Coach Harry Welch Beat Southern Section in Court, but Some Believe Justice Was Not Served

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dozens of eager young men move in machine-like precision as a voice bellows instructions from a bullhorn. It is early in Hell Week, that time in late August when football coaches and players greet the new season with unrestrained zeal and optimism.

As the summer day wears on, Canyon High Coach Harry Welch’s exuberance increases. Any football coach worth his salt enjoys this time of year, but one can sense Welch is reveling in the moment even more than usual.

This is the first Hell Week in three years that Welch has not been embroiled in controversy with the Southern Section. No longer are his thoughts divided between attacking a two-deep zone and fending off attacks by the Southern Section in the courts.

“I’m excited about just coaching football,” Welch, 48, said. “There were lots of distractions and a lot of pressure during the last couple of years.

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“I’m not feeling that burden now.”

On June 18, the Southern Section settled its dispute with Welch over alleged rules violations stemming from a photograph published on May 19, 1991, in the Newhall Signal. The photograph showed a Canyon player hitting a blocking dummy while a Cowboy assistant coach and several teammates watched, an apparent violation of Southern Section rules banning the use of sleds and blocking dummies in the off-season. The terms of the settlement were sealed, but sources indicated that Welch clearly came out the victor.

The photograph had created a deluge of problems for Welch. But now Welch--who did not serve a one-year suspension recommended by the Southern Section--is re-energized and ready to teach football with the fervor that has made him the area’s most successful football coach.

Buoyed by his victory over the Southern Section, Welch begins his 12th season tonight at 7:30 as Canyon plays host to Castle Park of San Diego. Some coaches are grateful for Welch’s battle because the Southern Section has since vowed never to make recommendations on personnel, saying it has jurisdiction over programs only. (Call it the “Harry Welch Rule.”)

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However, his critics believe Welch is now above the law. Many wonder how the Canyon program escaped punishment, even after Welch originally admitted a rules violation occurred.

Moreover, the Southern Section’s handling of the Welch case, they said, might embolden some coaches to ignore rules, further threatening the purported role of high school sports.

Buena Coach Rick Scott is not among those convinced the Southern Section is better off after its dealing with Welch.

“Well, they’re going to cross their T’s and dot their I’s before they go on another assault, but rules are getting harder and harder to enforce,” Scott said. “The truth is our governing body really doesn’t have any teeth.”

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Added a veteran area coach: ". . . I’d like to see our section have some way to punish violators. It seems to me that if someone cheats they should be punished. Instead, people cheat, sue and then the rules are changed.”

The case against Welch began to unravel quicker than you can say fumble , which is how three coaches characterized the Southern Section’s handling of the situation. From the onset, Southern Section Commissioner Stan Thomas’ approach was wrong, the coaches said.

In winning one courtroom battle after another, Welch’s attorney, Stephen J. Tully, argued that the Southern Section denied Welch’s rights of due process. Moreover, Tully argued, the Southern Section has no jurisdiction over Welch or any coach. Technically, before the Welch case, the Southern Section made recommendations to member schools regarding personnel, and the schools would then decide whether to enforce those recommendations.

The Southern Section will no longer comment on the Welch case. As part of the settlement agreement, Welch and Tully cannot comment either.

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Not all coaches sided with the Southern Section against Welch. Westlake Coach Jim Benkert believes an issue more important than guilt or innocence was resolved in the Welch case.

“Harry was protesting due process because he didn’t have the opportunity to present his case,” Benkert said. "(The Southern Section) handed down a one-year suspension without hearing all the facts. In any situation, a person should be given the chance to say his piece. I don’t think Harry was given that.”

But many worry that given Welch’s relationship with the Southern Section, officials will avoid future altercations with him.

“People are waiting for him to mess up, so he might be a little cautious right now,” one coach said. “But I think he thinks he can get away with things.”

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Welch disputes such comments.

“My program has been the most scrutinized high school football program in Southern California for the last two years and it will remain the most scrutinized,” Welch said. “In no way am I above reproach and I would never want to be.”

Some believe Welch’s success in court, though, has weakened standards and respect for rules.

“I’ve talked to guys who are already doing things that they wouldn’t have done a couple of years ago,” one veteran area coach said. “They figure nothing will happen to them anyway.”

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Welch disagrees. He contends the Southern Section is stronger than ever.

“Let’s say that some coach feels he now has free reign because of a misinterpretation of this and does something, I assure you the Southern Section will act,” Welch said. “The difference is now it will act properly. Now the (Southern Section) will say, ‘Let’s not waste time attacking the coach.’

“Coaches are protected because now (the Southern Section) will never take action improperly again against a coach. But I don’t think any school wants to be threatened with expulsion from the (Southern Section).”

Welch admits that his reputation has been damaged among his colleagues. “I think that sportsmanship is very important in high school athletics and that has left the game,” one area coach said, alluding to Welch. “Everyone from the head coach down has to be trustworthy. It’s a thing of the past some places.”

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Said another area coach: “Winning isn’t as important as some of the lessons we’re supposed to be teaching these kids. What type of lessons are kids learning when you cheat? If I get a better lawyer I can win? That’s just not right.”

Welch questions the authenticity of those sentiments, saying that the success of his program fuels the resentment against him. Everyone loves a winner, but not one who wins too much, he said.

The numbers support Welch as a winner:

* His teams have won 79.7% of their games (114-27-2).

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* Three Southern Section championships.

* Seven league championships.

Initially, Welch admits, the criticism bothered him. He now views the comments as part of the territory. “Actually, I now look at it as a form of flattery,” he said.

And he knows the criticism will not subside anytime soon.

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“Oh, yes, I’ve heard all the stories,” he said. “People say they have cousins who played for Canyon eight years ago and they know for a fact we practice on Sundays . . . some say they know people who have seen us get in our gear and practice in the gyms . . . others say they’ve talked with people who have seen us leave town to practice.

“But not one person can say, ‘Yes, I was there when. . . .’ And that’s because none of that ever happened. Not once--never.”

Welch’s players are angered by the accusations.

“What the (Southern Section) did was wrong,” Canyon senior quarterback Sean Connelly said last week. “It doesn’t only distract him and his family when he has to go to court, it distracts the whole team. “When things were really going down, you could see it taking a toll on him.”

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Said Canyon senior running back Ed Williams: “Coach doesn’t let a lot of things bother him, but you could definitely see the strain (the Southern Section) put on him and his family. The things they were saying and doing . . . you don’t do that to people.”

While Welch admits he would rather be liked by more of his peers, their approval is not of great importance to him. He will run his program the way he always has, confident that the Cowboys “do things the right way.”

“I certainly wish to be accepted by people I respect, but I could really care less about the people I don’t respect,” Welch said. “The people who have worked with me over the last 12 years and the players who have come through the program know that those are unfounded remarks that are somewhere between irresponsible and jealous.

“Our trademark at Canyon is not bending or breaking the rules--it’s working hard. That has been the trademark and that will continue.”

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Welch’s Battle With Southern Section

A review of Canyon High Coach Harry Welch’s struggle with the Southern Section:

May 19, 1991--Newhall Signal publishes a photograph of a Canyon football player hitting a blocking dummy in presence of several teammates and assistant coach Brian Stiman. The practice session is an apparent violation of Southern Section rules.

June 10--Southern Section Commissioner Stan Thomas opens an investigation of incident at Canyon.

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June 21--Southern Section Executive Committee approves Thomas’ recommendation of a one-year suspension of Welch.

July 9--A three-member Southern Section appeal panel votes to initiate “a full-blown investigation” before delivering a final ruling in the case.

July 15--Canyon Principal Bill White accepts Southern Section recommendation to suspend Welch until Dec. 31 instead of facing an investigation. Welch bids his players goodby and starts his suspension the next day.

July 25--White announces that he has opened his search for Welch’s replacement to all candidates after Canyon assistants Enrique Lopez and Stiman reject offers to coach. Canyon refuses to give Welch written assurance that he will be rehired when his suspension ends, clouding Welch’s future as coach at the school.

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July 31--Welch seeks and wins a temporary restraining order and is reinstated as Canyon coach.

Aug. 19--Welch wins a preliminary injunction ensuring he will be allowed to continue coaching until his civil lawsuit is settled. Superior Court Judge Haig Kehiayan strongly rebukes the Southern Section’s handling of the case, saying its actions were “arbitrary” and “inconsistent,” and dismissed declarations by Thomas as “hearsay.”

Aug. 20--In the wake of Kehiayan’s decision, Thomas announces that the Southern Section has no jurisdiction over personnel matters and that it can only levy sanctions against programs.

Oct. 18--Kehiayan modifies the preliminary injunction he issued on Aug. 19, forbidding the Southern Section from conducting hearings and investigations involving Welch, Canyon or the William S. Hart Union High School District and possible rules violations before August, 1992.

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Sept. 18, 1992--Kehiayan denies the Southern Section’s request to modify the existing preliminary injunction. In issuing his decision, Kehiayan calls the Southern Section’s motion “frivolous and in bad faith.”

June 18, 1993--The Southern Section settles with Welch. Although the settlement is sealed, sources indicate Welch received an undisclosed monetary sum to drop his civil suit against the Southern Section. In turn, the Southern Section dismisses charges of rules violations against Welch.


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