George Welsh is a sly fellow. He can be seated at a press conference, as he was the other day, with the dour look every Navy football coach gets during ARMY WEEK. Then someone casually floats the name of his former ship into the conversation and Welsh suddenly glows, saying:

"It's old enough to be insured for three things -- fire, theft and falling off the edge of the world."

If Mr. Carter were offering hype, Army vs. Navy would be the athletic equivalent of war, infinitely more intense than anything civilians could possibly imagine, what Redskin-Cowboy games might be like when they get some tradition. You have to be there to understand, said Welsh.

And Welsh has been there, as player and coach, 11 times.

"You tend only to remember the losses," he said, "and they stay with you for a long time, they really do. Last year (after Army won for the first time in five years, 17-14), we played the game over as a staff for a couple of months.

"And the players remember (one calling the postgame feeling 'lower than low'). Or I hope so."

Unlike so many coaches, Welsh is a master of retroactive candor, although he also offers more honest pregame opinions than the fraternity usually allows. Of the mood before last season's game, he said: "Give Army credit, but we were ready too early -- and too cocky. I heard some players saying there was no way Army could beat us.

"Which is ridiculous. There's always a way you can lose."

Which is why Welsh frets much more as a coach than as a player, even though as Navy quarterback he lost three times to Army and as Navy coach he has won four of five.

"Even in '75, when we had much better personnel than Army (and won by 24 points), I still worried. But we felt we had better teams the first three years, superior personnel, that we had to play a bad game or crazy things had to happen for us to lose.

"That hasn't been true since '76."

Knowing the goofiness that can happen in football, Welsh properly winces when anyone mentions Navy being a 10-point favorite in the mythical world of sports betting. Still, he can rein his emotions long enough to offer a decent analysis of Saturday's collision.

"They're playing better and we're not as good as we were," he said. "There's no doubt we're going backward. Injuries are part of the reason, though the execution just hasn't been as good.

"They're a physically strong team, on both the offensive and defensive lines, and they have speed where you want it, at flanker and one running back. Teams that have beaten them have thrown well and been quicker.

"I don't know if we can do that."

Welsh has changed his team's routine somewhat this year to avoid another premature peak, with fewer practices during the off week and fewer meetings in general. He promised a new play or two, but nothing the casual fan would grasp.

"I always thought it was a mistake to change much," he said. And he was not passionate about the Army-Navy game during his decade as an assistant at Penn State.

"I wanted to see it on television, and in fact went down to watch a couple times, but it wasn't at all like being involved in it."

The fleet-wide concern is how long Welsh will be involved in it as Navy coach. There are limits beyond which even a Welsh cannot push Navy football. And colleges with fewer restrictions and more attractions for superior players have him on their must-talk-to list.

Three years ago, Welsh was the choice of the university president to become the Tulane coach. The Tulane alumni apparently have more power and their man, Larry Smith, got the job.

It is assumed that if the New York Giants lure Joe Paterno, Welsh would be a leading candidate to succeed him as Penn State coach. That would be as attractive a job as any in college football.

Of course, Welsh remains publicly silent about such talk, but with his eyes open and ears cocked. As a former player and present coach, he realizes that a 7-3 record before the Army game is about all anyone can realistically expect.

Realistically, Navy men always expect victory over Army. Last year, Welsh began to doubt it after he shuddered through a "horrible warm-up and no execution the first half."

Given that too-early peak last season and Welsh's insistance that "mental tenacity" is so important, perhaps a team psychologist would be a fine innovation at Navy.

Welsh considered the idea, then put it in mental dry dock for reasons that seem flawless.

"A lot of teams have tried it," he said, "and all their coaches got fired."