George Welsh has been the man with the sticks standing above Navy's football marionettes since 1973. The adjectives describing him are straight out of a help wanted ad for a Fortune 500 company looking for a president: Indefatigable, intense, controlled, quiet, authoritive, workaholic, widespread knowledge, omnipotent.
It's the intangibles that have made Welsh a distant, yet attainable ideal at Navy, the midshipman's ideal role model, but it's the tangibles that have put Welsh's resume under the closest scrutiny nearly every time a major college coaching job opens up. He has been linked with opportunities to coach at Georgia Tech, Tulane, Penn State, Princeton, Southern Methodist, Wisconsin, Florida, Coloradao. Even the Baltimore Colts are among the football teams that have tried wooing Welsh into picking up his wife and four children and leaving Annapolis.
And still, George Welsh, 47, remains at the Naval Academy. Partly, the Naval Academy flows in his blood. Partly, he does not equate success with the size of a stadium.
Mostly, it remains a mystery.
Welsh is not going to let anyone know exactly why he stays at Navy. He has his reasons. But he's not tipping his hand to anyone, possibly because he holds all the cards.In the past, he has said, "I have no reason to change jobs and I still believe the old saying, 'If it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.'"
Now, he says, with an eagle-like face that would look comfortable on a dollar bill, "I don't have any overall obligation to stay here but I like it. dI've always had a short-term contract. That might change someday. I don't want to be coaching at 65 or even 60. Coaching is very time-consuming."
His personal and institutional pride says, "I don't think I have to do anything to culminate my career. You don't have to coach Michigan to be a success. If you're in the top 10 every year, you always have a shot at the best athletes in the country. All the rest are struggling for seven or eight wins a year.I'm not going to sit here and tell you that I wouldn't be interested in a job at Penn State but I can be very happy here."
Welsh is the last person to gush from the heart about himself. On a personal level, he'll tell you how tough it is to recruit top talent at Navy because everyone wants to play in the pros and what kind of pro prospect is going to dedicate nine years to the Navy? But he has forged his reputation turning medium talent into exceptional execution.
He is regarded as a football wizard, a coach whose teams outscore superior competiton such as Washington and Syracuse and Pitt on pure preparation and execution. A coach who can turn average talent into upsets of national powers with consistency is a valuable commodity.
"After we had good seasons in '75 and '78 there were several schools expressing interest. Well, I can't say no, because I should listen to what they say. But if I don't say no immediately, it makes it look like I'm looking for a job."
The pitfalls of high-visibility success on the collegiate level, of finding yourself ensnared in the annual hiring-firing rumor rituals, have left their impression.
"I resent this sometimes. I felt I'd been used in other years. I think my name was brought up but I wasn't seriously considered. That way if things don't work out with the new coach they can always show the alumni all the other coaches they were after. Some have gone through the formality of talking to me."
And so, autumn after autumn, he reappears, an immutable ingredient in the Naval Adademy way.
When you've just finished giving the Naval Academy the nine most metamorphic years of your young life, when the Naval Academy has just finished giving you nine years of intense character construction, when your life finally bleeds from the maritime to mainstream, you don't want to turn out to be just another man. You leave that to the other places, the ones dressed in jeans and scholarships.
You know you've been cut from a different block of ice. You and Roger Staubach. You and Jimmy Carter.
And as the hallowed ideal of Staubach and Carter rolls into a kind of backdrop, you find another role model at a less distant setting. A football coach made from the purest of Naval protoplasm.
Midshipman quarterback Fred Reitzel: "When you come to Navy all you hear is George Welsh. Everyone knows he's a great coach but that's not what you hear. At Navy, he's what everybody preaches. He's the epitome of what the Navy wants you to be. You think of Staubach and Welsh kind of together."
Running back Ed Meyers: "We generally think he can get anything done he wants. In football and probably anything else."
The resume: "Little George Welsh," quarterback, led Navy to a 1955 Sugar Bowl win. "Mister Icebox," led the 1954 "Team of Desire." Ten years as an assistant coach under Joe Paterno at Penn State. Eight years back at Navy coaching the academy to occasional appearances in the Top 20 and a couple of postseason bowls including the 1980 Garden State Bowl.
You just have to want to join this man's Navy.
Assistant coaches Tom Bresnahan and Art Marcus won't even venture a guess at why he stays. "I don't know, you'd have to ask him," says Bresnahan.
Only Reitzel offers a remote theory: "I think he gets more respect here than he'd get anywhere else. He'd get respect anywhere but this is a military institution and he's done so much here that the respect he gets is incredible. That respect means a lot to him. But it's hard to say exactly what's on his mind."
In 1975, Welsh visited Tulane, where he was impressed with the possibility of being athletic director and football coach with a regular television show. Though Bresnahan says Welsh is quite natural as a public speaker, it's difficult to picture him being dazed by a television gig. He's a Navy man. Anyhow, Tulane was as deep as Welsh ever delved into a prospective job since being at Navy.
He dropped his name from contention shortly after his visit.
Rix Yard, Tulane's athletic director at the time, said, "A.D.s all over the country are impressed by Welsh and the job he does with limited recruiting potential. He came down, talked to us, then withdrew his name. To some extent I was surprised but I also had a feeling he had a lot of loyalty to Navy and was very comfortable there."
With a win in this Saturday's traditional Army-Navy game at Veterans Stadium (3:50 p.m., WJLA-TV-7), Welsh will have an 8-3 season. The coaching feelers will inevitably find their way to Welsh again.
Bresnahan thinks, at a distance, that Welsh appears as "one of those coaches people look at as magical. I'm not sure it's quite so magical. He's organized mentally. He has priorities. One of his priorities is football.Not all coaches have that priority. They're involved in other things . . . alumni, ect. They're like P.R. men. George is involved in football."
The Navy sideline is a democracy, but Welsh gets the final word. Marcus says, "There are times when we get calls from the press box and we relay the information to him and he says, 'I know what I want already!' He's incredibly organized in his own mind. Nothing escapes him on the sideline. He has the ability to know in detail what should and will happen."
Reitzel adds, "He lets you know when, where, why and how it's going to happen on every play. He says things like, 'When you do that, the passing lanes will open to the right for about two seconds,' and it happens just the way he says it."
Loyalty, an eye for detail, intense concentration, organization. All high up on the Navy's Most-Wanted List.
Welsh, of course, "would never rate myself as a coach. I think having played quarterback helped me and I've learned a lot at Penn State and here. You never stop learning. The game is getting more involved and more complicated all the time. There's always someone smarter than you."
The closest Welsh comes to acknowledging the magnitude of his football expertise is to say, "It's impossible for a fan to really know what happens in a football game. There's just too much. You have to live it. A fan could never really understand."
No one here lives it to quite the degree of Welsh. His assistants say they're always learning something new from Welsh. A former player, Bob DeStafney, said Welsh is like "the captain of a ship. It's lonely at the top. You certainly get the feeling he's off by himself."
Welsh supports this somewhat saying, "I don't like to sit around having meetings all night. I can work better alone."
Reitzel says, "If you consider it like a business with him as the president, you can understand it. I don't think anyone gets too close to him. pBefore this year, I didn't know him that well but this year he's been working with me a lot and he just knows so much. But still it's hard to get to know him aside from football. It's not to his advantage to let us know him too well. If he joked around with us he'd lose some of the respect."
Meyers said, "I really don't talk to him that much. Our relationship is basically football. The first thing he ever said to me was, 'Your time in the 40 (yard dash) was pretty good but I didn't think you were so big. I might use you at fullback.' I was really nervous about playing fullback but I think I was more nervous by just having him talk to me for the first time."
After this year's major accomplishment, a 24-10 win over Washington, Meyers recalled Welsh suddenly "cracking jokes at us. He really has us rolling on the floor. It was totally unexpected."
For an hour, Welsh has been talking about college football, Navy football and coaching football. His answers are direct, pointed and well documented.
When questioned about himself, the answers are spare. It takes nine years to develop a George Welsh and often that doesn't do the trick.
Meyers says, "It takes a long time to understand him. I don't think any of the players can say they know him really well. We call him, 'The Voice in the Wilderness.'"