People with stars on their shoulders say Army's football team has been miserable the past 15 years because we were hooked up in a war nobody loved. These generals say Army couldn't beat anybody because blue-chip kids want to go to the pros after college, not off to Fort Shootemup. This makes sense until you remember that Army's darkest hours more or less coincide with some of the brightest ever at Navy.

The difference was George Welsh, the Navy coach. Army has ordered four coaches against Welsh. He sent them all up the Hudson on their shields. Welsh's Navy teams were 7-1-1 against Army. They scored 247 points to Army's 49. Welsh did this with Midshipmen cut from the same cloth as Cadets. Whatever Tom Cahill, Homer Smith, Lou Saban and Ed Cavanaugh brought to Army, it was measurably less than Welsh gave Navy. While Welsh was 55-45-1 for Navy, Army went 29-65-4.

"Suffer for me today," Bo Coppedge said this morning. The captain is the Navy athletic director who hired Welsh and listened annually to reports Welsh might take this big job or that fabulous job. Coppedge once said he bought Welsh a tombstone and hoped the coach stayed at Annapolis long enough to use it.

"Everybody loves George and thinks he is a class guy," Coppedge said, "but on any scale of appreciation everybody else ranks at 1 while my appreciation of George is about a 10."

Because Welsh so often has been connected in speculation about jobs, it seemed routine to pick up Monday's paper and read his name in a list of candidates to succeed Dick Bestwick at Virginia.

If routine, so did the report seem meaningless. Welsh said no to jobs seemingly superior to Virginia's. Georgia Tech wanted him. Had Joe Paterno retired at Penn State, everyone expected Welsh to return where he worked as an assistant. The more he turned down offers, the more certain it was: Welsh was waiting for Penn State to call.

As it became clear the last two years that Paterno didn't plan to quit coaching soon, Coppedge could be forgiven thinking he had Welsh forever. The marriage was perfect: a classy coach at a classy place, a wonderful example of how good college football can be.

But forces were at work in Welsh's mind that even he doesn't completely understand. All he could say when he took the Virginia job was that there is a time to stay and a time to leave. The time had come.

Virginia isn't Georgia Tech and it isn't Penn State. It has fired eight coaches the last three decades. It is consistently the worst program in a football league only now rising above mediocrity.

Maybe Welsh, at 48, felt he said no to so many people they were going to stop asking. Virginia, like the Naval Academy, is a classy place that wants to do college football the right way. A new coach at Virginia has a world of possibilities to explore. Maybe it all came together at a moment when Welsh, as he implied after looking at the future schedules, felt he had no new seas to sail for Navy.

"That could be a big part of it," Coppedge said, adding quickly, "But that's just speculating . . . I talked to George, but I'm not sure why he's leaving. All I can say is that there was no problem, no friction, no animosity between us. He and I were closer than ever, and that's true of the administration, too."

As for a new Navy coach, Coppedge said, "I've heard already from a thousand people. Most of them are wasting their money calling."

Coppedge said finding a new coach is his responsibility alone. He will make a recommendation, "obviously the sooner the better," to an athletic association committee that will send a name to the academy superintendent.

"I want somebody with the same qualifications George Welsh has," Coppedge said. "First, a class person. I'm looking for a guy with sound knowledge of football, and a man who understands the mission of the Naval Academy. By that, I mean the coach must know that our athletes get no breaks academically. There is no easy way at Navy. It wouldn't be in Navy's interest to send a bunch of bad officers to the fleet."

So, someone asked, he wants a coach who likes that idea?

"He doesn't have to like it," Coppedge said, "but he has to know that's the framework of the job."

Coppedge said he has no list of candidates yet.

Let's see. George Welsh was a little quarterback. He became Navy's boss at age 39 with no head-coaching experience.

Well, would Navy be interested in another little quarterback 38 years old who has been a head coach 16 years?

Rick Carter is the name. The Holy Cross coach. Classy, confident, ambitious kind of guy. A 135-pound quarterback at Earlham (Ind.) College, he coached tiny Hanover (Ind.) College to 28 straight regular-season victories. Moving on to Dayton University, another Division III no-scholarship school, he produced teams that had a 39-7-2 record, including going 14-0 and winning the national championship in 1980.

From Dayton, Carter took over a moribund Holy Cross program this season. Only 3-8 in '80, Holy Cross was 6-5 for Carter this year.

In Carter's 16-year career at Earlham, Hanover, Dayton and Holy Cross, he has lost only 43 times while winning 108.

At every stop, Carter has succeeded grandly under difficult circumstances inside private institutions.

"If Navy would be interested in me," Carter said yesterday, "I'd be interested in Navy."

"Rick Carter?" Coppedge said when hearing the name.

Holy Cross coach.

"Sure. If you'd said that first, I'd have known," Coppedge said, "because we looked at film of the Holy Cross-Army game this year. Holy Cross really impressed me."

Holy Cross 28, Army 13.

At West Point.

Navy's kind of coach.