If George Welsh had the money to go to law school way back then, none of this would have happened.

"I just couldn't afford it," George Welsh said. "My choices were to go to work for U.S. Steel or Campbell Soup Co. or become a coach."

He became a coach.

At 29, after serving as a naval officer for seven years upon graduation from the Naval Academy, Welsh got his first coaching job. It involved working with the freshmen and scouting for Rip Engle at Penn State.

In the 19 years that have passed, Welsh has established himself as one of the premier coaches in college football. After 10 years as an assistant at Penn State under Engle and Joe Paterno, Welsh was named head coach at Navy on Feb. 15, 1973.

The relationship will end officially Dec. 30 after Navy plays Ohio State in the Liberty Bowl. Two days later, Welsh will assume his duties as head coach at Virginia.

George Welsh has been as much a part of Navy football as Ted Williams was a part of baseball. The time came, however, for Welsh to prove he could coach somewhere else, too.

He had accomplished all he could at Navy. "I'm not deserting a sinking ship," he said. "The program at Navy is where I wanted it to be. I'm proud of what I've done there. It's just time to move on."

A quiet, slightly built former Midshipmen quarterback, Welsh has a wry sense of humor and is brutally honest and realistic. He knows his limitations and he knew the limitations of his teams. All of them.

"George Welsh is Navy football," said Athletic Director J.O. (Bo) Coppedge.

The record is proof of it. Of the last five Navy coaches, Welsh is the only one not to have been fired. In the five previous seasons before Welsh came, the Midshipmen were 12-41 and had lost to Army four times.

In Welsh's nine, they were 55-45-1, making him the winningest coach in the school's history. In the past four seasons, Navy was 9-3, 7-4, 8-4 and 7-3-1 this season going into the Liberty Bowl, their third bowl appearance in four seasons.

The stability Welsh gave the program also helped make Navy the dominant service academy football team. In the last nine years, Army has had four coaches and a 29-65-4 record. Air Force had three coaches and a 28-68-3 record. Welsh was 7-1-1 against Army and 6-3 against Air Force.

Recruiting always was Welsh's most difficult task. The school's entrance requirements are strict, and no academic allowances are made for athletes. There is a five-year military commitment after graduation, limiting the chances to play professionally.

As a coach, Welsh is basically conservative. He always has a good tailback who carries the ball frequently. When Welsh has a good passer and someone who can catch, the team passes.

Although he was a quarterback at Navy from 1953 to 1955, Welsh has always emphasized defense. In 1975 the Midshipmen were third in the nation in total defense. In 1978 they were 13th; in 1979, 21st; in 1980, sixth,and this season 18th.

Welsh does it more with technique than trickery. He has taught the same defense his entire coaching career -- a basic 5-2, or 34, as the pros call it.

He also never complains. Since he attended Navy and coached there for so long, he knew its limitations well. He knew he couldn't get the blue-chippers. He also knew he could lose any player any time because of the academy's academic standards. He lost some good ones -- quarterbacks Steve Rogers and Mike Roban and running back Gerry Goodwin -- all players who almost certainly would have been stars if they had stayed. They left because they didn't like the system.

Welsh never had a bad word to say about any of them. "If they didn't like it here, then it's probably best that they did leave," he said. "I wish they would have stayed, but they didn't want to."

He never complained about the heavy study load and the labs and all of the other "outside distractions" that limited his players' time for football. He didn't complain because he understood why and believed in the system.

Welsh also is a master at making the most of what he has. He changed player positions the way some coaches change uniforms. "When you only have so many good athletes, you have to make sure you have as many of them on the field together as you can get," he said.

"George's greatest asset is that he is probably the finest judge of football talent I've ever known," said Joe Paterno.

But the George Welsh story goes beyond his accomplishments on the field.

When he decided to take the job at Virginia, he called his team together for a special meeting -- right in the middle of final exams -- and told them.

Before that, when they faced an opponent like Michigan or Notre Dame that was far superior, he told his players what their chances were.

"If we didn't have a chance, he told us," said kicker Steve Fehr. "He did it in a nice way, though. He always impressed on us to play our best, but he prepared us for the times when our best just wouldn't be good enough. He was a realist and he made us realists."

His players say Welsh is not a strict disciplinarian, is easy to talk to and always available, even though he never got too close to his players personally. With the media, he has always been glib and candid.

Welsh preferred to signal plays in to his quarterback from the sideline this season, but Marco Pagnanelli couldn't remember the signals early in the year. So Welsh had to send the plays into him by a messenger, a far less efficient system.

"I can't understand how he (Pagnanelli) can memorize 100 chemistry symbols, but can't pick up the 25 signals I try to get across to him," Welsh told reporters.

The biggest victories in Welsh's Navy career?

In his first season, Navy defeated Army, 51-0, a game in which Welsh set the tone for his tenure at the academy. Navy could have won by 100 points, but from the beginning of the third quarter to the end of the game, Welsh kept the ball on the ground, up the middle, trying to keep the score down.

"I know it's Army," he said. "But there's no need to humiliate anyone."

Another significant victory came in 1980 when the Midshipmen beat Washington at Seattle, 24-10. As Welsh said, that was the first time Navy had beaten a team that was far superior. "We beat them because we outplayed them," Welsh said. "I'll never forget the importance of that game."

There were some trying times for Welsh at Navy, too. He never beat Michigan, losing five times by a cumulative score of 171-37, and he never beat Notre Dame, losing all nine games by a cumulative score of 271-61. Navy was so overmatched against Michigan that the Midshipmen never even won the game following a Michigan game.

The frustration and the futility of it all got to Welsh only once, during the 1977 season. Navy was 4-7 the previous year and 5-6 that season and had lost to Army as well.

"I thought about quitting then," he said. "I decided to give it one or two more years and if I didn't see the progress I wanted to see, I was going to resign. Five years is long enough to make a difference any place."

The next year, 1978, Navy was 8-3 in the regular season and beat Brigham Young in the Holiday Bowl. Navy was ranked 17th in the final UPI poll.

From that day on, it seemed that Welsh was mentioned in connection with almost every college football opening in America. Tulane, Pittsburgh, Wisconsin, LSU and a host of others all came calling, but Welsh always turned them down -- until now.

"The time just wasn't right then," he said. "It was now."

When Virginia Athletic Director Dick Schultz was waiting for Welsh to make up his mind, he got a phone call from Paterno. The Penn State coach was campaigning for one of his assistant coaches who had applied for the head coaching job at Virginia. When Paterno heard Welsh also was under consideration, he hesitated and told Schultz that if he could get Welsh, there was no need for him even to talk to anyone else.

Schultz agreed. And an era in Navy football was over.