The football team at Virginia has been so bad for so long that its motto hasn't been, "Wait until next year," but "Wait until basketball season."

But now, after having lost 78 of 110 games over the past 10 seasons, the Cavaliers, in George Welsh's second season as coach, are the talk of this normally laid-back community.

The Cavaliers, who haven't won three straight since 1970, defeated Duke and Navy in their first two games. They will try to make it three in a row Saturday night when they play host to James Madison.

Instead of being the butt of jokes, the Cavaliers are being talked about here with a touch of pride.

"People are really excited around here. All you used to hear was the grumbling about how bad we were, but now all we hear are cheers," said guard Jim Dombrowski.

"There's been a change in the air," said safety Rich Riccardi. "In the past, our fans just weren't in it. Now, everybody's going crazy."

Welsh is doing his best to keep everything in perspective, which isn't all that easy. "Just because we won two games doesn't mean we're really that good," he said.

"Right now, I still don't know how good we are. One problem we're facing already is how to deal with the attention. No one here is used to it. We're giving more interviews and getting more exposure and we have to learn how to continue to concentrate on football with all of that going on around us."

The players know full well the source of their success.

"Coach Welsh is going to win, no matter where he coaches," said Dombrowski. "It just took us a year to get used to him. Last year he'd tell us things and we weren't sure how to take them, and we were hesitant. We know now if we do the things he says to do, we'll win. It's that simple.

"He's a hard coach, but you can get along with him if you just do what you're supposed to do. He wants things done his way and that is usually the right way."

Welsh had hoped for a better showing than the 2-9 performance of a year ago, but is satisfied with the progress of the program.

"I never had a timetable," he said. "I just wanted to get good as fast as we could."

It also took the players a year to get used to Welsh's highly disciplined approach. His predecessor, Dick Bestwick, was like a friend to the players. Welsh keeps his distance.

"At first, that was tough getting used to," said defensive tackle Ron Mattes. "Coach Bestwick always patted you on the back, but Coach Welsh isn't that way. He does it only once in a while, so you know he means it every time.

"We agree with his system now, but it wasn't an immediate acceptance. He's a disciplinarian, yet he still wants us to have fun. This isn't the Naval Academy and he knows it. We sort of met in the middle. We've toned down and he's adjusted his thinking a bit and it's all working.

"You used to be ashamed to be on the football team, but now we all walk around with our chest out. We're proud, but we also know we still have a long way to go."

The anxiety and uncertainty that surrounded Welsh in his first season are gone, so much so that the players even gave him a surprise party on his 50th birthday last month.

"We came off the field and had a cake with candles and everything, and we all started singing," said Dombrowski. "He didn't even realize it was for him. We had trick candles on it, too, the kind that always stay lit. He still tried to blow them out."

"The program has changed in all kinds of ways," Riccardi said. "There's more of a commitment by the administration and more dedication on the part of the players. There's also a belief in each other.

"The biggest difference is in attitude. A lot of this game is mental and Coach Welsh stresses that. We're not a great team, but we believe in ourselves, and I feel better about walking out on the field this year than ever before. I'm secure with my teammates and I'm confident."