The Virginia Cavaliers are now ranked in the top 25 by a national publication, but their coach, George Welsh, said today, "I don't think we're that good a football team.
"We've closed the gap some" on Maryland, where the 4-0 Cavaliers play Saturday, "but I don't know if we've closed it enough to be able to win," the coach said.
Although he already is close to his preseason goal of six victories, Welsh is playing the tune of success in low key. He may be the only one doing so around here. The city of Charlottesville and its campus are as full of joy these days as autumn is of colors, but if Welsh knows about it he isn't letting on. "I haven't even been to a restaurant since the season began," he said. "I really don't know what's going on outside of the office."
What's going on is a revival of Virginia football. The Cavaliers are 2-0, and in first place, in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Welsh, at his weekly press conference, was almost shocked to see about eight times the usual number of reporters that showed up last season when Virginia was 2-9.
Jim West, Virginia's associate director of athletics, has been at the university since 1955, but has seen only two winning seasons, 1968 and 1979. He was one of the primary forces in the hiring of Welsh before last season to replace Dick Bestwick. West offered some perspective on Virginia's 4-0 start.
"When you're getting beat, 45-3, and 63-10 every week," he said, "coming to work is like coming to a funeral home; everybody is completely negative. You have to force yourself to smile and try to be happy.
"Our alumni are excited, too. They used to leave halfway through the second half to beat the traffic. And could you blame them? You keep promising and promising, pretty soon you've got to produce."
After nine successful years at the Naval Academy, Welsh approached the Virginia job the best way. He promised next to nothing and concentrated on producing. Positive results began to show last year after a 48-0 loss to Clemson. During a week off, Welsh regrouped, installed a new offense and made every game thereafter competitive.
West remembered Penn State Coach Joe Paterno calling to recommend Welsh for the job. "Paterno said Welsh had a knack of being able to make a team from whatever he had. And when you're building a program, that's what you have to have because you aren't going to get top athletes right away. He also has an incredible knack for putting the right people in the right places."
Virginia is still without great talent, except at running back. But Welsh switched Quentin Walker from tailback to wide receiver, where he was an instant sensation before breaking his leg against James Madison Sept. 17.
Last week, Welsh switched freshman quarterback Kevin Ferguson to Walker's position, and the results may be seen as early as Saturday against Maryland. Welsh also moved junior David Bond from the offensive line to nose guard, where he has played well.
All the shuffling in the world, however, couldn't improve the players' mental outlook. Getting the Cavaliers to believe in themselves may be Welsh's biggest success.
"You can't draw any conclusions about our program yet," said quarterback Wayne Schuchts, "but we know we can win a close game now. The whole week of practice is geared toward making you believe you can."
Rich Riccardi, a fifth-year senior who has lived through some lean years, said, "It's not like we're a powerhouse club that's rolling it up big-time. But Coach Welsh has cut back on the excesses. No drinking in public, a mandatory breakfast every morning; things that make the guys realize this is a team.
"On Saturday we were trailing N.C. State. And they (Riccardi was injured and watching the game on television) came back like a real team. We used to choke up when it got close."
The Cavaliers have come from behind in three of their victories. They have a run-oriented offense that is becoming more balanced every week. The defense is led by sophomore Charles McDaniel, free safety Bart Farinholt and strong safety Lester Lyles, from St. Albans in Washington, D.C.
Schuchts admitted it had crossed his mind that Virginia would be ranked in the top 20 if it beat Maryland. An invitation to a bowl game is a possibility.
"We've beaten Duke and Navy," said tailback Antonio Rice, "but the Maryland game will show how good we really are. Winning used to be so far away here. Guys used to play four years and leave. Playing was enough. Winning was extra. The optimism is cautious now. But there is optimism."