By virtue of last Saturday's surprising 27-7 victory over ninth-ranked West Virginia, the University of Virginia football team assured itself of a winning season, its second straight under George Welsh. Last year's Cavaliers went 6-5; this year's team is already 6-1-1, and now can finish no worse than 6-4-1. It had been 32 years since Virginia put two winning seasons together. Think of it, 32 years! Not since Dwight Eisenhower was elected president.
And it had been 32 years since Virginia was ranked in the top 20. That changed today, when the Cavaliers were ranked No. 19 in the United Press International coaches' poll. A 6-1-1 record also is the kind of record that makes for Bowl Talk. Maybe not the Sugar or the Orange or the Cotton, but surely the Peach or the Citrus or one of the other 2,000 bowl games that dot the holiday calendar like stars in a clear night sky.
And it hasn't been just 32 years since Virginia has been to a bowl game. It hasn't been since Eisenhower was president, or since Abraham Lincoln was president, or since Thomas Jefferson, who knows a thing or two about the University of Virginia, was president. Virginia has never been to a bowl game.
So you might think that Welsh and his players would be going slightly wild with joyful anticipation over the prospect of finally getting there, wherever there may be.
And, maybe down deep they are.
But not so you could see it.
Low key? How about no key. Even keel? How about anchored. Quiet? How about barely breathing.
"You'd have to be an idiot not to be excited about going to a bowl," said Tom Kilgannon, a fifth-year senior defensive tackle who suffered through successive depressing seasons of 4-7, 1-10 and 2-9 before Virginia had a winner. "But you can't let Bowl Talk get to you. It happened to us last year. We started out 4-0. Coach Welsh warned us against it, but we had to learn the hard way. We were so happy at 4-0, that if the world ended, we wouldn't have cared. Then we lost five of our last seven. Now we've made a commitment to play them one at a time."
That same sentiment was echoed by Charles McDaniel, a junior linebacker. "I don't know how many wins it'll take to get a Bowl Bid," he said today. "It may take eight. It may take seven, because Virginia's a novelty, and some bowls like that. But we're 6-1-1 now, and we can't be 9-1-1 until we win the seventh. Before the season started Coach Welsh wanted a winning record. We've got that now, and the rest is basically up to us. November separates the good teams from the great ones. Bowl teams win in November. We're 1-0 in November, but we've got three to go."
And they play them, as they say, one at a time.
"The Bowl Talk is premature," Welsh said today, refusing to blow any air into the trial balloon. "I'm not even thinking about that right now. All I'm thinking about right now is N.C. State." State comes Saturday, here at Scott Stadium. After that comes North Carolina, at Chapel Hill. After that comes Maryland, at Scott, a game that could decide the Atlantic Coast Conference title. Welsh, like most football coaches, likes to take games one at a time. In fact, so many people here say "one at a time," maybe Bonnie Franklin and Valerie Bertinelli ought to be on scholarship.
Unlike Virginia, Welsh has gone to his share of bowls. As an assistant at Penn State for 10 years he got so many bowl watches, his children could have called him Father Time. As coach at Navy, where his 55-46-1 record was nothing short of exemplary considering the difficulties in recruiting to a service academy, he went three times in his last four years. And since he's not an excitable man, and he's dealing with a program that hasn't exactly resembled Oklahoma these last 32 years, you could understand him not getting swept away by the idea of a Bowl Bid with three ACC games left on his schedule.
He's a worrier, Welsh is. Although he is open and affable, he could easily do without all this press attention, all these television cameras. Too many distractions.
"I never have a good time," he said. "I'm concerned about everything every week. That's what they're paying me for. If I'm 5-5, I might not have this job much longer . . . I can't let myself feel good about what we've done so far. If you think you've got it made, you've got problems. If you start counting wins, you've got problems."
At 6-1-1, nobody knows the problems he's seen. Except probably another football coach.
There's an old story about football coaches. It seems they were giving a testimonial dinner for the coach who had just gone 11-0, and at the dinner the coach stood up and asked, "Will you still love me if I go 0-11 next year?" One man in the audience stood up and shouted, "We'll still love you, coach. And we'll miss you, too."
Welsh surely doesn't have to worry about that here. Since 1952, eight coaches at Virginia combined for just 90 victories in 300 games. Then Welsh came along, and he appears to have turned it around. After a potentially devastating 55-0 loss to Clemson in their opener this season, the Cavaliers have come back to score 195 points in seven games while their defense was giving up just 2.8 yards per rush. They are at least a good team, and a couple more victories might convince bowl scouts that they are a very good team.
Eight victories will probably get them a Bowl Bid. And a Bowl Bid will bring them more reporters, more cameras, more distractions. All that is not something Welsh wants to look ahead to now. But he'll probably learn to live with it.