It is almost impossible for anyone who didn’t live through George Welsh’s coaching tenures at Navy and Virginia to understand how extraordinary his work was from 1973 to 2000.
Welsh, who died Wednesday at 85, went 189-132-4 in 28 seasons at those schools, numbers that only scratch the surface of his remarkable legacy.
Navy, Welsh’s alma mater, had plenty of football tradition when Welsh became the coach in 1973 but hadn’t had much success since Roger Staubach’s Heisman Trophy season in 1963.
Virginia had plenty of football tradition, too — almost all of it bad — when Welsh took over in 1982. Two numbers sum it up: In 28 seasons in the ACC, Virginia had 32 conference wins.
By the time Welsh retired after the 2000 season, he had built a football program that was respected both in the ACC and nationwide. Under Welsh, the Cavaliers went to their first 12 bowl games; were ACC co-champions twice (also a first); finished in the top 25 six times; won 10 games for only time in school history; and went 9-10 against Virginia Tech, not that impressive until you realize the Cavaliers now have lost to the Hokies for 15 straight seasons.
Welsh had been an excellent player, earning all-American honors as Navy’s quarterback in 1955. As a junior, he led a team that went 8-2, beat Mississippi in the Sugar Bowl and finished the season ranked fifth in the final Associated Press poll. It was known as the “Team Named Desire.”
After serving in the Navy, Welsh began his coaching career at Penn State — first under Rip Engle and then under Joe Paterno — before becoming Navy’s head coach after the Midshipmen went 4-7 in 1972, their eighth losing season in 10 years. Welsh turned around the program, going to three bowl games while compiling a 7-1-1 record against Army. His last four Navy teams were 32-15-1. He could have stayed at Navy forever and, no doubt, continued to win consistently.
But the challenge of coaching a school that had hardly ever been successful in football — the Cavaliers had two winning seasons in the 29 years before Welsh arrived — proved irresistible.
Virginia was 2-9 in Welsh’s first season, 6-5 a year later and 8-2-2 in his third season, receiving a Peach Bowl bid, the first bowl invitation in program history. From there, Welsh built Virginia into a perennial ACC contender.
The Cavaliers tied for the ACC title with Duke in 1989; they had hammered the Blue Devils when the teams met, but there were no tiebreakers, so the two were declared co-champions. They tied for the regular season championship with Florida State in 1995, again sharing the title even though they had beaten the Seminoles, ending their 29-game league winning streak.
In 1990, U-Va. was ranked No. 1 in the country for three weeks before losing to Georgia Tech on a game-ending field goal. The Yellow Jackets went on to share the national title that season.
In all likelihood, if Paterno had retired while Welsh was active, Welsh would have been at the top of the list of candidates to replace him. As it turned out, Paterno coached for 11 years after Welsh quit, something Welsh often joked about.
Welsh received all sorts of honors after he retired: a spot in the College Football Hall of Fame, a street named for him near Scott Stadium and the recently built football practice facility also named for him.
He was never someone who made headlines, the classic workaholic football coach who understood how to build programs from the ground up and then keep them on solid ground. Had he ever coached at Penn State or at another national power, it is hard to believe that he would not have been successful.
After all, getting Virginia to No. 1 in the polls was one of the great achievements in college football history.
“He was a quiet guy, especially in public,” said Jeff Jones, who was at Virginia through much of Welsh’s tenure, first as a basketball player and then as an assistant coach and head coach. “We would drive to booster club events together because he really didn’t like spending time with the fundraisers. What was apparent to me talking to him during those trips was how smart he was, regardless of topic.
“I’m a basketball coach, but my clear impression watching his teams play was that he out X-and-O’d other coaches. Of course he had to recruit well, but he often won games when the other team had more talent. He was just that good.”
The first college football game I ever covered for this newspaper was in September 1978: Navy at Connecticut.
After the game — which Navy won, 30-0 — Navy’s superb but intense sports information director, Tom Bates, introduced me to Welsh and said, “He’s only 22, Coach, so help him out if you can.”
Welsh smiled at me — he had a wide, endearing smile that always lit up his face — and put a hand on my shoulder.
“Tom, if he’s working at The Post I suspect he knows what he’s doing,” he said. Then he looked at me and said, “Tell me what you need.”
Covering Navy is a joy no matter who is coaching, but Welsh always brought a calm to things, win or lose, that made the job that much easier. He never said anything controversial, but he always said things that made me think, “I hadn’t thought of that.”
He was the same way through all the years at Virginia: almost always the smartest guy in the room but never feeling the need to advertise it.
He stayed in Charlottesville after retiring and had an office in the football building. He came back to Navy on occasion and, when I was doing the games on radio, would stop by the booth either to appear at halftime or just to say hello.
During Navy’s nightmarish 0-10 season in 2001, not long after he retired, he showed up for a game.
“George, you need to come back and fix things here,” I said, joking but not joking.
Welsh laughed. “You sound like a 22-year-old, John,” he said. “You should know better than that.”
Then, quietly, he said: “Paul Johnson’s the guy.”
Johnson came back to Navy the next season and turned around the program within two years, just as Welsh had done at Navy and at Virginia.
Welsh had known exactly what he was talking about. He always did.
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