News hit this morning of the passing of former Virginia Football Coach George Welsh. Welsh died peacefully at his home in Charlottesville at the age of 85. If anyone is being honest or paying attention there is no question that there is no Virginia Football without George Welsh.
Welsh wasn’t the first coach in Virginia Football history and he certainly didn’t invent Virginia Football. In fact, they’d been playing a long time and that’s the problem. They’d been playing a long time and had not been playing very well.
The school employed a collection of losers as football coaches including Sonny Randall who later dabbled in broadcasting and as a broadcaster was a pretty good football coach but as a football coach not such much. Dick Bestwick, Welsh’s immediate predecessor couldn’t figure things out either. His teams were largely untalented and made up for the talent deficiency by being really slow and half-assing it through most of their games. Bestwick’s last team went just 1-10 in 1981. Welsh arrived in Charlottesville from the Naval Academy in 1982 and inherited a program that had just two winning seasons in the prior 29 years.
Virginia couldn’t give away tickets to the games prior to Welsh’s arrival and to boost attendance gave away discounted tickets to church and other groups. The students were apathetic about football. Oh they’d go to the games alright, but they’d show up after getting good and loaded off the liquor stores which opened at 6 am. on game day and then left at halftime.
Welsh – perhaps seizing on his Navy background – decided that there was no reason Virginia couldn’t win games. His impact was immediate. Virginia went 6-5 in his second year. In 1984, the Cavaliers went 8-2-2 and made their first ever bowl appearance in the Peach Bowl in Atlanta. Understand those were the Cowboy days of bowl bids. The soccer moms hadn’t taken over the world and made the system we have today with 40 bowls. There were very few bowls and you had to politic your way into one of them or be really good and something the television networks were interested in televising.
Welsh wasn’t a politician so he simply decided to make Virginia really good. In a tenure that lasted from 1982 – 2000, Welsh won 134 games, losing 86 and tying 3. His teams won 9 or more games 4 times, finished in the Top 25 six times, won ACC Championships (previously unheard of at UVA) in 1989 and 1995. In 1990, he took a program that was a dog ass deadbeat in college football to number one in the Country. The 1990 team floundered down the stretch after quarterback Shawn Moore injured his thumb. The Cavaliers lost to Georgia Tech in a nationally televised game in Charlottesville on CBS and finished the year with 3 losses in their last 4 games, the final loss coming to Tennessee in the Sugar Bowl. Prior to the ACC Title Season in 1989, Virginia had never beaten Clemson but they did so in 1989 at home in another national television game.
Welsh employed a formula that current head coach Bronco Mendenhall and his colleague Justin Fuente at Virginia Tech need to get a grasp on. He won by getting the best players in the Commonwealth of Virginia to stay home.
In addition to Moore, whom Welsh recruited out of Martinsville, he also landed Moore’s teammate running back Nikki Fisher. Hard nosed David Sweeney was recruited out of Salem to be a fullback. Yes, they used one of those in those days. Herman Moore came from Danville to become Moore’s favorite target. Twins Ronde and Tiki Barber came from Roanoke to Charlottesville and Terry Kirby and Chris Slade came from Tabb High School near Williamsburg, And then there’s Thomas Jones from little Big Stone Gap in Southwest Virginia. Jones literally could have played anywhere – Notre Dame, USC, Texas, Oklahoma – you name it. Instead he went to Virginia and wound up the school’s all time rushing leader. Those are just a few of the players Welsh convinced to come to U.Va. from in the state’s borders. When I was in Bluefield working at WVVA, he came into Bluefield, WV and grabbed the state’s best player Yubrenal Isabelle from Bluefield High School to come to Virginia where he had a solid career. Don Nehlen was practically on his knees begging Isabelle to come to West Virginia but Isabelle liked U.Va. and he really liked Welsh despite his task master reputation. Isabelle’s father told Welsh when he signed with U.Va. that if Yubrenal came home for the first time that fall and said he liked Welsh, that Welsh had failed at his job.
I must confess to not knowing him, but I met him a few times when Mike Stevens and I would go to Charlottesville on Monday for his weekly press conference while working at WDBJ-TV in Roanoke. He was polite and respectful and would answer your questions honestly. There was no bullshit with George Welsh.
After we interviewed him, the fun really began. Welsh would go into the Scott Stadium press box and do a group interview with the beat writers covering the team. He hated those guys and his short answers like “I don’t know that” were a weekly classic.
After Welsh retired from coaching he assisted Old Dominion in reviving football in the 2009 season. Otherwise, he lived a very quiet life in his final 18 years in Charlottesville. My instincts tell me that he probably would have liked to continue coaching but just couldn’t take the toll it places on you as you get older. He once told Mike and I when we mentioned that one of his former players had a really good game in an NFL game on Sunday that he hadn’t watched an NFL game in years.
Welsh died as a College Football Hall of Famer having won a total of 189 games in his career including 50-46-1 at the Naval Academy. His impact on Virginia Football will live forever and we can only hope that current and future U.Va. coaches realize the key to winning at U.Va. is homegrown talent and a plan that doesn’t accept losing. Neither of those things existed prior to 1982.