One of His Era's Great Coaches, George Welsh Leaves a Legacy of Integrity and Excellence
Longtime Navy and Virginia coach George Welsh died last week, marking another loss from a golden era in college football. The Hall of Fame coach led Navy from 1973-81 and Virginia from 1982 until retiring after the 2000 season as the winningest coach in ACC history. But his career was so much more than wins or losses.
Older Penn Staters will remember Welsh as a Penn State assistant. Joe Paterno held him with the highest respect, considering him one of the best evaluators of talent he ever saw.
Welsh left Penn State and became one of the great coaches and educators of his era, a time when coaches were builders of men on and off the field. He and his staff demanded high standards for student-athletes in everything, including uncompromised academic integrity. That never wavered.
And in a sport where the graduation gap between white players and black players was and remains substantial, he set the same expectations for all of his players. Consequently there was no achievement gap at UVA.
He recruited cerebral players befitting the standards of Thomas Jefferson’s university, men who became leaders on and off the field. In just my short time there, guys like Terry Kirby, Chris Slade, Tony Covington, Paul Collins, Shawn Moore, Herman Moore, Ray Roberts, Charlie Way, Mike Husted and Mark Dixon were pros on and off the field. That list goes on and on for decades.
To really grasp Welsh’s transformation of UVA, consider his results. Before he arrived Cavaliers had never played in a bowl game and had managed just two winning seasons in the previous 29 years. Welsh built an ACC champion and perennial bowl team. In his 19 years, UVA had 16 winning seasons. In UVA’s 46 years of ACC football before and after Welsh, the Cavaliers managed just 9 winning seasons.
He would be the first to credit his incredible staff. Coaches like Gary Tranquill, Frank Spaziani, Tom O’Brien and Mike Archer were just some of the guys on his staff who had been or would become head coaches. The list of formidable assistants included Tom Sherman, Jim Bollman, Ken Mack, Rick Lantz, Danny Wilmer and so many others. After my career began there as a graduate assistant, I carried his lessons into every practice and game through two decades.
He was a man of ritual and habit, which created consistency. On Fridays of game week he would venture into the graduate assistants’ office and sit down to share stories and wisdom before the afternoon team meeting. Those moments were special. Not every head coach takes the time to teach the younger generation of coaches, but he did. Teaching was in his nature.
His trademark style was an even-keeled approach to every game whether playing William & Mary or Florida State. But he was an intense competitor who did not suffer fools. Before a 1992 home game a pickup truck driver tried to force his way into the police escort and got T-boned by the lead bus. When the unharmed driver got out demanding insurance information from the bus driver, Coach Welsh got out and yelled “Christ we’ve got a game to get to. He’ll come back after we get there.” On the bus the team fed off that energy and destroyed Georgia Tech. He joked that we should find a truck to hit every week.
There were two times we sort of pushed the line of his equal emphasis on every game. In 1991 we staged a Clemson “Howard’s Rock” entrance to practice for the scout team, which he stated the next day wasn’t his style. But we went to Death Valley and tied the heavily favored Tigers. The next year before the Florida State game, graduate assistant Coach Joe Hall and I dressed as Seminoles and drove a golf cart onto the practice field to spike a flaming spear into the turf.
We feared he would rip us, but he chuckled and said to team doctor Frank McCue, “I should’ve known this was coming. If I’d have known, I’d have gotten them a damn horse.”
Through wins and losses his remarkable career elevated the fortunes of not one but two programs. He relished the competition and was laser-focused on what happened on the field, commenting that he’d coach even if nobody showed up at the games.
He was respected and loved because he was demanding but fair, because it was never about him, it was about the players and the team.
That created a fierce loyalty in his players and his coaches. Since his death, social media has been flooded with former players sharing that love. On his radio show Tiki Barber talked about George Welsh helping him grow into a man, a story shared by so many men who played for him.
As I think about Coach Welsh’s death I am reminded of the last verse of UVA’s “Good Old Song”:
“What though the tide of years may roll, and drift us far apart
For alma mater still there'll be a place in every heart.
In college days we sing her praise, and so, when far away,
In memory we still shall be at the dear old UVA.”
As the song says, the tide of years have rolled and now George Welsh’s mortal life has passed into memory. What remains for the players and coaches are thoughts of that time and place, but more importantly Coach Welsh’s lasting impact, a legacy of excellence that lives on in all of us. He goes to his creator knowing that his life of coaching leadership pushed us to summits we never imagined we could scale.
What more can you ask?