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College Football: George Welsh talks about the ’89 Cavs

Best Seat in the House column by Chris Graham

Of course I wanted to hear about the Notre Dame game and the Penn State game a week later that turned things around for UVa. in that 1989 season. And the Clemson game that we could have won if Shawn Moore hadn’t gotten hurt in what should have been but wasn’t an easy win over William & Mary. But what I really wanted to hear George Welsh do was talk about Steve Spurrier.

“It’s kind of passed me by,” Welsh said of the brief but intense feud that developed between UVa. and Duke when Spurrier was in Durham, and came to a head in 1989 when the Cavs and Blue Devils tied for the ACC title with identical 6-1 records. Virginia ended up getting the ACC berth in that year’s Citrus Bowl by virtue of its 49-28 win over Duke, but that didn’t stop Spurrier, on his way to Florida, a brief stint with the Washington Redskins and then to his current home at South Carolina, from telling anybody who would listen that his team had been slighted because Duke had defeated three-time defending league champion Clemson 21-17 and Virginia, without the services of Moore, fell to the Tigers by a 34-20 count.

“One thing I could never understand about Steve Spurrier, and you can quote me, we scored touchdowns on seven straight possessions in that game. And then if it weren’t for … he recovered a couple of onside kicks … it could’ve been worse. And then he said, Well, we should have been champions, because we beat the kings. They beat Clemson, and we didn’t. I’ll tell you what. I might have been able to score 70 that night if I wanted to,” the usually even-keeled but for the moment fiery Welsh said.

Welsh and his ’89 team will be honored in Scott Stadium this weekend during what the University is calling Retro Day – which will feature the gawdy bright orange uniforms from 1989 and a tribute to the team at halftime. Why they’re doing it on the 19th anniversary of the team’s championship season is a mystery to even Welsh, but then it’s a wonder that the team is being feted at all, considering the place that its successors in 1990, who spent three weeks at the top of the national polls and earned the program’s only major-bowl berth, holds in Virginia football lore.

Welsh, back to being his taciturn self, declared on a call with reporters this morning that “we had a better offense in ’90 than we did in ’89. But I think we had a better defense in ’89 than in ’90. So either way …”

The glory season got off to a rough start, to say the least, with a 36-13 loss in that year’s Kickoff Classic to defending national champion Notre Dame in a game that was not as close as the score would suggest. The Fighting Irish led the ‘Hoos 33-0 at the half, leaving Welsh to think that his team had given Notre Dame a bit too much credit.

“I thought two things. The first thing was that in some ways we, not everybody, but we were in a little bit of awe of Notre Dame, the previous national champions. That’s why I wanted the game badly, and I lobbied for it, because I thought if you were going to get into the big leagues, you had to start playing those kind of games,” Welsh said. “I think the big problem was in the first half. And I think we got tired. I made a mistake in coaching, and I learned that that year. I should’ve learned it at Penn State when we worked so hard one day that Navy beat us. So when we went to New York that day, I thought we were a little bit tired. Because we walked off the field on Sunday, it was a Thursday game, and all the coaches agreed that we weren’t sure that we had our legs. But we played a better second half. That was encouraging.”

The task then was to get things back on track the next week at #12 Penn State. It wasn’t necessarily a must-win, but then again it was, considering how things had gone the week before. The 14-6 win was huge for the team’s psyche, to hear Welsh tell it. “I think those kids came out of that game feeling good about themselves,” Welsh said. “Going to Penn State,a hot day, we held up, Shawn did great, Herman (Moore) did great. And we were playing a new center and a couple of new guys. That worried me. But they held up pretty well.”

And then there’s the one that got away. Virginia racked up more than 400 yards on the ground against William & Mary in a Sept. 30 win, but could not shake the Tribe in what turned out to be a 24-12 knucklegrinder. Moore was injured late and had to miss the Clemson game the next weekend, I could hear the pain of defeat in Welsh’s voice all these years later.

“I’m not saying we would’ve beaten Clemson that day. But I think when you lose your starting quarterback with so much production, it’s going to hurt a little bit,” Welsh said.

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