‘He changed everything for us’: Former players, assistants remember George Welsh

George WelshCHARLOTTESVILLE, VA — The list of names gathered on stage at John Paul Jones Arena on Saturday was an impressive one. The opening speaker was John Feinstein, the revered Washington Post sports writer. Penn State’s old three-headed backfield monster of NFL Hall-of-Famer Franco Harris, Lydell Mitchell and Charlie Pittman followed. Former Navy record-setting kicker Bob Tata came next. Later on, it was a group of Virginia standouts: Ronde Barber, Nick Merrick, Sean Scott, Shawn Moore, Anthony Poindexter and Chris Slade.

They all gathered on a sunny Saturday in Charlottesville to celebrate the life of a man who built them into football heroes: George Welsh.

“From recruiting all three of us, coaching all three of us, and sending all three of us to the NFL, he changed everything for us,” said Harris, who ran for over 2000 yards as a Nittany Lion under Welsh, his position coach, from 1969 to 1971. “He changed everything for me and prepared me for everything.”

Welsh didn’t just change individuals, though. He changed teams. Wherever he went, he was a winner. More impressively, he built a winner. In the five years prior to his hiring at his alma mater Navy, the Midshipmen had averaged two wins per season. Welsh won four in each of his first two seasons at the helm — his first ever head coaching job — and then seven, the program’s most wins in over a decade, in his third year, 1975. In 1978, he led the Midshipmen to nine wins, including their first bowl win in over two decades.

Navy continued its ascent with three more winning seasons before Welsh moved onto his next opportunity, at Virginia. Considering where the Midshipmen had started and where they seemed to be heading under Welsh, it was a befuddling decision on the surface. He was leaving the program where he was the all-time wins leader and taking over at “arguably the toughest job in Division I college football at the time,” Feinstein said. He wasn’t exaggerating, either. The Cavaliers were coming off a 1-10 season and had posted just two winning seasons in the previous 29 years.

“One of the reasons is he thought this place reminded him of home — the mountains of Coaldale [PA] and the University of Virginia,” said Tom O’Brien, a longtime assistant under Welsh at Navy and Virginia and later a head coach at Boston College and NC State. “And George was never one to not accept the challenge.

Welsh, brought several members of his Navy staff to Charlottesville and proved their loyalty to and confidence in him well-founded. After a 2-9 debut season in 1982, Welsh’s Cavaliers climbed to 6-5 the following year. To Merrick, a wide receiver who had arrived at Virginia a year before Welsh had, the final win that year, an upset of North Carolina, showed things were going in the right direction.

“When I think back to when Coach Welsh showed up, I think the phrase that comes to mind is ‘shock and awe,’” Merrick said. “I think Coach Welsh knew that it would take time, [but] he made the changes he had to make right away.”

Merrick’s sense proved true. The Cavaliers went 8-2-2 in 1984, Welsh’s third year and Merrick’s fourth. That team also captured Virginia’s first ever bowl appearance and victory, a 27-24 Peach Bowl triumph over Purdue.

“That moment in Atlanta, after we won the Peach Bowl — in your life, you get a handful of perfect moments, and that, for us, was a perfect moment” Merrick said. “It wasn’t winning a national championship, but it felt like it.”

That bowl win would pay major dividends. Welsh, at that point, was making the most out of limited talent. The Cavaliers had no football tradition. They had no facilities. Much of their staff was used to recruiting for a service academy. But Welsh had proved undeterred.

So when the Cavaliers started winning, the recruits started to notice. Welsh nabbed quarterback Shawn Moore as part of the heralded 1986 class. In 1987, wide receiver Herman Moore and running back Terry Kirby came along. In 1988, defensive lineman Chris Slade followed Kirby, his high school teammate, to Charlottesville. Behind ACC Player of the Year Shawn Moore, the Cavaliers reached the No. 1 national ranking in October, 1990. Welsh had inherited a program full of players who could barely compete and turned them into winners. Once he had developed winners, he turned them into champions. The Cavaliers won ACC titles in 1989 and 1995 and started pumping out All-Americans, Heisman candidates and early-round NFL draft picks.

The 19-year ride was a magical one — one that completely transformed football in Charlottesville. So when Welsh announced his retirement in 2000, his gruff exterior finally cracked. On Saturday, his daughter, Kate, showed one such scene from that final press conference.

“In closing, I want everyone to know that I am and will be forever a Wahoo,” Welsh said then. “And I will continue to lend my support to the success of the Virginia football program in the future. It’s been a long journey for me from Coaldale, Pennsylvania, and now it’s time for this old salt to sail out into the sunset.”

When he did sail out, he sailed out with a number of records. His 134 wins not only were — and still are — the Virginia record by a wide margin, but at that time, they were also the most ever by an ACC coach. He won the ACC Coach of the Year award four times and the Bobby Dodd Coach of the Year national award once. He won five bowl games, more than half of the program’s all-time number of eight.

And while those numbers speak to the outstanding coach he was, they don’t speak to the outstanding man he was.

That’s what many former players and coaches ultimately pointed to: was his ability to lead and to treat people fairly. A star was no different than a redshirt, a longtime coach no different than a first-year graduate assistant. He was stern, but he was caring.

“I played 16 years in the league, and I really didn’t care what anybody said about me,” said Ronde Barber, a star with Virginia in the mid-1990s and with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after that. “But he was somebody that I cared what he said about me. Not only that: what he expected of me. He was a mentor when I needed one. Later in life, he was a friend that I relished seeing when I had the opportunity.”

Welsh could bring people together and make them work toward a common goal, no matter their background, the program’s previous success (or, often in his case, lack thereof) and the resources available.

When Welsh’s former players and coaches were asked to rise and be recognized Saturday, dozens of men stood. Some were Hall of Famers, others seldom-used reserves. Some were loyal assistants, others, like Bronco Mendenhall, who spoke a few words before the Cavaliers’ Spring Game, trying to forge their way as coaches and uphold the standards set by the man they were celebrating.

And on Saturday, George Welsh had brought them all together to share a special moment one more time.

Story by Zach Pereles

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