A Living Legend
Nov. 9, 2001
by Trent Packer
For the past 19 years, former Virginia head football coach George Welsh led the Cavaliers into battle. Welsh approached his job much like a general leading his troops into armed confrontation. His formula of combining superior preparation and execution with the right kind of players led to one of the most remarkable turnarounds in college football history. Welsh is being officially recognized today for his efforts in leading UVa’s football program from obscurity to prominence.
Prior to Welsh’s arrival, Virginia had never been invited to a bowl game and had not even contended for a conference championship. During his tenure at UVa, Welsh led the Cavaliers to 12 bowls games, a share of two conference titles, and an ACC-record 134 wins. The results he had at Virginia mirrored those he experienced at Navy, where he still holds the distinction of all-time winningest coach.
There is no question that Welsh’s approach worked. The only mystery is the path he followed to becoming a master of turning beleaguered programs into perennial winners.Tom O’Brien, a long time assistant coach under Welsh and the current head coach at Boston College, knows Welsh’s approach as well as anybody. He coached on Welsh’s staffs at Navy and Virginia prior to taking over as the headman for the Eagles.
“The first thing is he is a very smart man,” O’Brien says of his mentor. “He came in with a very good plan on what he wanted to accomplish. He knew things were not going to change overnight. He recruited players who would succeed at the Naval Academy or Virginia. He wanted guys who would stay for four or five years and get their degrees.”
That is precisely what Welsh got. Players such as former running back Tiki Barber typified the type of athlete Welsh sought to bring into his Virginia program. Barber not only garnered All-ACC honors multiple times during his UVa career, he also earned first-team Academic All-America honors during the 1995 and 1996 seasons.
In addition to the excellence of the student athletes he recruited, Welsh also showed the kind of patience O’Brien noted. In 1982, Welsh’s first at the helm of the Cavaliers, UVa finished just 2-9. The next season Welsh guided the Cavaliers to a 6-5 record, accomplishing in just two seasons what many thought would take much longer. Welsh succeeded in cultivating a rapid turnaround by taking a very hands-on approach to every facet of the team.
“He was the captain of the ship and we were the junior officers,” O’Brien recalls of Welsh’s military-like approach to coaching, particularly during his early years with the Cavaliers. “He expected a lot out of us and he got it, and it worked out well for us.”After establishing himself as a winner, Welsh made it clear to his players and his coaches that he wanted to step back and give them more control over the team’s direction. Of course, like any effective leader, he only did so once he was confident that the players and coaches knew his system inside and out.
“The first year he was very into the small details on both sides of the ball.” O’Brien says. “He always had tremendous continuity. Once his style of play was communicated to the coaches, he stepped back and was much less involved.”
The same was true of Welsh’s relationship with his players. Former All-America quarterback Shawn Moore, one of a handful of players who served as team captain for two years during Welsh’s tenure, recalls that Welsh gave the captains significant freedom in making decisions that affected the team. According to Moore, Welsh understood the importance of deferring to a team’s natural leaders. He even gave Moore a chance to offer his input into the kinds of plays he called as quarterback.
“One thing I recall is during my first year as a captain, he really left it in our hands to take charge,” Moore says. “My second year as captain, it was almost entirely in our hands. We made the decisions. One thing about him is he understood if you have a lot of leaders on a team, you have to let them make decisions.
“Also, he was a quarterback and he let me get involved in choosing the kinds of plays I wanted to run.”
Above all else, Moore notes that Welsh always made it clear exactly what expectations he had for his captains and what responsibilities he wanted them to assume.
“You always knew your role,” Moore says.As a coach, O’Brien had a much different relationship with Welsh. O’Brien remembers having dinner with Welsh on many occasions. According to O’Brien, Welsh was conversant on any number of topics and was adept at forgetting football once he left the field.
“One thing he was great at is when he walked off the field or out of the office, he left it there,” O’Brien says. “He was great to have dinner conversations with. He could be charming outside of the white lines.”
At the end of the day, though, Welsh’s primary concern was winning football games.
“He was always focused on doing what it took to improve his teams,” O’Brien notes.George Welsh was an intense man and an equally committed football coach. He took winning very seriously and, as O’Brien tells it, drew on his military background as a model for effective administration.
Welsh turned a struggling Virginia football program into a contender in a few short seasons. In so doing, he established a national reputation, garnering National Coach of the Year honors three times (1989, ’91 and ’98). He left Virginia on Dec. 11, 2000, as the school’s all-time winningest coach — a title he isn’t likely to relinquish anytime soon.Despite his myriad achievements, Welsh never lost sight of the players who made his success possible.
“Every time I came to town when he was coaching, I would stop by the office and we’d visit for half-an-hour,” Moore says. “I would bring my eight-year-old son by and show him the school and introduce him to coach.”