Dec. 3, 2009
By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — There are those who contend, in the wake of Al Groh’s dismissal as coach at his alma mater, that UVa no longer can consistently win in football.
Their argument goes something like this: The University’s stringent academic standards make such success unrealistic and tilt the playing field in favor of the ACC’s 11 other schools.
George Welsh disagrees.
“I don’t know why you can’t have a championship program,” Welsh said Thursday. “If Georgia Tech can do it, Virginia can do it, in my opinion.”
Welsh, who was inducted into the College Football of Fame in 2004, was head coach at two schools that expected their athletes also to be legitimate students: Navy and UVa.
“What’s changed [at Virginia]?” Welsh said. “We did all right for a while. So did Al.”
The Cavaliers’ football program has four full-time academic coordinators, including director Adrien Harraway.
“They have more support in the academic area than they’ve ever had,” said Welsh, who retired after the 2000 season. “I had one woman full time and another person half time.”
In nine seasons as coach at Navy, his alma mater, Welsh won a school-record 55 games. In 19 seasons at UVa, he had two losing seasons. The first was in 1982, his first year in Charlottesville; the second, in ’86.
Only once in Welsh’s final 14 seasons did the ‘Hoos win fewer than seven games — in 2000. And back then, it’s worth remembering, a regular season typically consisted of 11 games, not 12.
“We did all right,” Welsh said. “It’s a question of the talent level. One of the things that helped me a lot was staff continuity. I had a lot of the same guys for many, many years, and I think that helped a lot.
“You look at Tom O’Brien, he was going down into the Tidewater area from ’82 till he left in ’96. And then Danny Wilmer went down there, and he’d been on my staff since ’84, so a lot of those [high school] coaches knew us and knew the assistants. I think the assistants are a big deal.”
Of UVa’s nine assistants in 2001, only Bob Price and Ron Prince were on Groh’s staff this year. And Prince had spent the 2006, ’07 and ’08 seasons at Kansas State.
Also, Welsh said, “I think we got some really good running backs through the years because we could sell, ‘We can run the ball,’ and we had good offensive linemen.”
Groh went 59-53 in nine seasons at UVa. The Wahoos finished under .500 four times during his tenure, going 5-7 in 2001, 5-7 in ’06, 5-7 in ’08 and 3-9 this season. The three victories were UVa’s fewest since 1986.
More significant, perhaps, was that a once-competitive rivalry became one-sided during the Groh era. As UVa’s coach, he went 1-8 against Virginia Tech. In Tech’s eight wins, its average margin of victory was 17.4 points.
During the latter part of Welsh’s run at UVa, Tech belonged to the Big East. Even when the schools were in different leagues, they met annually in football, but their relationship changed in 2004.
That’s when the Hokies joined the ACC, where they’ve continued to win big in football.
“I think it helped Virginia Tech,” Welsh said. “That shouldn’t have had anything to do with our success. Nothing’s changed there as far as recruiting in the state. Now, maybe it’s helped them recruit out of state, I don’t know. They were doing pretty well, though, before they got in the ACC. They got Michael Vick and a lot of other great players.
“Frankly, I was not for bringing Virginia Tech into the ACC, but I don’t think it’s that big a deal anymore. If that’s been a problem, we should have adjusted. I don’t think it would have killed their program at all if they weren’t in the ACC. They were really good in ’99 and 2000.”
In terms of facilities at UVa, Welsh said, “there’s been a lot of money spent since I left. I think there have been a lot of improvements here.”
Scott Stadium was expanded and renovated before the 2000 season.
“I think it’s a beautiful stadium,” Welsh said. “If you get 60-some thousand people in there, it’s rocking, and that should help. And Al’s done a good job improving the McCue Center and the practice fields.”
Welsh occasionally lost players to academic ineligibility at UVa, and Groh dealt with that, too.
Still, Welsh said, “I don’t think the academics are a problem. Hell, look at Navy. Are you kidding me? I know their schedule is a lot weaker than ours. But we had a tough schedule when I was at Navy. I was 31-14 my last four years, something like that.”
The Midshipmen have won at least eight games in each of the past seven seasons.
“You talk about academics: 18 [credit hours each semester] for everybody [at Navy], and not a lot of meeting time,” Welsh said.
He still remembers an exchange he had in with one of his quarterbacks at Navy. It was late September, and the player was dragging.
“I said, ‘Why do you look so tired? Are you tired already?'” Welsh recalled. “He said, ‘Well, I have 18 hours of class, and then I’ve got another hour or so of lab, and then I have one hour of military duty.’ He was occupied 21 hours a week, and he still played pretty well.
“You can use it as an excuse if you want, but there’s a lot of other schools [with high academic standards]. How does Stanford win? My daughter went to Stanford. She says it was very difficult.”