July 25, 2012
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Thirty years have passed since George Welsh left the U.S. Naval Academy to become head football coach at the University of Virginia, and many fans are too young to remember the woeful state of the program he took over.
Fortunately for Welsh, he discovered upon his arrival at UVa that he had an influential ally in Dr. Frank McCue III.
“The one thing I remember about him, which was maybe crucial to our success here, is that when I came here there was not a lot of goodwill about UVa football,” Welsh recalled Monday, “because of all those losing seasons and because the high school coaches [around the state] didn’t seem to be generous toward the University of Virginia football program.
“But where there was goodwill, it was because of Frank in a lot of areas, because he took care of a lot of high school athletes. In Southwest Virginia, the Richmond area and, especially, Hampton and Virginia Beach, he was highly thought of.”
That never changed. McCue, who died Sunday at the age of 82, was a legendary and beloved figure, and not only for the work he did in more than 40 years as an orthopedic surgeon and head of UVa’s sports medicine program.
“He was such a great guy and so caring and such a great surgeon,” said Welsh, who retired after the 2000 season and later was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
“He touched a lot of people in this state. It wasn’t just UVa. I think that’s the thing that should be remembered about Frank. He took care of high school athletes, and for a while there some of the other universities, and he was very generous.”
Among the young athletes McCue treated were three brothers from the Tidewater region: Gary, Mike and Paul London. Mike London, of course, is now Virginia’s head football coach, and his office is the building named for McCue.
“Doc had a great passion for helping people, no matter what their social status,” London said in a text message Monday. “He’s one of the best people I have ever known!”
Terry Holland, a former athletics director and men’s basketball coach at the University, noted in an e-mail Sunday night that McCue’s “professional expertise made Charlottesville and UVa a nationally and internationally known pioneer in sports medicine.
“However, he will be remembered most by the tens of thousands whose lives he touched professionally and personally. Dr. McCue and his wife, Nancy, even took hundreds of patients into their home immediately after surgery to insure a quicker recovery. ‘Doc’ stitched up a number of my players and family members, including me, after hours at his home. ‘Just bring them over to the house,’ he would say, and excuse himself from a dinner party or whatever.
“While there are many wonderful doctors who have followed in his footsteps, there will never be anyone as unique as Dr. McCue was in his time on this earth.”
Shawn Moore will attest to that. Moore, who now coaches the tight ends at UVa, was playing basketball for Martinsville High School in the mid-’80s when he first encountered McCue. It was at University Hall, then the site of the state Group AA semifinals and championship game.
“One of my teammates had a sprained ankle,” Moore recalled Monday, “and we were trying to get him ready for the tournament. I’ll never forget my first impression: Who’s this weird guy with the weird pants?”
That guy, of course, was Doc McCue, whose bright orange pants were one of his trademarks. Once Moore enrolled at UVa on a football scholarship in the summer of 1986, he got to know McCue better. After University officials refused to allow Moore and Ray Savage to play in the Virginia High School Coaches Association all-star game, McCue drove them to Lynchburg so they could stand on the sideline with their teammates during the game.
“From that point on, Doc became my guy,” Moore said.
In McCue’s office hung a photo taken Nov. 17, 1990, at Scott Stadium. Against Maryland that day, Moore, whom many consider the greatest quarterback in UVa history, fractured the thumb on his throwing hand. The photo showed Moore and McCue walking off the field together, McCue holding Moore’s thumb in place.
They went straight to the emergency room, Moore said, where McCue “performed the surgery while I still had my uniform on. After he did my surgery, I stayed at his house for a week. One of my favorite human beings ever.”
When Moore returned to his alma mater in 2009 to join London’s staff, he was able to see McCue regularly again for the first time in years.
Moore treasured those moments, just as he treasures the photo taken last month of him with McCue and two other former UVa players now on London’s staff, Marques Hagans and Anthony Poindexter, at a gathering of the McCue Society at Bryant Hall. (The McCue Society is made up of McCue’s former colleagues, fellows and athletic trainers, as well as students and friends.)
Even as his health declined in recent years, McCue regularly attended football practices. Football was his favorite sport, and he would sit in a golf cart parked next to the stairs that led to the practice fields from the McCue Center locker room.
“Doc was at practice nearly every day,” Moore said. “There was no way I was going to go on the field without spending some time with him.”
“I would always sneak out and watch football practice,” the 6-5 Williford said with a laugh Monday. “Doc would always be telling me, ‘Hey, they could use a nice tight end.’ “
For years, McCue shared an office in University Hall with his close friend (and former roommate) Joe Gieck. Gieck worked in UVa’s athletics department for 43 years, 36 of them as head athletic trainer, before retiring in 2005.
When he started at UVa in 1962, Gieck recalled Monday, “there were four athletic trainers in the state and about five orthopedists, and nobody was really [focusing on] sports medicine.”
McCue helped fill that void. “We would open the doors Monday morning,” Gieck said, “and you’d never know who would be there, people from Hampton and Martinsville and Madison and all over. We’d just see all the high school people in the state.”
About a decade into Welsh’s tenure as UVa’s coach, fundraising stalled for a desperately needed support facility that was to be built next to University Hall. Then McCue’s colleagues, friends and patients, led by former UVa football great Joe Palumbo, stepped forward.
“Presto,” Welsh said. “We got another $4-5 million so we could start the project.”
Gieck said: “It took about a month to get the commitments to get enough money to get that thing built.”
The University named the building for McCue. The McCue Center, which houses the offices of many UVa teams, including football, was dedicated in 1991. “It was crucial,” Welsh said, “because we were starting to lose [recruits] because of facilities again.”
What he’ll remember most about McCue, Gieck said, was “the commitment that he had to athletes. He would take his vacation during [the football team’s] two-a-days so he could be down there full time. He’d be in the office and people would be backed up, but the people that got to see him first were the athletes that came through, whether high school or college or whatever they were.”
A native of West Virginia, McCue earned his undergraduate and medical degrees from UVa, where he also completed his residency. When he retired in 2003, he was named Professor Emeritus of Orthopedics at the University’s hospital.
“When I think about people that truly made a difference in the welfare of others, Dr. McCue will be at the top of my list,” UVa’s athletics director, Craig Littlepage, said in a statement Sunday night.
“There was never a situation where there was someone in need that Frank would not step up to the plate and help and provide service as best he could,” Littlepage said Monday night on WINA’s “Best Seat in the House” radio show.