By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE – The greatest football coach in University of Virginia history still stops by the McCue Center and University Hall several times a week. During his visits, he can’t help but notice the enormous structure taking shape on one of the practice fields behind University Hall.
Pending approval of UVa’s Board of Visitors this fall, the building will be named the George Welsh Indoor Practice Facility.
“I don’t know why they picked me to put my name on it,” Welsh said. “I don’t know who made that decision, but I’m not going to look a gift horse in the mouth.”
The facility, scheduled to be ready for the start of spring football practice in 2013, will cost about $14.5 million, including financing costs to account for pledge payments being made over the next several years. Nearly $12 million has been committed, including a $5 million anonymous gift that launched the project. The Virginia Athletics Foundation has mailed the final fund-raising brochure announcing the upcoming naming of the facility.
Among those involved in discussions about naming the building were football coach Mike London, athletics director Craig Littlepage, executive associate athletics director Jon Oliver and VAF executive director Dirk Katstra. Welsh was, for many reasons, the obvious choice.
“As I continue to meet players from George’s era – and we’re meeting more of them as they’re coming back now, with Mike being here – I’m so impressed with these guys,” Oliver said Tuesday. “I think it’s a great reminder to our young people that come through here now that we’re naming a facility after somebody who wasn’t just about football. He was about creating great citizens, helping guys develop holistically. I think George did a great job of that.
“His era was one where we did a lot. He helped put Virginia football on the map, so I think it’s a great way to honor everything he did and his legacy.”
Welsh left the U.S. Naval Academy, his alma mater, after the 1981 season to take on a massive rebuilding project at UVa, whose football program then ranked among the nation’s worst. From 1953 to 1981, the Cavaliers finished above .500 only twice.
He worked something close to a miracle in Charlottesville. In his 19 seasons at Virginia, Welsh compiled a 134-86-3 record. His tenure included a stretch of 13 consecutive seasons in which the Wahoos finished with seven or more victories, and that was in an era when an 11-game regular season was the norm.
Welsh, who retired in December 2000 as the winningest coach in ACC history, was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2004. He was named ACC coach of the year in 1983, ’84, ’91 and ’95.
“I’m glad the building’s named for him,” said London, whose brother Paul played for Welsh in the ‘90s.
So is UVa assistant coach Anthony Poindexter, another alumnus of Welsh’s program.
“You just think about what he has meant to the University, not only with athletics but all the stuff that he does,” said Poindexter, an All-America safety for UVa in the ‘90s. “To me he’s just an icon. You look at him, and the man has still got a wealth of knowledge. He’s just a great coach, had great teams and produced great young men as well.
“With all he did for the program and to bring the program to prominence like he did, I think it’s a tremendous honor, and I’m happy for him. I’m proud to be a part of it and proud to say I played for him.”
Welsh has never been one to seek the spotlight – “He hates it,” noted Poindexter – but he has no objections to having his name on the new facility.
“It’s a nice honor,” Welsh said. “I appreciate it. If somebody wanted to do it, that’s fine with me. I was surprised, though. Definitely.”
The indoor facility will help the Cavaliers not only during inclement weather, Welsh believes, but in recruiting. Schools such as Georgia Tech, Duke and Auburn have opened similar structures in recent years, and some of UVa’s other ACC rivals have plans to build indoor facilities.
“I think it almost has to be done,” Welsh said. “Because for some of those kids, those 17-, 18-, 19-year-olds, facilities are a factor.”
When he arrived at UVa, Welsh recalled, its football facilities were substandard. After his first season in Charlottesville, Welsh approached then-athletics director Dick Schultz, “and I said, ‘You know, I think we got a chance here.’ Because we had pretty good talent I had inherited, and we had a couple good recruiting classes. But I said the facilities are going to kill us unless we get some plans out there and show people that we’re going to have new facilities, in three or four years, anyway.”
The football program was based in University Hall in those days. Early in Welsh’s tenure, though, most of his staff left U-Hall and moved into trailers near the practice fields. Position and team meetings were held in the trailers.
“I don’t know how we got kids to come here,” Welsh said, shaking his head. “I know in the beginning there was a really good linebacker from Northern Virginia that went to [North] Carolina — I forgot his name — and he said, ‘Well, your facilities aren’t good enough.’ ”
A turning point came in 1991, when the McCue Center was dedicated. The building, named for Dr. Frank McCue III, who died this summer, houses the offices of many UVa teams, football among them.
“It was crucial,” Welsh said, “because we were starting to lose [recruits] because of facilities again. Actually, that put us ahead of North Carolina and North Carolina State.”
A major renovation of Scott Stadium followed several years later. In 2000, the stadium was expanded to its current capacity of 61,500.
Now comes the indoor facility, which, Welsh said, “shows that the University athletic [department] has a commitment to win.”
Welsh’s successor was Al Groh, whom UVa dismissed after the 2009 season. The Cavaliers finished under .500 in three of Groh’s final four seasons.
Under London, the ‘Hoos went 4-8 in 2010 and 8-5 in ’11. Welsh said he feels good about the direction of the program.
“I do now,” he said. “I think it’s a very good staff. That’s a key, though. I hope [London] can keep them together for a couple more years. I think that’s crucial.”
Among the players Welsh and his staff coached was Paul London, a defensive back from the state’s Tidewater area.
“The only thing I knew about Coach Welsh at that time,” Mike London recalled, “was that Paul said he was a disciplinarian, a tough coach who knows a lot of football.”
Mike London later interviewed for a position on Welsh’s staff at UVa. He didn’t get the job, but London eventually ended up at the University, first on Groh’s staff and then as head coach. He’s enjoyed getting to know Welsh better.
“He’s always welcome at the McCue Center,” London said. “I’ll come in sometimes, and he’ll be in having a cup of coffee or something like that, talking to the coaches. Which is good. The guy’s in the College Football Hall of Fame. With what he did here at Virginia, as far as making Virginia one of the top programs in the country, you have a tremendous amount of respect for a guy who’s got a record that kind of speaks for itself.”