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Military Bowl: On the George Welsh connection between Virginia and Navy

He’s Virginia’s greatest coach and one of Navy’s greatest.

GEORGE WELSH VIRGINIA

On the day he announced his retirement from coaching football, George Welsh fought back tears as he said, “I am now and will be forever a Wahoo. It's time for this old salt to sail off into the sunset.”

That is Welsh, the winningest coach in UVA’s history - a consummate Navy man who ran his programs by the Blue Angels’ maxim of “you fight like you train, so train like you fight”, but a converted Cavalier who maintains a residence in Charlottesville to this day, almost exactly 17 years after he left the game due to fatigue.

The Virginia Cavaliers and Navy Midshipmen meet on the field once again after a 23-year hiatus in three weeks at the Military Bowl. The Welsh-Virginia-Navy story began in earnest in the 1950s, when he was a quarterback at the Naval Academy. Then, he finished third in the Heisman voting behind eventual winner Howard Cassady. After his service, he was an assistant coach at Penn State before taking over at Navy for nine years, winning 55 games and ending a 15-year bowl drought when the Mids went to the 1978 Holiday Bowl.

The Washington Post sports section’s front page from Dec. 16, 1981, when Welsh was hired at UVA.
Courtesy of The Washington Post

When Dick Bestwick went 1-10 with the Cavaliers in 1981, then-UVA athletic director Dick Schultz decided to make a change. Welsh was his first choice, in part due to the rigorous academic standards at Navy. Welsh agreed to take the job, saying that “it was time to move on” from Annapolis, adding that Virginia’s reputation as a university attracted him to the job (sound familiar?). Welsh left the Naval Academy as their winningest coach, a mark he would hold until Ken Niumatalolo broke the record in 2014.

Welsh went 1-4 against UVA while at Navy, and 7-3 against his former team as the Hoos’ coach. Welsh’s first game as a Cavalier was, incidentally, against Navy in Annapolis, a 20-16 Midshipmen win. Postgame, in the laconic style that became a trademark of his along with his white “bar” hat, he told the media that he was glad for the game to be over after “too much talk ... about [him] coming back. I’m not Bear Bryant.”

It didn’t take long for Welsh to right the ship in Charlottesville, leading the Cavaliers to a 1984 Peach Bowl appearance.

Navy was one of the Cavaliers’ eight losses in a 1986 season that would go down as the last truly down year of Welsh’s tenure. In the last five games he coached against Navy from 1990-94, Welsh’s Wahoos reeled off five straight wins, outscoring the Mids 211-34 with two shutouts. Those five wins were part of 134 total games he won at Virginia, easily a record for a school that, until he took over, had known little success in the sport.

This will be the first time the two teams will have faced each other since 1994. As of Sunday, when bowl announcements were made available, the Military Bowl organizers had not yet reached out to Welsh for his availability and interest to play a role in the bowl game, although they said they intended to. Another connection between Virginia and Navy? Former UVA associate head coach for offense and tight ends Tom O’Brien had played and coached at Navy, and is currently the radio color analyst for the Middies.

Virginia plays Navy on Dec. 28 at 1:30 from Navy–Marine Corps Memorial Stadium on ESPN. Until then, keep checking STL for updates on UVA’s first bowl game since 2011.