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On George Welsh and his titanic legacy

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What he left behind can’t be measured only in wins and buildings.

GEORGE WELSH VIRGINIA

I found it appropriate that the weather in Central Virginia last Friday was gray, chilly, and rainy. It wasn’t the sort of conditions that most of us would say we enjoy; even if it didn’t quite match the mood everyone shared after they heard the news, I doubt the Old Salt would have minded it much.

We found out that morning (January 4) that the iconic George Welsh passed away on January 2nd at the age of 85 at his home in Charlottesville. You can lose your breath running down his myriad accomplishments during 19 stellar years as the Virginia Cavaliers’ head football coach: 134 career wins, two ACC championships, 12 bowl games, nine wins over Virginia Tech, handing Florida State its first ACC loss, ending The Streak against Clemson, a first-ever No. 1 ranking in 1990, 13 straight winning seasons from 1987-99, and he retired as the winningest coach in ACC history.

Yes, even more than Clemson’s Frank Howard, who once termed the Hoos as the “white meat” of their schedule. And did I mention that the only other teams between ‘87 and ‘99 to win seven or more games every year were Nebraska, Florida State, and Michigan? Schools that won or shared the national championship in five of those 13 years? That’s right. No Miami, Alabama, Texas, Ohio State, Florida, USC, Notre Dame ... you get the idea.

All that is to say that he established a standard of excellence that was never thought possible for the first-ever college football team founded in the South—and even that might not do his achievements justice. No, he didn’t win a New Year’s Day bowl game or have the Cavaliers in the national title picture in mid-November, but that’s not a knock against him or his teams. To establish such a lofty standard of consistent winning was something of a miracle when taking into account the pathetic state of the program before his arrival.

In the 29 years after Art Guepe left Virginia in wake of the Gooch Report, the Hoos went 88-209-3 overall and 33-121-1 in the ACC. They suffered a 28-game losing streak between 1958-60 and had just two winning seasons, in 1968 and 1979, but didn’t make a bowl game in either of them. Their best ACC finish? Third three times, two of which were shared. They went winless in league play nine times. Even some of the worst programs in the annals of college football with lesser backgrounds than Virginia’s—teams like Kansas State, Northwestern, Indiana, Wake Forest, and Iowa State—had gone to bowl games in their respective histories.

Virginia’s attempt in the early 1950s to uphold its image as one of America’s great universities by rejecting a Gator Bowl bid roiled the athletic landscape on Grounds for two decades. The de facto de-emphasis of sports at UVA contributed to a general free-fall in that area. The men’s basketball program—arguably UVA’s athletic crown jewel for the last 40 years, was almost as irrelevant—never played in an ACC championship game and, by proxy, never reached the NCAA tournament. In the excellent 2010 documentary Wahoowa: The History of Virginia Cavalier Football, the notion of the football team being so irredeemable that they would drop out of Division I (whether they would have left DI entirely or dropped down to what was then known as I-AA was not specified) was mentioned. Scott Stadium was an outdoor frat party complete with kegs and the antics that come along with them. Students sang the Good Old Song when the team picked up a rare first down. If you were there, it was to see and be seen and have a good time, not to actually watch football. Basically, sports at UVA, especially football, just didn’t matter.

Welsh (and, to give credit where it’s due, basketball coach Terry Holland) changed that, and the physical evidence of such a sea change is readily visible around Charlottesville.

Going up Route 29 North, I can look to my left and see the George Welsh Indoor Practice Facility, opened in 2013. I smiled at the irony about his name even being there on Friday when I remembered a story former UVA receiver and defensive back Ahmad Hawkins told me in November. Welsh was indeed grateful to receive the high honor of having a building named after him, but deep down, he didn’t care to know that the team was practicing indoors. The old naval engineer ran his practices like the Blue Angels: you fight like you train, so train like you fight. If a player didn’t wear gloves during a game, for example, but showed up to practice the next week wearing them, they had to come off. That was just how you did things under his tutelage.

Just past the indoor facility is the McCue Center, the nerve center of the athletic department. The football coaches’ offices are there for now, before relocating to a new football-specific office in a few years. If not for McCue, once considered top-of-the-line, George Welsh wouldn’t have been George Welsh. He was a strong candidate for the Arizona State job after the 1984 season, and because he and his staff were still working out of trailers at that time, the interest was mutual. After a raise and assurances that infrastructure would improve, he stayed.

If I drive down Alderman Road like I often do to avoid foot traffic closer to the hustle and bustle of the Corner and Central Grounds, I end up a long Bryce Perkins pass away from the Hill above the north end zone. Out of the corner of my eye (ok, more than just the corner; I turn my head slightly for a second if nobody’s driving in front of me or on the sidewalk) I see, in my opinion, the most attractive stadium in major college football. It’s the same size as Soldier Field in Chicago and bigger than two other NFL stadiums. When its capacity expanded by nearly one-third in the late 90s, it might have lost much of the view out of the south end zone that I’ve been told was stunning, looking in the general direction of Monticello and the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains. What it gained, though, is something even greater. To gain a level of capacity essential to the kind of ticket revenue needed to sustain a Power Five program, while keeping the Hill and adding the pergola for a Jeffersonian touch, was an incredibly symbolic transformation that can draw parallels to the modern program and its current leadership—more on that later.

But, that expansion doesn’t happen if Welsh and his system don’t elevate the atmosphere and culture of expectations around the program. Inside that stadium, there’s a bust of Welsh listing his accomplishments and he’s cast in a familiar pose: hat on, hand on chin with an at-once analytical and quizzical expression on his narrow and weathered face. It’s almost as though he’s right there in front of you internally breaking down the opposing defense and figuring out how Shawn or Tiki can get them out of this third-and-long situation. And of course, just past the stadium itself and before I get to Stadium Road, I can see another street sign: George Welsh Way.

If I’m going down JPA, away from the Corner, just after I pass the hospital I see that one light atop the Stadium shooting above the computer science building closer on the horizon. For a school and its community to be placed so impossibly well in the middle of the Blue Ridge, it’s fitting that the football stadium would be so seamlessly embedded into the scenery. With its bulk and its beauty, it serves as a tribute what the Virginia football program became at a moment in time and what it should be going forward.

Welsh was no Vince Lombardi, where winning was “the only thing” rather than merely “everything”. Nor was he a Woody Hayes type, whose desperation for victory led to behavior during practices and games that resembled hysteria before finally devolving into a fit of violence that ended his career. He was just a soft-spoken, no-BS Navy guy who knew what a high standard was and how to execute it to its completion. His legend isn’t simply told in games won — although, let’s be honest here, that’s a big part of it. It’s more so in the intangibles of what he established: yes, you can win and win a lot at UVA without sacrificing your standards or your soul.

With his eagle eye for talent, had Welsh gone to one of those top-flight schools with better funding and a more longstanding football culture, it’s not hard to imagine him as a national champion. As it happened, with far fewer academic and athletic resources at his disposal than his successors, he made UVA into the football power of the Mid-Atlantic without paying players or letting them slip in the classroom (read Jeff White’s tidbit about former Campbell Trophy winner Tom Burns) or horrifically and knowingly employing monsters on his coaching staff. He did this with, and in no small part because of, the backing of the administration.

In the 15 years between Welsh’s retirement and the hiring of current head coach Bronco Mendenhall, support for the football program at the highest levels of the University faded nearly completely. This isn’t the space for casting blame with whom the recent demise of the football program rests. But, as I mentioned earlier, the present-day UVA football program has similarities to the early Welsh years both on and off the gridiron. Both Welsh and Mendenhall won two, six, and eight games in their first, second, and third years respectively. Now, as then, the game day vibe on Alderman Road is making a gradual return to what it should be. The football building is a few years down the road, but again, facilities are improving. And in athletic director Carla Williams and president Jim Ryan, Mendenhall has leadership with the knowledge of what is needed and the skill set to execute those visions.

Under Dick Schultz, who hired Welsh and was initially told that even the boosters didn’t care about winning football, financial implications be damned, the UVA athletic department finally stabilized. “I was a basketball guy, but I knew that football was the cornerstone of any athletic program. I was determined to get things turned around,” he told the Capital Gazette (Md.) in 2017. Welsh’s second AD, Jim Copeland, saw to it that the McCue Center came to fruition. The combined fundraising efforts of Holland, who was the AD in Welsh’s final years as coach, and former UVA president John Casteen secured the $86 million stadium expansion. Fittingly, Welsh coached his final year in the renovated stadium. It was a monument of sorts to what he had established: yes, you really can win consistently (have a big shiny stadium to keep up with the Joneses) without losing sight of what your university is about (keeping it as aesthetically pleasing as before, if not more so).

So, Welsh’s legacy isn’t simply measurable in the physical and tangible ways it’s manifested, like in buildings and the trophies in which they reside. It’s observable to this very day in the current rise of Virginia football. The New Standard is the Old Standard, when seven wins was a down year and losing to Tech three times in a row just didn’t happen (nobody called rivalries “jocular” in those days). You didn’t just go to bowl games, you won them. The legacy he’s left behind on Earth is the proof that Virginia football really can have it all and do it the right way. Mendenhall may not have meant to do so in the moment, but the program’s current leader boiled down that mindset as well as he could have in his introductory press conference in 2015:

“I like the idea of ‘and,’ not ‘or.’ We will have fantastic students, fantastic people, and a fantastic football team, and it’s not ‘or.’ You’re not going to just have academics or football, and it won’t just be football or character, and it won’t just be character or being woven into the fabric of our community. It’ll be ‘and.’ I want all of that.”

In his day, the idea of “and, not or” could never have been exemplified by a man as fine as George Welsh.

Godspeed, sir.