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Former Naval Officer Welsh Still Likes Sea : Virginia's Football Coach Wants to Sail Another Ship

September 06, 1986|DAVE SELL | Washington Post

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — The two big creases in his brow have sunk a fathom or two over the years, but they still roll like waves toward the blue-gray eyes, the Lincolnesque nose and a thin mouth that doesn't open for superficial chit-chat.

The professional hats that George Welsh has worn above that brow have numbered only two: naval officer and football coach. There were seven years serving his country on a cruiser and a destroyer. The coaching chores have gone on for 23 years now, and Welsh's fifth season at Virginia and 14th as a head coach begins here today when the Cavaliers open their season against South Carolina.

Welsh turned 53 last week, but he is still something of an enigma, even to those he thinks know him.

Bob DeStafney, who played at Navy from 1975 to 1977, once said of Welsh: "He's like the captain of a ship. It's lonely at the top."

Eddie Meyers was a running back on Welsh's last team at Navy. "It takes a long time to understand him," Meyers said. "I don't think any of the players can say they know him really well. We call him 'The Voice in the Wilderness.' "

The story at Virginia is similar. Don Majkowski, Virginia's senior quarterback, said: "There is a certain distance between him and the players, which I think is good. This way nobody can criticize him for having favorites on the team."

Welsh chuckles and is mildly surprised by the comments. "I think they know that my door is always open," he said. "I just try not to interfere with their lives too much."

So who does know him well? Start with his wife, Sandra.

"Yeah, she probably knows me pretty well," Welsh said. "Some of my assistants have been with me for eight, 10, 12 years, and they probably know me. Though I don't get to see him that often, I think of Joe Paterno as a friend. But I've never felt a need for a lot of close friends."

Navy Athletic Director J.O. (Bo) Coppedge was a plebe coach when Welsh was a star quarterback for the Midshipmen, leading the nation in passing and total offense while helping the 1955 team win the Sugar Bowl. After seven years of active service in the Navy, and 10 as an assistant at Penn State, Welsh went back to Annapolis as the academy's head coach for the next nine.

"George is by nature a quiet guy," Coppedge said. "On the other hand, in friendly groups he is outgoing and he's interested in lots of things other than football. I'll say one thing about George, and I mean this as a compliment: He is a great listener."

Rip Engle was the Penn State coach who gave Welsh, then 29, his first coaching job. Three years later, Paterno took over the Nittany Lions.

"George has always been a guy that smelled of confidence," said Paterno, who is godfather to the Welshes' four children. "He was a great, great assistant, and I knew he'd make a great head coach. Once you get to know him, it's tough not to like him. He very rarely deals in personalities. He is a thoughtful man, a bright man, and he thinks out everything he says."

George Welsh the coach is different from George Welsh the person, according to George Welsh. "I'll yell and get excited on the field. I'm not afraid to yell if somebody isn't doing something right," he said. "But I think I'm different off the field."

Joe Spaziani, Virgina's secondary coach, played for Paterno at Penn State and then served as a graduate assistant under Paterno and Welsh. Spaziani joined Welsh's Navy staff in 1975 and has been with him since. Linebacker coach Tony Whittlesey joined Welsh's staff in 1978 and also followed him to Charlottesville. Six of the nine Virginia coaches also were at Annapolis.

"He's very demanding on the field and wants those demands met, and he generates that with loud encouragement," Whittlesey said of Welsh. "He's unpredictable. When you think you understand him, it doesn't quite happen that way."

After nine seasons at Navy and four at Virginia, Welsh has a 77-67-3 record and a reputation for being one of the best coaches in the country because of his ability to win despite demands that limit who he can recruit. After an initial 2-9 season, the last three Virginia teams have gone 6-5, 8-2-2, 6-5, and the '84 team won the Peach Bowl, the school's first post-season appearance. The last time Virginia had three consecutive winning seasons was 1950-52, and after that it had only two above .500 before Welsh arrived.

He still gets a kick out of coaching, though different phases of the job have different appeals.

"I like being on the field and the Xs and Os part of the job best," Welsh said. "The public relations and fund raising, I don't enjoy as much."

Said Paterno: "George isn't a glad-hander, and he's not the kind of guy who's trying to sell himself."

But recruiting is a major part of the job. "I try to sell the school and the program," Welsh said.

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