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Dirty Harry or Mr. Clean? : Canyon Coach Harry Welch Beat Southern Section in Court, but Some Believe Justice Was Not Served

September 10, 1993|JASON H. REID | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dozens of eager young men move in machine-like precision as a voice bellows instructions from a bullhorn. It is early in Hell Week, that time in late August when football coaches and players greet the new season with unrestrained zeal and optimism.

As the summer day wears on, Canyon High Coach Harry Welch's exuberance increases. Any football coach worth his salt enjoys this time of year, but one can sense Welch is reveling in the moment even more than usual.

This is the first Hell Week in three years that Welch has not been embroiled in controversy with the Southern Section. No longer are his thoughts divided between attacking a two-deep zone and fending off attacks by the Southern Section in the courts.

"I'm excited about just coaching football," Welch, 48, said. "There were lots of distractions and a lot of pressure during the last couple of years.

"I'm not feeling that burden now."

On June 18, the Southern Section settled its dispute with Welch over alleged rules violations stemming from a photograph published on May 19, 1991, in the Newhall Signal. The photograph showed a Canyon player hitting a blocking dummy while a Cowboy assistant coach and several teammates watched, an apparent violation of Southern Section rules banning the use of sleds and blocking dummies in the off-season. The terms of the settlement were sealed, but sources indicated that Welch clearly came out the victor.

The photograph had created a deluge of problems for Welch. But now Welch--who did not serve a one-year suspension recommended by the Southern Section--is re-energized and ready to teach football with the fervor that has made him the area's most successful football coach.

Buoyed by his victory over the Southern Section, Welch begins his 12th season tonight at 7:30 as Canyon plays host to Castle Park of San Diego. Some coaches are grateful for Welch's battle because the Southern Section has since vowed never to make recommendations on personnel, saying it has jurisdiction over programs only. (Call it the "Harry Welch Rule.")

However, his critics believe Welch is now above the law. Many wonder how the Canyon program escaped punishment, even after Welch originally admitted a rules violation occurred.

Moreover, the Southern Section's handling of the Welch case, they said, might embolden some coaches to ignore rules, further threatening the purported role of high school sports.

Buena Coach Rick Scott is not among those convinced the Southern Section is better off after its dealing with Welch.

"Well, they're going to cross their T's and dot their I's before they go on another assault, but rules are getting harder and harder to enforce," Scott said. "The truth is our governing body really doesn't have any teeth."

Added a veteran area coach: ". . . I'd like to see our section have some way to punish violators. It seems to me that if someone cheats they should be punished. Instead, people cheat, sue and then the rules are changed."

The case against Welch began to unravel quicker than you can say fumble , which is how three coaches characterized the Southern Section's handling of the situation. From the onset, Southern Section Commissioner Stan Thomas' approach was wrong, the coaches said.

In winning one courtroom battle after another, Welch's attorney, Stephen J. Tully, argued that the Southern Section denied Welch's rights of due process. Moreover, Tully argued, the Southern Section has no jurisdiction over Welch or any coach. Technically, before the Welch case, the Southern Section made recommendations to member schools regarding personnel, and the schools would then decide whether to enforce those recommendations.

The Southern Section will no longer comment on the Welch case. As part of the settlement agreement, Welch and Tully cannot comment either.

Not all coaches sided with the Southern Section against Welch. Westlake Coach Jim Benkert believes an issue more important than guilt or innocence was resolved in the Welch case.

"Harry was protesting due process because he didn't have the opportunity to present his case," Benkert said. "(The Southern Section) handed down a one-year suspension without hearing all the facts. In any situation, a person should be given the chance to say his piece. I don't think Harry was given that."

But many worry that given Welch's relationship with the Southern Section, officials will avoid future altercations with him.

"People are waiting for him to mess up, so he might be a little cautious right now," one coach said. "But I think he thinks he can get away with things."

Welch disputes such comments.

"My program has been the most scrutinized high school football program in Southern California for the last two years and it will remain the most scrutinized," Welch said. "In no way am I above reproach and I would never want to be."

Some believe Welch's success in court, though, has weakened standards and respect for rules.

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