Publish date:

A very un-Cavalier attitude

Virginia lost to Navy, but new Coach George Welsh is thinking positively

George Welsh, the new Virginia coach, was asked one day last week how he'd feel when his Cavaliers opened their season at the Naval Academy, his alma mater and former employer. Welsh replied, "I guess if I watched the Brigade march onto the field there'd be a little nostalgia."

After Virginia's 20-16 defeat last Saturday, Welsh admitted he'd sneaked two peeks at the Midshipmen as they proudly paraded into Navy-Marine Corps Stadium. Any pangs, George? "No, I've seen too many march-ons," he said. "They're all the same."

But didn't you feel some emotion while watching your old team whip your new one?

"Yeah, a little bit," Welsh said. "I lived with some of those guys for three or four years. For me it was a week of distractions. Too much talk. Too much said. What the heck, I'm not Bear Bryant."

You'd have a tough time persuading Navy Athletic Director Bo Coppedge that Welsh is anything less than a living legend. Coppedge often said that he'd bought a headstone and a gravesite in Annapolis for Welsh. "And I said I hoped he'd coach football here until it was time to use them," Coppedge says. In nine seasons, Welsh had guided the Middies, who had had only one winning season in the nine years before his arrival, back to respectability; over his last four seasons Navy went 30-13-1 and played in three bowls. Then in December Welsh moved to a different coaches' graveyard—Virginia.

The job in Charlottesville had opened up last year when Dick Bestwick was fired after a 1-10 season. "There's a time to stay and a time to leave," Welsh says. "And for me it was time to head on down the road."

Virginia joined the ACC in 1954 and has had only two winning seasons since. For the Cavaliers Welsh meant, as Athletic Director Dick Schultz put it, "instant credibility." They had had only one network television appearance in their history; this season they will be seen on Oct. 9 against Clemson and Nov. 25 against Virginia Tech in addition to last Saturday's regional telecast, which made it onto the air almost solely because of the novelty of Welsh's opening against the team he left behind. "I made the Academy $300,000 just by moving," he said. Virginia's share, after divvying its $300,000 with the rest of the ACC, came to about $75,000.

In line with his image as the Calvin Coolidge of college coaches, Welsh did his best to downplay the significance of playing his alma mater. "A long time ago it might have meant a lot, but I've coached against Navy before [eight times as an assistant at Penn State]," he said. Welsh's parents first started telling young George about the Naval Academy when he was eight, and from the time he was in ninth grade they took him to a game there at least once a year from their Coal-dale, Pa. home. Welsh, at 5'10" and 156 pounds, quarterbacked the Midshipmen from 1953 through 1955, when he led the nation in passing yardage (1,319) and set a Navy record for completion average (62.7%). In his junior season, Welsh led the Team Named Desire to the Sugar Bowl and a 21-0 upset of Mississippi. His coach, Eddie Erdelatz, called him a "righthanded [Frankie] Albert" and a play-calling genius.

Welsh's chilly image is deceptive. He's been known to polka, twist and jitterbug after a victory. "He's a great athlete," says Joe Paterno, Welsh's boss for eight of his 10 seasons at Penn State, "and he's very light on his feet." It became a ritual at Penn State for Welsh to sing Good Night Irene in the locker room after wins. "That I don't miss at all," says Paterno.

One of Welsh's non-football interests, Thomas Jefferson, might have contributed to his decision to move to Virginia. He has read almost everything ever written on Jefferson, including Virginia Professor Dumas Malone's six-volume study; and an original engraving of the portrait on the two-dollar bill has hung in the Welsh home for two decades. Says his daughter Sally, 22, "We've had Jefferson in this house for as long as I can remember." Jefferson, of course, founded the University of Virginia in 1819.

In 1973 Welsh took over a Navy team that had suffered through five straight losing seasons. "I remember the moment of awakening," Welsh says. "I'd just left Penn State, where we'd had guys like Franco Harris and Lydell Mitchell, and I came away from my first team meeting at Navy thinking, 'They just don't look the same.' Well, I think the program was in worse shape here at Virginia.

"We had to teach our players to work. Last spring, our practices would die off toward the end; they'd lose their concentration and they'd get tired." Which helps explain the 35 injuries that befell the Cavaliers between the spring workouts and last Saturday's kickoff.

"My biggest problem at Navy," Welsh says, "was convincing kids trying to make it into flight school that they didn't have to stay up all night studying to pass." Asked whether he thought his Virginia players would be inclined to stay up all night partying, Welsh said, "I hope that's not a part of their activities in the fall."

Says a friend of Welsh's, "Before practice, after practice, at meals, the Virginia players are loosey-goosey, and George hates that." One all-too-Cavalier was quoted in a Richmond paper as saying, "We'll loosen Coach Welsh up after he's been here awhile."

"Uh-huh," says Virginia's assistant coach, Frank Spaziani. "It's happening the other way around, and fast." The Cavaliers nevertheless made enough mistakes against the Middies to lose a game they should have won. Virginia out-gained Navy 430 yards to 226, but six times failed to score touchdowns after moving the ball inside the Middies' 10.

Navy, on the other hand, took advantage of its opportunities. "There were some things Coach Welsh said I couldn't do too well last year," Navy Quarterback Marco Pagnanelli said. "I wanted to show I'd improved in some respects." Consider it done.

Pagnanelli completed only five of 12 passes for just 64 yards, but hit Tailback Rich Clouse for two TDs. The first covered 18 yards and made it 10-3 Navy early in the second quarter. The second was a 19-yarder that gave the Middies a 20-13 lead late in the third quarter.

Navy Tailback Napoleon McCallum returned a punt 72 yards in the second quarter, and Roverback Brian Cianella showed Welsh a little bit of everything. He caused one Virginia fumble, was called for unnecessary roughness, recovered another fumble, was caught for pass interference and sacked Cavalier Quarterback Wayne Schuchts to end Virginia's last-chance drive with less than two minutes left in the game. "I don't know if I redeemed myself or not," Cianella said, grinning.

Schuchts threw a 54-yard touchdown pass that put the Cavaliers, who had trailed 13-3, back in the game in the second quarter. His most resourceful moment came with 9:53 left in the game with Virginia behind 20-13. He dropped the snap, stepped forward, picked up the ball, took two steps back and threw a wobbler 40 yards to Flanker Mickey Graham at the Navy 8. That was one of those deep penetrations by the Cavaliers that came up short.

"It's a syndrome," Welsh said afterward. "A lot of these guys have been used to a lot of losses. We had our opportunities on the goal line and we couldn't do it. We have a long way to go, but it's a start. I still think we can have a winning season this year and have a shot at the ACC title in four. I also know that Virginia has had nine coaches in 29 years. That's a lot of coaches."


Welsh is trying to point Virginia in a new direction.