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.