Never had Virginia defeated a top-15 football opponent. The Cavaliers had tried 34 times since the Associated Press poll’s advent in 1936, losing 33 and tying one.
Until 1984, when unranked Virginia dominated 12th-ranked West Virginia 27-7 at Mountaineer Field.
Why, you could almost hear John Denver crooning, “Almost heaven, West Virginia …”
That postcard-perfect November afternoon certainly was heaven for a program mired in decades of purgatory.
“I said to the team after the game, ‘I don’t know how you’re doing it, but you’re doing it,’ ” Virginia coach George Welsh said afterward.
More than three decades later, the “how” seems obvious: The Cavaliers had been blessed with a Hall-of-Fame leader who, along with a loyal and skilled staff, recruited outstanding student-athletes and coached them to dizzying heights.
Welsh died Jan. 2 in Charlottesville at age 85, and the subsequent outpouring was immediate and emotional.
“I loved George,” says Chris Slade (Col ’93), Virginia’s career sacks leader and a consensus first-team All-American in 1992. “That guy, you didn’t want to mess with. For a guy his size—when he walked in a room you thought it was Andre the Giant. He just had a presence about him. He scared the crap out of people, and the biggest guys on our team were scared of him.”
“He gave us all he had in everything he did,” says quarterback Shawn Moore (Col ’90), who in 1990 finished fourth in Heisman Trophy voting and was voted ACC Player of the Year. “He treated us like winners.”
“Winning football” was an oxymoron at Virginia when Welsh, hired by then–athletic director Dick Schultz, arrived from the United States Naval Academy in December 1981. The Cavaliers had finished above .500 only twice in the previous 29 years and had never been invited to a bowl.
An ACC championship? Implausible. From the conference’s 1953 advent through 1981, Virginia had more winless league seasons (nine) than winning (one).
Welsh flipped the script. In 19 years he steered the Cavaliers to 12 bowls, 15 winning ACC seasons and two conference titles, defeating mighty Florida State for the second. His final 14 years at Virginia included nary a losing season.
“He is the pioneer,” says Terry Kirby (Col ’93), the Cavaliers’ No. 3 career rusher and Welsh’s signature recruit.
Teammates at Tabb High in Yorktown, Virginia, from 1985-88, Kirby and Slade were the focus of a national recruiting battle. Slade was a fierce defensive end, Kirby a bullying tailback and the country’s top-rated prospect.
But in tandem with tireless assistant coaches such as Tom O’Brien and Danny Wilmer—who did the legwork—Welsh was selling acclaimed recruits on Virginia.
“He focused on kids who were disciplined and had visions of building something of their own,” says Ray Savage (Col ’90), an All-American linebacker and leader of UVA’s 1989 ACC championship squad. “So he found guys like myself, Shawn Moore and our class. And we helped him recruit the Terry Kirbys and Chris Slades. He tugged on our heartstrings of being the first of something, not the next at (North) Carolina or the next at Penn State.”
“When George came into your living room to recruit you, you weren’t going to go to UVA because of his dynamic personality,” quarterback Moore says with a laugh. “He wasn’t going to captivate you. If anything, he was going to be quiet as hell and there would be uncomfortable silence. … I think in the grand scheme George was probably a shy guy. But he loved football, and he could talk football around the clock.”
The 1984 upset of West Virginia—indeed that entire year—was the pivot point. But it began with an ominous thud.
Clemson embarrassed Virginia in the opener 55-0, and even after subsequent victories over Navy and VMI, Welsh didn’t know what to make of his third Cavaliers team. Virginia Tech was next on the schedule, and the Hokies had dismantled UVA the previous season 48-0.
Alone in his office the day before the Tech game, Welsh had an epiphany.
“I was … waiting for the team bus to come,” he told me last October, “and I just decided, if we’re going to win, we’re going to have to take some chances.”
The next afternoon in Blacksburg, UVA trailed by 10 points in the fourth quarter. It was time to take a chance.
On fourth-and-inches from Tech’s 34, Welsh disdained the conventional run and called for quarterback Don Majkowski (Educ ’86) to throw a deep pass. A lunging John Ford (Col ’89) caught the ball at the Hokies’ 1-yard line, and on the next play, Howard Petty (Col ’87) scored a touchdown.
Virginia went on to win 26-23, snapping a four-game losing streak to Tech and igniting a season that didn’t end until New Year’s Eve with a victory over Purdue in the Peach Bowl, the Cavaliers’ first postseason appearance.
Fans mobbed the lobby and the pep band blared as the team walked into its Atlanta hotel that evening to celebrate the dawning of 1985 and a new era of UVA football.
“That was as chilling as any moment you can get in sports for a long-suffering university in football,” O’Brien says.
There would be many more, chief among them the 1995 Thursday night upset of Florida State at Scott Stadium, which ended the Seminoles’ 29-game ACC winning streak and helped the Cavaliers earn their second league championship.
“I remember my kids, after that game, the only thing they wanted to do was sit on the hill and find out how they were going to storm the field,” O’Brien says.
Virginia went 134-86-3 under Welsh, which, coupled with his 55-46-1 record at Navy, ensured his College Football Hall of Fame induction. He refused to accept limited resources, subpar facilities and strict admissions requirements as excuses. He lobbied successfully for enhanced infrastructure and support, but not at the expense of UVA’s standards.
“His morals and values were as strong as any,” says Gerry Capone (Educ’83), a volunteer assistant coach on Welsh’s first Cavaliers staff and now associate athletic director for football administration. “He was in the profession for the right reasons, and I think anyone that played or worked for him understood that.
“This wasn’t about his ego, and it wasn’t about how much money he was making. This was about doing the right thing and building a program the right way. … The beauty of it was, it was never about him. He never put himself ahead of his players or staff.”
That was never more evident than in 1990, when Virginia ascended to No. 1 in the polls, prompting national media to descend upon Charlottesville. The coverage was especially intense as the Cavaliers prepared for an early November game against fellow unbeaten team Georgia Tech.
Welsh understood the attention but loathed the time it took away from coaching. Yet intentionally or not, he revealed his understated sense of humor that week, amusing reporters with tales of his polka dancing as a kid.
“He was one of a kind,” O’Brien says. “That’s for dang sure.”
Raised in Coaldale, Pennsylvania, Welsh enrolled at the Naval Academy in 1952 and as a senior quarterback finished third in the 1955 Heisman Trophy voting behind Ohio State’s Howard “Hopalong” Cassady and Texas Christian’s Jim Swink. He retired from the Navy as a lieutenant in 1963 and worked for 10 years as a Penn State assistant coach before the Midshipmen hired him as their head coach prior to the 1973 season.
A student of military history and Russian literature—the Brothers Karamazov were on his radar long before the Barber brothers—Welsh was as much an intellectual as he was a football coach. He never lost his passion for military routine and hands-on teaching: He famously broke an ankle demonstrating a play on the practice field.
“He demanded and expected discipline and structure,” Slade says. “He was the captain of the ship.”
UVA has won 25 NCAA team championships, none in football. But given the challenges he inherited, the success he sustained and the legacy he leaves, Welsh would merit consideration for any Mount Rushmore of Cavaliers coaches.
“I think one of the best things I did for the University—I don’t know if everybody agrees with this, especially at this stage—is I stayed here,” Welsh said at his retirement news conference. “I know other coaches could have done as well. I really do. But I would bet most of them at some point, once a certain level of success had been attained, that they would have been out of here.”
Welsh stayed for 19 seasons. No one else has held the position for more than nine.
That’s why today’s Cavaliers, coached by Bronco Mendenhall, train in the George Welsh Indoor Football Practice Facility. That’s why a street near Scott Stadium is named George Welsh Way.
“He understood foundation,” says Ahmad Hawkins (Col ’09), a Cavaliers receiver from 1997 to 2000. “I think that’s what gets lost. He set that foundation and that standard. And when Bronco Mendenhall came in and set new standards, it was a tribute to Coach Welsh.”
The Highlight Reel
Dec. 16, 1981
“If you accept limitations without trying to change them, you don’t belong in college coaching,” Welsh says at his introductory news conference.
Dec. 31, 1984
UVA rallies to defeat Purdue 27-24 in the Peach Bowl, the Cavaliers’ first postseason appearance. “I think we got a little bit tougher in the second half,” Welsh says.
Nov. 18, 1989
Virginia wins at Maryland 48-21 to clinch its first-ever ACC championship and secure a bid to the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Florida. “Me and Mickey Mouse are going to have a ball,” cornerback Tony Covington (Col ’90) says. “And I think I’ll look up Minnie while I’m there, too.”
Sept. 8, 1990
The Cavaliers beat No. 9 Clemson 20-7, their first victory over the Tigers after 29 defeats. “This is one of those moments in life where, 10 years from now, it will bring a smile to my face,” defensive lineman Joe Hall (Col ’90, Educ ’95) says.
Oct. 14, 1990
UVA ascends to No. 1 in the national polls for the first time. “Nobody knows who’s number one,” Welsh says. “There’s too many games left to play. Maybe it’s like Andy Warhol said, this is our 15 minutes of fame. ... There’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s no big deal.”
Nov. 2, 1995
Florida State, 29-0 in the ACC with an average victory margin of 40 points, falls at Virginia 33-28. “I can’t absorb it all now,” Welsh says. “I’m stunned.”
Nov. 28, 1998
The Cavaliers stage the greatest comeback in program history, erasing a 22-point deficit to beat Virginia Tech 36-32 in Blacksburg. “Everything’s possible,” Welsh says. “It seems hopeless, but it never is. … You can’t ask for anything better, can you?”
Sept. 2, 2000
The expanded Scott Stadium opens. A crowd of 60,435, then the largest ever to witness a football game in the state, sees Virginia lose to BYU 38-35 in overtime. “That’s as beautiful a stadium as I have ever seen,” Welsh says.
Dec. 11, 2000
“It’s the end of an era for me, in my profession,” Welsh says at his retirement news conference. “It’s something I’ve devoted my whole life to. … I am, and forever will be, a Wahoo.”