Glare Not There As Old Sailor Fades Away: Perfect
December 24, 2000|By DAVID TEEL Daily Press

Tonight's O'ahu Bowl between Virginia and Georgia is the postseason equivalent of Coaldale, Pa. - unpretentious, obscure and miles from the big time.

Sure, ESPN is broadcasting the game. But unless Santa has a satellite dish on his sleigh, and his elves are similarly wired on the North Pole, the audience will be limited. Due to early Christmas Eve deadlines, none of the state's four largest newspapers is staffing the event. Ditto the commonwealth's major TV markets.

George Welsh, favorite son of Coaldale and a Hall of Fame football coach to boot, couldn't ask for a more appropriate farewell.

Naturally, Welsh would prefer that his Virginia Cavaliers be undefeated and preparing for a national championship showdown against Oklahoma. But absent that, a little ol' football game contested near one of military history's most storied venues (Pearl Harbor) is just fine for a 67-year-old gentleman concluding a 28-year head coaching career, nine at Navy, the last 19 at Virginia.

Welsh, you see, never viewed football as an event. The pragmatist in him certainly understood the need for exposure, fan support and political allies. In fact, Welsh quietly assembled a power base unrivaled at the university. He got what he wanted, usually when he wanted it, even if it meant trampling others. Jim Copeland's departure as athletics director in late 1994 had Welsh's fingerprints all over it.

But the football coach in Welsh had little use for news conferences, teleconferences, radio call-in shows and alumni schmoozefests. And those insipid halftime interviews with some talking head? Well, don't get Welsh started. He would have preferred a bikini wax any day.

Don't misunderstand. Welsh is rarely rude. In fact, he is occasionally charming, often amusing - in a droll sort of way - and almost always interesting. Conversations with him invariably include awkward pauses, but only because Welsh thinks before he speaks and values precise language.

No, football was not an event to Welsh. It was a battle of mind and body, a battle that demanded relentless preparation, a battle meant to be won. Just like the Great Northern War between Sweden's King Charles XII and Russia's Czar Peter I. And almost like a hand of seven-card stud.

Welsh, an avid card shark and student of Russian history, coached at institutions steeped in intellect. But he was not intimidated, not with a degree from the Naval Academy, not with seven years experience as an officer. He not only recruited the Barber brothers, but also read "Brothers Karamazov," and he was convinced that football success and academic integrity were not mutually exclusive.

Most remarkable, Welsh won at institutions mired in losing. Won consistently. Won and lost dramatically. Won and lost gracefully. No, his teams never played for a national championship, never finished in the top 10 for that matter, shortcomings that gnaw at him still.

But to focus on disappointment today is absurd. Welsh brought nationally competitive football to a university, indeed to an entire commonwealth. And if Navy's post-George fortunes - three winning seasons in 19 years - are any indication, Virginia should count its blessings.

I was privileged to witness many of Welsh's defining moments at Virginia - the 1995 upset of Florida State, the epic 1990 loss to Georgia Tech, the 1998 comeback at Virginia Tech, the 1992 collapse against Clemson. None rivals Nov. 3, 1984 in Morgantown, W.Va.

Virginia was 5-1-1 and, on the heels of a 6-5 finish in 1983, hopeful of its first consecutive winning seasons since 1951 and '52. But West Virginia was 7-1 and ranked 12th nationally. In their previous two games, the Mountaineers had defeated Penn State for the first time in 29 years, and had rallied from a 14-point deficit to upset Doug Flutie and Boston College.

Why, it was enough to make West Virginians stop swooning over native daughter Mary Lou Retton, fresh off the Los Angeles Olympics, and start worshipping Don Nehlen. Indeed, a capacity crowd of 56,453 descended upon campus for the Virginia game, and as many suspected, it was a blowout - for the unranked Cavaliers.

Virginia never trailed. The Cavaliers, led by Steve Morse's 141 yards rushing and Charles McDaniel's defense, outrushed the Mountaineers 349-85 and held them without a second-half first down until the final four minutes. The final was 27-7. Virginia was bound for the Associated Press top 20 for the first time since 1952. The school's first-ever bowl bid was assured.

"This is especially sweet for the fourth- and fifth-year guys who have been through all the hell and losing," defensive lineman Tom Kilgannon said following the game.

The Cavaliers finished the '84 season 8-2-2 and ranked 20th by the AP. They defeated Purdue in the Peach Bowl, their first of 12 postseason appearances under Welsh.

But they arrived on that November afternoon in "almost heaven" West Virginia.

"I don't know how they do it," Welsh said of his players.

Sixteen years later, the answer appears obvious.