From Pickup Games in Coaldale To Top Of Football World

(by Bob Laylo, Allentown Morning Call, October 28, 1990)

George Welsh, the kid who left his undershirts all over the streets of Coaldale while playing pickup games, is leaving a big mark on the college football world.

Although he doesn't have time to savor it, Coaldale's favorite football son has been sitting atop the Associated Press college football poll with his University of Virginia Cavaliers, 18 years after he landed his first head coaching job.

Welsh downplays the ranking, as he has ever since the 7-0 Cavaliers took the top stop Oct. 16.

"I have said it before this year, the polls don't mean much seven or eight weeks into the season," said Welsh during a phone interview last week. "It might have some effect at the end of the regular season to get a bowl game, and, of course, it is an honor to be number one at the end of the year. It doesn't mean anything right now."

But it is another milestone in Welsh's illustrious athletic career -- a career that began two blocks from his family's Sixth Street Coaldale home.

The skinny, sandy-haired kid learned to sling a football on Fourth Street, one of the few level areas in Coaldale.

Every day, Welsh's mother Ann recalls, he would play in pickup basketball, baseball and football games until the evening, sometimes even later. And, he had an annoying habit of leaving his undershirt where he played, said Mrs. Welsh, 77, who recently moved back to Coaldale from Tamaqua.

Whether Welsh shot baskets into a makeshift hoop he hammered into a pole with Darwin "Trigger" Davis, or played football, he stood out although most of the other boys were five or six years older.

Davis, one of those older neighborhood boys, said that if he and Welsh weren't out in the streets playing sports they were at the movies or hiking in the nearby hills.

Henry Collier also remembers hanging around with Welsh.

"He was a natural," said Collier, a lifetime Coaldale resident and now a borough councilman. "He could always throw the football."

Welsh took that ability to throw the ball a few blocks down the street, where he starred at quarterback for Coaldale High School in 1949 and 1950. During those years, the Tigers were 18-1-2.

After capping his high school career with an MVP performance in an all-star game, the 5-9, 145 pounder headed to Wyoming Seminary for a year of prep school.

From there, Welsh went to the Naval Academy in Annapolis -- a dream of the family, especially his late father Thomas, who died in 1965.

"You should have seen his father. Was he proud," Ann Welsh said.

She tried to attend as many games her son was involved in as a player and a coach but rarely sees the games now. She doesn't watch the games on television, either -- not even a peek.

"I get too nervous, especially if they are losing," she said, adding that she does the catch the scores on ESPN.

Welsh excelled at Navy, starting three years at quarterback. During his senior year, he led the nation in passing and total yards and finished third in the Heisman Trophy balloting.

Welsh finished his outstanding collegiate career in 1955 by leading the Midshipmen to a stunning 21-0 upset of Mississippi in the Sugar Bowl. That year, he received the Thompson Award for promotion of athletics at the Naval Academy.

After the last game, Welsh said he thought his days in football were done.

"When I graduated, I was content to be in Navy," said Welsh. "I pretty much made up my mind to be a career officer."

After graduation, Welsh spent 32 months at sea before getting his first taste coaching as an assistant to former Navy mentor Wayne Hardin. However, Welsh was later shipped back out and learned he didn't like the sea, his mother said.

"He wrote to (former Penn State coach) Rip Engle and asked for a job," Ann Welsh said. "He was surprised he got it."

Welsh went on to to coach quarterbacks at Happy Valley from 1963 to 1972 under Engle and Joe Paterno.

"They had a lot to do with the way I think," he said. "When I got there, I had to learn organization. Rip Engle, Joe Paterno and their assistants taught me a lot."

At Penn State, Welsh developed a close relationship with Joe Paterno, who is godfather to his four children.

"The families were close," said Ann Welsh, who pointed to a picture of herself and Paterno that she has at her home.

Then, his alma mater offered him the head coaching job in 1973.

"I felt like I had to take it," said Welsh, 57, who noted he has no plans to return to State College or any other school whenever he leaves Virginia.

At Navy, he compiled a 55-46-1 record in nine seasons, the winningest coach in the school's history. Three of the last four seasons there, his teams traveled to bowl games, including a 23-15 win over Brigham Young in the 1978 Holiday Bowl.

Then came Virginia.

"I think the timing was right," he said. "I wanted to go to a school that offered grant-in-aid scholarships and I wanted to stay on the East Coast."

Welsh quickly commanded the school's attention, which was better known for Ralph Sampson and basketball. After all, the football team only finished with one winning season before he arrived in 1982.

Welsh credits timing, a little luck, good support from coaches and administration and hard work to turn around Virginia program. He points to the 1984 season as a key year.

"We finished 8-2-2 that year and won the Peach Bowl," he said. "Then we had a winning season (6-5) the next year."

Now, Welsh is at the top of heap, although it sounds like he's not entirely happy.

"I can't enjoy it too much," he said. "There's too much media attention. I spend half my day talking to television and print media."

To keep his focus on football and away from the increasing media demands, he limits telephone interviews with reporters to 15 minutes. And, Welsh is concerned about the ranking's effect on his club.

"I don't know if the ranking is good for this team. We have to take things one game at a time. That's how we got here."

With an off-day yesterday, Welsh's next major concern is 16th-ranked Georgia Tech, which visits Virginia Saturday.

"They deserve to be a ranked team," he said. "They have an outstanding defense and their offense can beat you."

Backup center and Carbon County native Tim Samec, like Welsh, is taking the rest of the season one game at a time, although he is more excited about the top ranking.

"I'm happy about the ranking," said the Tresckow native, who plays about half a game at center. "The students on the grounds are really excited."

However, Samec said he didn't expect to be on the number one team in the country.

"When I came down here I thought we could have a top 10 team," said the red-shirt sophomore, adding he was somewhat enticed to Charlottesville by Welsh's ties to the coal region. "But everything just fell in place for us."

Samec is joined on the team by Nesquehoning native Erick Hackenberg, a red-shirt sophomore quarterback who graduated from Marian Catholic. Unlike Samec, Hackenberg hasn't seen any playing time.

"Eric has been banged up all year," Welsh said.

Former Whitehall athlete Matt Klinger rounds out the locals on the squad.

"Klinger is playing on some special teams," Welsh said.

Meanwhile, the locals and the rest of Cavaliers will gird for Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, which are followed on the Virginia schedule by North Carolina, Maryland and Virginia Tech.

But Welsh, between practices will probably do a disappearing act with the media.

"I have got to be careful," he said. "We have four tough games left and I don't want to be distracted by the media."

The Morning Calll