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|Welsh Maintains Focus Year-In And Year-Out
Virginia's football coach has successfully adapted to the game's changes for 40 years.
Sept. 21, 1999, virginiasports.com
George Welsh began coaching in 1960, and, in some respects, the game he first encountered hardly resembles the college gridiron battles of today. Welsh has spent the past 26 seasons as a collegiate head coach, and during his entire career, the Coaldale, Pa., native has been surrounded by constant change.
The winningest coach in ACC history found success not by refusing change, but by adjusting his coaching style to accommodate the development of college football. Over the years, players have become stronger and faster, coaching philosophies have changed, and the game itself has become more complex and intricate.
Only one assistant coach remains from his original Cavalier coaching staff but, with each new season, the former Naval lieutenant steers a different course and finds a new heading for success.
Even through all the change that has accompanied George Welsh through nearly three decades as a head coach, there is at least one thing that has remained the same. Without fail, the beginning of every season is ushered in by a feeling of anxiety.
"The first two weeks are always nerve-racking for me," said Welsh. "At least if you see a team play twice, you've got a pretty good idea of what you've got to contend with."
The 1999 season has provided no relief from Welsh's annual feelings of anxiety. In fact, this year the stage was set for quite possibly his worst case yet. With a new starting quarterback, a young defensive unit, and a limited number of backup players, the '99 squad began the year with two road conference games. For the season opener, the Cavaliers traveled to Chapel Hill where they had not won in nine years. An important game for both teams, it provided plenty of cause for concern.
"I'm always worried about young kids in their first games and players without experience, because you don't know [what to expect]. Especially somebody that is starting for the first time," said the veteran head coach. "The first week of the season you don't know what's coming, and that's what you worry about. When defenses are looking at stuff they haven't prepared for, it's disconcerting. That's why season opening games are scary."
Though far from frightening, the opener against North Carolina provided its fair share of suspense and anxious moments. The final outcome was not decided until the closing seconds when Todd Braverman hit a career long 50 yard field goal. The ball passed through the uprights with only 27.4 ticks left on the clock, lifting Virginia to a dramatic 20-17 victory.
Unfortunately, things did not go nearly as well for Welsh's Cavaliers during last Saturday's game against Clemson. Virginia entered the game hoping to become the first team in school history to open the season with two conference road wins. Instead, Virginia was in for a long afternoon as the Tigers up-ended the Cavaliers 33-14 in front of 65,000 raucous Clemson fans.
The Tigers scored on their first two possessions and jumped out to an early 14-0 lead. In the second quarter, Clemson tacked on two field goals to give the home team a 20-0 half time lead.
Though Virginia was down, they would not leave without a fight. Late in the third quarter quarterback Dan Ellis hit Kevin Coffey on a one-yard touchdown pass. Thomas Jones added a three-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter, but it was not enough.
Following the game, Coach Welsh gave credit to the Clemson Tigers for their solid performance.
" I think they executed very well [on offense]. I don't think we were ready for the speed of the game," said Welsh. "It was a lot faster game than what we played [against North Carolina]. Their defense was quicker and their offense was quicker."
As the Cavaliers prepare to take on Wake Forest, Welsh hopes his team can regain focus for yet another difficult ACC contest. Though Virginia has not lost to the Demon Deacons since 1983, he understands every conference opponent provides a serious challenge.
"We have a lot of intense rivalries in this conference now," said Welsh. "Teams want to beat us. Georgia Tech gets all fired up for us. Duke gets all fired up for us. North Carolina State, that always seems to be a pivotal game. They're always fired up for us."
For only the second time in school history, the Cavaliers open the season with three games against conference opponents. After the first two games, Virginia owns a respectable .500 record, and a win over the Demon Deacons would propel the Cavaliers to an early 2-1 conference standing.
It has been a solid start to a season surrounded by question marks and a good deal of uncertainty. Key injuries, inexperience, and an overall lack of depth have fueled most of the early concern. Though the first two games are in the books, it may be too early for Coach Welsh to breath that short, well deserved sigh of relief.