Many names are on the list of former University of Virginia football coaches, but one stands above all others.
George Welsh was 134-86-3 in 19 seasons with the Cavaliers. He not only won games, he changed the image of Virginia football from a team more likely to lose 10 games per season to that of a team capable of winning 10 games in any given season.
Welsh brought the program to life. Before he arrived in 1982, Virginia had two winning seasons in the previous 29.
Once Welsh arrived, a rebuilding process ensued that focused on discipline and execution and winning on guile and effort until the talent level improved.
The talent did improve and the preparation and effort never diminished. Welsh’s teams were ACC co-champions in 1989 and 1995. In 1990, the Cavaliers were ranked No. 1 in the country for two weeks. He led the Cavaliers to 12 bowl games.
Welsh was ACC coach of the year four times, and Virginia was the first team to give conference rival and national powerhouse Florida State a loss in an ACC game.
Welsh died Jan. 2 at the age of 85. Saturday, the university held a celebration of Welsh’s life in John Paul Jones Arena.
The event came against the backdrop of the Virginia’s annual spring football game, which in recent years has more closely resembled a practice session.
But as Bronco Mendenhall’s team adds depth and competition raises the level of play, Saturday’s day of practice more closely resembled a game.
The celebration of Welsh’s life didn’t overshadow the afternoon of football. Instead, it foreshadowed what Welsh’s players see occurring at their alma mater.
“When Coach Welsh came in, the whole culture was different,” Sean Scott said.
Scott was on a panel of players who discussed how it was to play for Welsh.
“That’s what Bronco faced, although he came into a little bit better situation,” Scott said.
A little better, perhaps, but not much better.
“What I like about it [Mendenhall’s program], being a ballplayer and an alumni of UVA, the culture is consistent with this school and the type of player he’s looking for, the type of kids he’s looking for,” Scott said. “You’re a student first, an athlete second, and you don’t compromise on that. You don’t need to compromise. With Bronco, it appears to me that we’re not compromising, and we’re still going to in. I think we’ve got exciting times ahead.”
Mendenhall spoke at the event in honor and memory of Welsh and after the spring football event.
Welsh had an office in the Virginia suite after he retired. Often, Welsh would be in the breakroom in the morning, reading the newspaper and when Mendenhall came in, Welsh would ask, “How’s it going?”
“And I would ask him, ‘How do you think it’s going?’ Mendenhall said. “He would usually say something like you need players or you need facilities. It wouldn’t be a long, expansive answer.
“That helped a new coach navigate through his program and try to have similar results [to Welsh’s]. I feel like I am a steward of his program, and that matters to me. Anytime you take on something significant and challenging, like those who have climbed Everest, you look for markers. Has anyone been here before? You look for metrics. Am I on the right path?
“I had the good fortune in my first couple of years here to be able to say to coach Welsh, ‘What do you think?’”
The markers by which Mendenhall is judged and by which he judges his program’s success are victories in the regular season, victories in bowl games, signing quality players and beating Virginia Tech.
“Our in-state rival game, which we haven’t won yet,” Mendenhall said. “And then, how’s the recruiting going? That ultimately defines what will have to happen at UVA for us to have sustained success, which is what Coach Welsh did and what we want to do.”
Virginia has players to replace, especially at running back and receiver. But adequate replacements appear to be on the roster and have had good spring practices.
Having them on the roster, though, is only part of the process.
During the Welsh event, former Penn State running back Charlie Pittman, who played at Penn State with Franco Harris and Lydell Mitchell when Welsh was the running backs coach, recalled what Welsh helped him accomplish.
“To be a successful running back, you’ve got to have confidence,” Pittman said. “And I came to Penn State with very little confidence. But because he believed in me, I started to believe in myself.
“I learned that mediocrity is self-inflicted, but greatness is self-imposed. I didn’t have to be mediocre. I could be great if I listened to him, took his inspiration to work harder and believe I could be better.”
Mendenhall knows that to duplicate Welsh’s success, he needs to duplicate that advice and inspiration.