To his successor, former head football coach George Welsh is the man who put Virginia on the map.
“He’s the person who elevated Virginia football to the level where the expectations were that we should win,” said Al Groh, who replaced Welsh after he retired following the 2000 season. “He saw the potential in Virginia when really there was not a high level of success to indicate that before he got there.”
Welsh, 85, died in Charlottesville on Wednesday in the presence of family members, according to a press release from UVa. Funeral arrangements have not yet been made public.
Before Welsh arrived in 1982, Virginia had just two winning seasons in its 29 previous seasons. In his third season on Grounds, Welsh led the Cavaliers to an 8-2-2 record and the first bowl game in program history.
By the time he retired, the former All-American quarterback at the United States Naval Academy was a four-time ACC coach of the year and the 1991 national coach of the year. He finished with 134 career ACC wins and led Virginia to 12 bowl appearances in 19 seasons as head coach.
In 2004, Welsh was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. In 2009, he was named to the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame.
“Programs that have a real nuts-and-bolts approach, built on sound values, win, and the gimmicks and gadgets show up for a little bit, but they disappear,” Groh said. “Coach Welsh’s teams were definitely grounded in the nuts and bolts of how to win.”
Groh said Welsh was one of three coaches who laid the foundation for success at Virginia. The other two were former men’s basketball coach Terry Holland, who owns the most career wins in program history, and Bruce Arena, who led the men’s soccer team to five national championships, including four straight from 1991 to 1994.
Coaches and players alike say Welsh is indelibly linked to the University of Virginia beyond the football team’s indoor practice facility on north Grounds that bears his name.
“If there’s a word that best describes him, it’s integrity,” said former UVa quarterback Matt Blundin, who is now the athletic director at Woodberry Forest School. “He did everything the right way, and he was above board with everything he did in his program.”
Groh has a unique perspective on Welsh’s career after filling roles of competitor and successor and as the father of one of his players. As the head coach at Wake Forest from 1981-86, Groh went 4-2 against Welsh’s Cavaliers.
“It was always a fun game of chess against his teams,” Groh said. “You had to really be mentally into the game and be ready to adjust as it unfolded. You couldn’t just call the game off a sheet of paper.”
Groh was such a fan of how Welsh ran his program that he got on board with no hesitation when his son, Mike, decided to walk on with the Cavaliers in 1991. Mike Groh went on to start at quarterback, and he led Virginia to a pair of nine-win seasons in 1994-95, which included a historic upset of Florida State in 1995.
“We knew the values he was raised with at home were going to be consistent with the values and standards that were going to be expected of him at Virginia,” Groh said.
By the time Welsh retired following a 6-6 season in 2000, the Cavaliers were a year removed from a string of 13 straight seasons with seven wins or more. His 1989 team is still the only one in program history with 10 wins in a season, and in 1990, his Cavaliers became the only team in program history to reach No. 1 in the national polls.
In 1989 and 1990, former All-American linebacker Chris Slade was in the early stages of his career at Virginia, but he could sense expectations were high as soon as he arrived.
“When I got to Virginia, the program was really starting to turn the corner,” Slade said. “We were just getting on the national stage, and it had a lot to do with what he expected of us. He demanded his players be disciplined and well-prepared on and off the field.”
The current Cavaliers just wrapped up a successful 2018 campaign. Virginia won eight games for the first time since 2011, earned consecutive bowl bids for the first time in 14 years, won its first bowl game since 2005 and watched as a host of individual and team records fell.
Current head coach Bronco Mendenhall knows none of that would be possible without the groundwork laid by Welsh.
“He was a true pioneer for UVa football and provided the model for success that we are working hard to replicate,” Mendenhall wrote Friday on Twitter. “We will miss his frequent visits to the football offices.”
Prior to coming to Virginia, Welsh was the head coach at Navy, his alma mater, from 1973 to 1981. He led the Midshipmen to a 55-46-1 record and left the Academy as the winningest coach in school history.
Welsh, who grew up in Coaldale, Pennsylvania, attended the United States Naval Academy and played for the Midshipmen from 1952 to 1955. He was a first-team All-America quarterback in 1955 and finished third in the voting for the Heisman Trophy that season.
After graduating from Navy in 1956 and completing his military service, Welsh was an assistant coach at Penn State from 1963 to 1972.
Welsh was married to his wife, Alexandra, for 52 years before her death in 2015. They have four children: Kate, Duffy, Matt and Adam.
Ron Counts covers University of Virginia athletics for The Daily Progress. Contact him at email@example.com, (434) 978-7245, or on Twitter @Ron_CDPsports.