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Cavaliers hope to build on Welsh's legacy; welcome Groh

By Dan Heuchert

When George Welsh arrived in 1982 to take over the U.Va. football program, the University had earned a reputation as a "coaches' graveyard." By the time he announced his retirement Dec. 11, he had transformed it into a perennial winner fit for an NFL head coach.

Now Welsh's successor, alumnus Al Groh -- most recently coach of the New York Jets -- says he is ready to take it to the "next level": competing for a national championship.

"One thing I learned here as a student is that Thomas Jefferson was a person with vision, creativity and industriousness," Groh said Jan. 5 as he was introduced as the Cavaliers' head coach. "I have that vision for what our football program is going to look like in the future, and I am going to work with unceasing diligence, energy and determination to make that come about."

A New York City native, Groh played football and lacrosse at U.Va., graduating in 1967 from the McIntire School of Commerce. He began his coaching career that fall at Albemarle High School, then was an assistant coach at five schools, including two seasons at Virginia, before earning his first head coaching job at Wake Forest in 1981.

In six seasons there, the Demon Deacons were 26-40 -- at the time representing the second-most coaching wins in the school's history -- and sent 14 players to the pros. After leaving Wake Forest, he spent a year with the NFL's Atlanta Falcons and another at the University of South Carolina before returning to the NFL in 1988. He was an assistant with four teams before being named the Jets' head coach earlier this year.

New York finished 9-7 this season, narrowly missing the playoffs.

He enjoyed being an NFL head coach, he said, but the opportunity to coach at U.Va. and move closer to his family his mother, a brother and a sister all live in Charlottesville proved too strong.

"I think this is one of those institutions that you belong to forever," he said.

Skepticism greeted Welsh's arrival in 1982. The Cavaliers had posted winning seasons in just two of the previous 29 autumns, and had never appeared in a postseason bowl game. There was talk of dropping out of the top division of NCAA football altogether.

Nineteen seasons later, Welsh's teams had posted 16 winning seasons and had earned 12 bowl berths. Across Grounds, there were monuments to the program's success: an expanded and renovated stadium complex and the first-rate Frank McCue Center, a training facility which houses football and other athletic offices, plus locker, weightlifting and training rooms. Welsh's decision to step down came as a surprise to many. Although he turned 67 a week before the season-opener, he had long turned away questions about retirement.

George Welsh
Pete Emerson
George Welsh

Welsh had a successful playing career as a quarterback, finishing third in the Heisman Trophy balloting in 1955. After a six-year naval career, he entered coaching full-time, first as an assistant at Penn State and later as head coach at the Naval Academy in 1973, where he won 55 games in nine seasons, the most in school history.

He took over U.Va.'s program in December 1981. Two years later the Cavaliers went 8-2-2 and played in their first postseason game, beating Purdue, 27-24, in the Peach Bowl.

The success continued. Virginia was ranked No. 1 in the nation for a time in 1990, part of a streak of 13 consecutive seasons with at least seven victories. Welsh became the winningest coach in both U.Va. (134 wins) and Atlantic Coast Conference (85) history, and was voted ACC Coach of the year five times. He was 134-85-3 at Virginia and 189-131-4 overall.

"The amazing thing about the consistency has been that we've been just as consistent producing winners in the classroom as we have on the football field," said U.Va. athletic director Terry Holland. "… Every year that the College Football Association has recognized the graduation rate, Virginia has been recognized as having one of the very highest graduation rates in the country."

"I have always enjoyed the intellectual challenge of the game," Welsh wrote in a Dec. 17 op-ed piece in the New York Times. "There is an art to football, but there is also a science to it. The art is choreographing plays or defenses. … The science is matching 11 on 11 and what you can do on offense or defense to stop the other guy. …The other part was going on the field and being a teacher, because there has never been a good coach who was not a good teacher."

As the years went on, however, Welsh found less and less time to focus on those activities, as his schedule became filled with things he felt less comfortable doing. Recruiting student-athletes, in particular, was becoming a year-round pursuit. The effect was wearying, Welsh said as he announced his retirement. "This past season has been physically and emotionally … the toughest of my career," he said.

As he mulled his retirement decision after the regular season ended, University officials made a last-ditch effort to retain him, but in the end, the stress was too much.

"To me it has been a great run, but nothing lasts forever, and now is the time for me to step aside," he said. Choking back tears, he continued, "I want everyone to know that I am and will be forever a Wahoo. … It's been a long journey for me from Coaldale, Pennsylvania, and now it's time for this old salt to sail off into the sunset."


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