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Coaldale’s George Welsh symbolizes area’s talent

Published January 09. 2019 12:43PM

At one time, coal region football was considered a religion played by some of the toughest guys on the planet. Bruised, sometimes bloodied, there was no such thing as coming out for a play or taking a breather.

Most players in our hardscrabble community high schools such as Coaldale, Lansford, Tamaqua, Nesquehoning and Summit Hill went both ways — offensively and defensively — and were on the field for every play.

If an opposing player threw a sucker punch when the ref wasn’t looking, you looked for an opportunity to return the favor.

It was in this environment that local legend George Welsh of Coaldale learned the kind of toughness that would discipline him to be a resounding success as a player at Coaldale High School, where he earned all-state honors back in the day when all teams in Pennsylvania were in the same category rather than different divisions as they are today, as a first team All-America quarterback at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, where he came in third in Heisman Trophy balloting in 1955, and later as the coach of the nation’s number one football team for a time at the University of Virginia.

Welsh coached football at Virginia for 19 years and retired as the Atlantic Coach Conference’s career victories leader. This record was later eclipsed by Florida State’s Bobby Bowden after the Seminoles came into the league.

Welsh, who died in Virginia on Jan. 2 at the age of 85, had a 134-86-3 record at Virginia from 1982-2000. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2004 and the Virginia Football Hall of Fame in 2009. The Charlottesville school named its indoor practice facility in his honor in 2013.

Welsh did not have a flashy personality. Some of his boyhood pals in Coaldale described him as “quiet.” “You could see the wheels turning,” said one former teammate now living in Seek.

Some of his contemporaries in other nearby Panther Valley communities described him as “aloof.”

“Yeah,” said one of his teenage friends, “I could see where people might think that, but he was loyal to a fault. He wasn’t a loud know-it-all like a lot of the kids during that time, but his actions spoke for him.”

Shawn Moore, who quarterbacked the Virginia team which rose to number one in the national rankings in 1990, agreed that Welsh’s personality wasn’t his strong suit. “But you realized you were being coached by one of the best preparation coaches of all time. He just prepared you like you wouldn’t believe. I can’t count the number of times he would kick us off the practice field because we weren’t prepared mentally or physically,” Moore said.

Welsh stressed to the Cavalier players after they became number one that they should not become overconfident. The team remained at the top of the national rankings until a heartbreaking 41-38 loss to Georgia Tech.

“He was humble, and he wanted to keep all of us humble,” said Moore, who described his coach as having a unique personality.

Welsh’s accomplishments at Virginia were all the more remarkable because of the nature of the program that he inherited. The team had only two winning seasons in 29 years. In his third season, Welsh took the Cavaliers to the Peach Bowl and beat Purdue to cap a glorious 8-2-2 season. Virginia appeared in 11 more bowl games during Welsh’s tenure.

Virginia shared the ACC title twice, in 1989 and 1995. In 1995, the Cavaliers became the first ACC team to beat Florida State, which had been unbeaten in league play since joining the conference in 1992. Welsh received the Bobby Dodd Award in 1991 as the national coach of the year and was the ACC coach of the year four times. He also coached at Navy from 1973-81, compiling a 55-46-1 record.

Some may have forgotten, but after Welsh graduated and fulfilled his military obligation, he served as an assistant under Rip Engle and Joe Paterno at Penn State from 1963 until 1972 where he honed his coaching skills.

We honor George Welsh for his inspirational leadership and contributions to the young men he guided and tutored during his amazing coaching career, and we share the pride along with others in our area as we embrace one of our own who made good in a big way.

Welsh was married for 52 years until the death of his wife, Alexandra, in 2015. Among survivors are his four children, Kate, Duffy, Matt and Adam, to whom we express our sympathy and warmest regards.

By Bruce Frassinelli | tneditor@tnonline.com

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