George Welsh and the 1984 Peach Bowl

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third in a multi-part series on the career of Virginia Hall of Fame coach George Welsh, who unexpectedly passed last week at the age of 85. Some of this material has never been printed. Had the pleasure of sitting with him for hours to review his UVa career. Today, in Part 3, Welsh takes the Wahoos to their first ever bowl game.)

By Jerry Ratcliffe

While Wahoo Nation went completely giddy over Virginia’s first-ever bowl invitation at the end of the 1984 season, Coach George Welsh actually had his sights aimed higher than the Peach Bowl.

The Cavaliers finished the regular season with a 7-2-2 record (yes, newbies, they actually had ties in those days) and were runners-up for the ACC title to Clemson. UVa was politicking for the long-awaited bowl, but Welsh, at least initially, wasn’t crazy about going to Atlanta.

“Dick Schultz (Virginia’s athletic director) called me one day and said he was pretty sure we could get an invitation to the Peach Bowl,” Welsh told me. “I was thinking maybe we could do better. [The Peach] wasn’t as prominent then as it is today. I don’t think they drew very well and it was in the old baseball stadium (Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, home of the Atlanta Braves).”

Welsh suggested to Shultz to wait. This was in mid-November and Virginia, which was ranked 19th in the country at the time, still had an away game at North Carolina and a home game against No. 18 Maryland to close the regular season.

Welsh’s desire for a bigger bowl evaporated quickly because star defensive back Lester Lyles was injured with the Carolina game coming up. Lyles was the key to UVa’s entire defensive plan.

So, Welsh went to see Schultz and told him that Lyles was out for the UNC game.

“Maybe we had better take what’s out there right now and not wait,” Welsh said he suggested to Schultz. “I think we had to. We ended up tying North Carolina (24-24). That didn’t help our bowl chances. There weren’t 35 bowls around then. What was there, 15 or so?”

Welsh was close. There were 18 bowls in 1984, and the Peach turned out to be one of the most memorable games in Wahoo history as Virginia upset Big 10 runner-up Purdue, 27-24, setting off one of the wildest celebrations ever by Cavalier faithful.

The favored Boilermakers featured future NFL quarterback Jim Everett, a big guy with a big arm, and big passing numbers. On the other side of the ball, Purdue had future NFL star Rod Woodson, a terrific college safety who made it big as a corner in the pros.

Welsh wasn’t so sure that his team could handle the Big 10 opponent.

“I thought we would have a good running game but I didn’t think we’d be able to hold [Purdue] down that much,” the Virginia coach said. “That surprised me. I thought it would be tough to win if they scored 40.”

As hard as they tried, UVa’s offensive coaches couldn’t incorporate star wide receiver John Ford into the passing game that day, due to Purdue playing mostly two-deep, and with Woodson involved. Ford just couldn’t get open, and that’s why the Cavaliers focused hard on the running game, particularly in the second half.

Welsh was worried about Purdue’s passing game because Virginia hadn’t seen anything quite like that in the ACC that season.

That wasn’t all the Wahoos coach was concerned about. The temperatures were unusually warm in Atlanta that week and after daily practices at Georgia Tech, Welsh thought he had practiced his team too hard and wondered if they could recover.

The Cavaliers did recover and partly because Everett was so good, and partly because UVa couldn’t get its passing game going, the Boilermakers jumped to a 24-14 halftime lead. That’s when running backs coach Ken Mack challenged his backs to take over the game.

“The only thing I remember saying to the team at halftime was, ‘Well, that’s our warm up scrimmage, now we have to go play a game,’ or words to that effect,” Welsh recalled.

Mack was a little more vocal as Peach Bowl MVP, running back Howard Petty, remembered things.

“[Mack] basically said, ‘Look, if you want to win this, go win it,’” Petty said. “I used to get in the huddle and there was always a point and time that you had to execute on a certain play to win. You look around. This is the one right here, are you with me? You look right in the eyes of everyone, especially the linemen.

“[Jim] Dombrowski, you never had to look him in the eyes and ask him because you knew he was ready,” Petty said. “You knew Geno [Zimmerlink] would always make a play in a tight game. You knew Bob Olderman and Harold Garren would be ready. When we figured out we were still in this thing at halftime, it was like, ‘Look, let’s go out and do what got us here. We can do this.’”

That’s exactly what the Cavaliers did. They ran the ball to near exclusion of the forward pass, rushing 36 times to only six passes the second half. Petty  and Barry Word combined for 22 of those carries and 127 yards between them that half and wore down Purdue’s defense, plus kept Everett’s big arm on the sideline.

Virginia won the game, it’s first bowl trip ever. Players and fans were not going to let the moment pass them by. Several players lingered on the field, soaking up the moment as long as possible. In fact, a few of them missed the bus back to the hotel where they were met by thousands of Wahoo fans celebrating the bowl win and ushering in the New Year.

Welsh, predictably, avoided the noise as much as possible.

“I’m usually exhausted after a game,” the coach said. “The thing that surprised me though was that when we got back to the hotel, we couldn’t get through the lobby. I had a police escort. There were people running all over the place, up on the balconies. It was jammed, mobbed, and they were screaming.

“So the police went around to the service entrance and I went in the elevator the back way,” Welsh said. “I was afraid to go down.

“Alumni friends of mine told me there were grown men crying,” Welsh said.

Virginia football had experienced one of its greatest moments ever, enough to make grown men cry after nearly a century of frustration. Welsh had the Cavaliers off and running. The best was yet to come.

UP NEXT: George gets his football building, the state’s best recruits and more bowls and accolades in Part 4.


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