UVA’s Welsh Also Coached Penn State Legends

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Former Penn State and Pittsburgh Steelers running back Franco Harris (Photo: steelers.com).

I was sitting in Joe Paterno’s office at Penn State one early August day in 1988, talking to the legendary coach about the upcoming game against his good friend and former assistant, George Welsh.

Paterno was a terrific interview as we covered topics from the two-game series between Penn State and Virginia, his Nittany Lions team, and college football in general. My favorite part of the interview, though, was probing into the history of Paterno and Welsh.

For 10 years, 1963-73, Welsh was an assistant coach at Penn State, first under Rip Engle, then Paterno. When Engle retired, Paterno was selected from among the coaching staff to take over the job, then went on to a storied career and eventually surpassed Alabama’s Bear Bryant for the most career coaching wins in major college football.

Welsh’s time at Penn State strongly influenced his own career as he went on to become both Navy’s and Virginia’s all-time winningest coach.

When Welsh took over UVA’s program in 1982, he knew exactly what style of football he wanted to play, how he wanted his teams to look, and much of it was patterned for what he learned from Paterno.

Welsh called it “Virginia Football,” but it was a style that had made him a believer while at Happy Valley.

“That’s what I learned [at Penn State],” Welsh told me one evening when we were sipping some very old Scotch at his cabin at an ACC Football Kickoff event in Pinehurst, N.C. “We didn’t have a lot of great wideouts at Penn State, but we had a big offensive line and we had a lot of great running backs. That’s how I learned it.”

Going back to that day at State College, Paterno told me that Welsh was the best evaluator of talent that he had ever come across, that Welsh could observe a high school player and immediately judge whether the kid had big-time potential and at what position.

That’s one of two things that still stand out to me about that 90-minute visit with JoePa. The other was that as I was leaving, he told me I needed to lose weight, which I did.

I was surprised to open my email today and spotted a note from Jay Paterno, Joe’s son, who played quarterback at Penn State, and then coached the Lions for 17 seasons, the last dozen of which as the quarterback coach and passing game coordinator, during some fabulous winning seasons.

I had met Jay at UVA, where he was a graduate assistant on Welsh’s staff from 1990-92.

Jay was thrilled that Virginia is honoring Welsh on Saturday in a Celebration of Life at John Paul Jones Arena (10 a.m., gates open at 9:15, attendance and parking are free to the public).

Among those who will speak are legendary Penn State running backs Franco Harris, Lydell Mitchell, and Charlie Pittman. They will represent the Welsh years with the Lions. Navy, and of course Virginia, will also have former players/coaches remark on Welsh’s eras at those schools.

Jay Paterno offered this background for UVA fans that perhaps didn’t know about Welsh’s impact on Penn State’s program decades ago.

“At one time, [Welsh] was coaching Charlie Pittman, Franco Harris and Lydell Mitchell at the same time. Pittman was an All-American, Lydell Mitchell was an All-American and College Football Hall of Famer, and Franco Harris went on to the Pro Football Hall of Fame,” Jay wrote.

“On top of that, Welsh recruited both Mitchell and Harris and found another guy named Jack Ham, who was a complete unknown until George advocated for him to get the last scholarship in that recruiting class. In one year, Welsh recruited not one, but two Pro Football Hall of Famers who combined to win eight Super Bowls.”

Jay Paterno went on to write, “The guy was really just an amazing coach and Joe Paterno often said (reiterating what he told this writer that day in his office) ‘George Welsh was one of the best evaluators of talent that I have ever been around.’”

Welsh also once told this writer that his 1990 offense at Virginia was one of the two best he ever saw, along with the one at Penn State, which featured those star running backs. When I asked him which one was best, he gave the nudge to Virginia’s because it was a more versatile offense and had great receivers, which the Lions were missing.

Harris, Mitchell, and Pittman will speak Saturday on what impact Welsh had on their playing careers.

Representing Navy will be former standout placekicker Bob Tata, Jr., who later was a grad assistant at UVA under Welsh, and long-time Cavalier assistant coach Tom O’Brien, who came from Navy to UVA with Welsh.

A players panel moderated by former Wahoo cornerback star Ronde Barber, who had a stellar career with the Tampa Bay Bucs, will be comprised of Shawn Moore, Anthony Poindexter, Chris Slade, Sean Scott and Nick Merrick.

UVA football coach Bronco Mendenhall and former Georgia Tech coach Bill Curry, Sr., who also coached at Alabama, Kentucky, and Georgia State, and played for Vince Lombardi and Don Shula during a 10-year NFL stint, will also present remarks about Welsh.

Also, two of Welsh’s four children, Kate and Adam, will share thoughts about their Hall of Fame dad, who passed unexpectedly on Jan. 2.

Noted author and Washington Post sports columnist John Feinstein, who wrote about Welsh during his career, will serve as master of ceremonies.

Also, tune into 102.9 FM, ESPN Charlottesville, for a special “Tribute to George Welsh,” on “The Jerry Ratcliffe Show,” from 9-10 a.m. (the show will be available via podcast later in the day at JerryRatcliffe.com). Longtime Welsh aide at UVA, football administrator Gerry Capone, will join me along with Curry, Matt Blundin (1991 ACC Player of the Year), and All-American offensive lineman Ray Roberts, in the salute.

Trust me, if you’re a Wahoo, then you don’t want to miss this show, either live or via the podcast.


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