CHARLOTTESVILLE — On the day before he passed away on Jan. 2, former Virginia football coach George Welsh spent his day watching bowl games with his daughter, Kate.
“I kind of knew a lot about football already; I had picked it up by osmosis from all the 47 years he coached,” Kate Welsh said Saturday at a ceremony honoring her dad. “He really was coaching still. He’d say, ‘I don’t understand football any more. They don’t run the ball any more. They don’t block. It’s like touch football.’
“He did pass away the next day suddenly from catastrophic stroke and was gone that evening. It was nothing that could have been avoided. It was just his time.”
Welsh had a cantankerous side but, for some, that’s what they remembered most vividly. And fondly.
There was no shortage of Welsh stories told by a dozen or more non-family members, the last of whom was former coaching adversary Bill Curry from Georgia Tech.
“As we gathered on the field for the obligatory handshake, he shocked me when he walked up and said, ‘You have a freshman daughter here at the University of Virginia,’” Curry related. “I said, ‘Yes, Kristin Curry, we’re very proud of her.’ He said, ‘Tell Kristin to give us a call. She’ll be welcome to come by our house and wash her clothes.’
“I was wondering, ‘Is he trying to soften me up? First of all, Kristin’s not going to call anybody. She doesn’t call home. She’s not going to call your house. I called her later and [learned] she would go to the Welsh’s home, get away from the hustle and bustle and sit quietly. And yes, [wife] Sandra [Welsh] helped her with her clothes. We never, ever forgot that.”
Curry subsequently was named coach at Alabama and had a talk with his son about joining the Crimson Tide program.
“A voice came from the other room,” Bill Curry said Saturday, “and his mother, Carolyn, who is here today, said, ‘Not a chance. If the University of Virginia will have you, that’s where you’re going.’ I said, ‘I’ll call George Welsh,’ and the conversation lasted 30 seconds.’
“He said, ‘Are we talking about Billy? What’s his SAT? Send him up on a visit and we’ll take a look. Those were five of the best years of his life. One thing I learned about my son was he had never hiked a ball. I was a long-snapper for many years and not a very good one.
‘Billy snapped the ball for Virginia in 47 straight games for some of the best teams in the country.”
There were speakers from all generations and directions at John Paul Jones Arena for Saturday’s tribute. They included star players like Pro Football Hall of Famer Franco Harris and teammates that he had recruited for — and coached at — Penn State. There were former Navy players like placekicker Bob Tata, later a Virginia Beach politician, and ex-FBS head coaches like Tom O’Brien.
Ronde Barber, an All-America defensive back at Virginia from 1995-96, served as a moderator for a group of former Cavaliers stalwarts that included Shawn Moore, Anthony Poindexter and Chris Slade, among others.
“I remember when George showed up at our school,” said Barber, who was a star player at Cave Spring in Roanoke County, along with his twin brother, Tiki. “I remember walking through the building and hearing over the intercom, ‘Would Tiki and Ronde Barber please report to the principal’s office!’
“And, I will never forget it. It was an indelible moment for me. It was the reason I came to school here because he was the first football coach to show up at my high school.”
There was no questioning that Saturday’s ceremony had a bonding effect on what appeared to be generations of former UVa players.
Quietly taking a seat prior to sports journalist John Feinstein’s opening remark was Kent Merritt, a running back from the now-closed Lane High School in Charlottesville, who was among a group of four players in 1971 who were the first African-Americans to play football for the Cavaliers.
Two seats to his right was another of the four pioneers — Stanley Land, a graduate of the old Rockbridge High School in Fairfield. In front of them was Jerton Evans, a former Virginia defensive back from Jefferson Forest who made the 700-mile round trip from Harrogate, Tennessee, with one of his daughters.
“I came back to honor George,” Evans said. “It goes back to when I was being recruited. I talked to other recruiters who tried to boost my ego, but, when I sat down with Coach Welsh, it was a totally different conversation. He said, ‘I don’t offer four-year scholarships; I offer 40-year scholarships.’ He said that as straight-faced as he possibly could.”
Danny Wilmer, an assistant who recruited the Barber twins and such other UVa stalwarts as Moore and Poindexter, was there. Barry Word, the 1984 ACC player was making the rounds. Roanoke lawyer Chris Kite, who played sparingly in the 1980s, made the trip. Martinsville-bred punter Lester Coleman, a fifth-year senior this past season, was in the house. So was former tight end Walt Derey.
Never had Welsh been such a people person.