CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- Seemingly minor events can have a profound effect in shaping a young person's future. In the case of George Welsh, a Navy lieutenant trying to decide between the life of an officer or a gentleman, it was a flooded cabin.
It happened nearly 30 years ago, shortly after Welsh had finished a one-season coaching stint at the Naval Academy, where he had played. He was at sea and not very excited about being there. The waterlogged cabin made his decision easy.
"I found I wasn't very good on boats," Welsh recalled recently.
As things turned out, Welsh became pretty good at coaching football. He resigned his commission to take an assistant's job at Penn State, where he worked for Rip Engle and Joe Paterno, then spent nine mostly successful seasons as head coach at his alma mater. He came to Virginia in 1982.
It is no coincidence that the two football programs at which Welsh has spent the past 18 years have gone in dramatically different directions since Welsh left Annapolis. The Cavaliers, who had one winning season between 1969 and 1981, have won 33 games the past four years. The Midshipmen, who went to bowl games three of the last four years under Welsh, haven't had a winning record since the year after he left.
"I haven't paid much attention to that situation," said Welsh, whose Cavaliers (0-1) will play Navy (0-1) Saturday night at Scott Stadium. "They don't have the kind of athletes that they used to. They still have some very good ones, but not as many."
What hasn't changed is Welsh himself. Welsh's friends and coaching colleagues say that he barely has changed since his days as a player at Navy. At 58, he remains the straight-talking, tight-lipped and somewhat hard-headed guy he was when he came out of Coaldale, Pa., 40 years ago.
"What you saw from George is what you got," said former Navy and Temple coach Wayne Hardin. "George is George."
"He's one of a kind," said ACC commissioner Gene Corrigan, who, as athletic director at Notre Dame, considered hiring Welsh in the mid-1980s.
Hardin can remember coming to Navy in 1955 as a defensive backfield coach before Welsh's senior year. Welsh spent some time at cornerback but was primarily the team's quarterback. As a senior, he would lead the country in passing and in total offense, finishing third in the Heisman Trophy balloting.
"If you lined up 200 guys to pick a team, he'd be the 200th chosen," said Hardin. "Not very physical. But he was the best third-and-distance quarterback I'd ever seen. He'd throw quackers in practices, but once game day came, he was on the money."
What Hardin also remembers about Welsh were the huddles. It was there that the future coach would get his teammates' attention with an icy stare or a few well-chosen jabs. "He was a man of few words, but he commanded complete control," said Hardin. "When he did say something, it was usually 'Shut up.' He was a good leader."
Welsh's personality has softened a bit over the years, but not much. The image Welsh portrays on the practice field, or on the sideline, does not contrast much with what is left for public consumption. When told that he appears to be a disciplinarian, 24 hours a day, Welsh wavers.
"I try to be on the field," he said last month between two-a-day workouts. "I'm not sure I am off the field. I'm not sure what a disciplinarian means, but all coaches have to be to a certain point. But I think my players can come and talk to me."
Said quarterback Matt Blundin: "He's not a very talkative guy. When he does say something remotely funny, it's hilarious. But we really respect what he says."
Whatever Welsh has done at Virginia has worked, though the first five years were a bit of a roller coaster. He took a program that cared little about winning football games and turned it into one of the more consistent teams in the ACC. He was able to keep the in-state talent at home, most notably former quarterback Shawn Moore and current tailback Terry Kirby.
Not that the Cavaliers haven't had their share of disappointments. Take last season -- or, at least, the last five games, four of which ended in defeat. After starting out 7-0, and rising to No. 1, Virginia watched its improbable dream of a national championship shattered.
A last-second defeat at home to Georgia Tech was followed two weeks later by a collapse against Maryland. Moore went down with a dislocated thumb, and the Cavaliers were humbled by state rival Virginia Tech, 38-13. Virginia, which fell out of the top 25, finished the season with a heartbreaking 23-22 loss to Tennessee in the Sugar Bowl.
"We still played pretty good on offense, but the defense stopped making plays," Welsh said of last year's collapse. "It was tough to put your finger on. I think part of the problem was that we won our first seven games pretty easily, and then we were in some tough games. We were in every game in the fourth quarter, but we lost them all."