Most of the games we’ve examined on this list so far have been pleasant memories. This one is not.
1980: Houston 35, Navy 0
Considering the history of football at the University of Virginia, it’s easy to see why they wanted to hire George Welsh.
Former Virginia coach Art Guepe once famously noted, “There is no way you can be Harvard Monday through Friday and try to be Alabama on Saturday.” He made that comment after coaching at Vanderbilt, but he just as easily could have said it about his time in Charlottesville. Guepe, who coached the Cavaliers from 1946-1952, was the most successful coach in Virginia history prior to Welsh. His record of 47-17-2 gives him the highest winning percentage of any UVa coach that lasted more than two years at the school. Guepe’s 1951 team went 8-1 and finished in the top 25 for the first time in school history.
Just as Virginia was peaking, though, college athletics found itself mired in scandal. Several instances of wrongdoing involving football made national headlines in 1951, the most famous being the West Point cheating scandal that saw 90 cadets dismissed from the academy. Closer to home, William and Mary was found to be giving passing grades to football players for classes they never took. To Virginia president Colgate Darden, offenses like these were part and parcel of “big-time” football, and he didn’t want his school to be involved. Virginia was offered a spot in the Orange Bowl that year, but since he saw bowl games as a symbol of the very thing he wanted to avoid, Darden turned it down.
Escalating coach salaries were another step in the wrong direction to Darden. When Vanderbilt attempted to lure Guepe away from Virginia, Darden didn’t put up much of a fight:
While I regretted to see Mr. Guepe go, I do not think he could have refused the offer made him at Vanderbilt, nor do I think we could have equaled it without giving to football here an emphasis, in comparison with other activities, which would have been injurious in the long run.
According to historian John S. Watterson, Darden viewed football “as a necessary evil and used it to schmooze with politicians such as Senator A. Willis Robertson or fellow university presidents who sat with him at football games.” He didn’t favor a “de-escalation” of football necessarily, but he preferred to maintain the status quo rather than contributing to the sport’s increased prominence at colleges nationwide.
Part of that status quo in Darden’s opinion meant that Virginia, as a state university, should focus its recruiting to within the state. It wasn’t an uncommon idea at the time, but in Virginia’s case it was particularly limiting. Virginia required applicants to have taken courses in foreign languages in order to gain admission, and all students were required to take calculus in their first year. For private schools such as Duke and those in the Ivy League, such requirements weren’t as difficult to overcome; without in-state recruiting mandates, there was still a large enough pool of athletes from which to draw players. That wasn’t true of Virginia, where much of the in-state talent pool came from rural areas and small towns that didn’t offer such courses in their schools. Virginia wasn’t able to find enough players to be competitive, and the problem was exacerbated when they joined the Atlantic Coast Conference in 1953. Even as attitudes about football changed, it was still a difficult stigma to overcome. In the 29 years between Guepe’s departure and George Welsh’s hiring, Virginia managed only two winning seasons. They lost 28 games in a row between 1958 and 1960.
For Welsh, operating with a limited recruiting pool was nothing new. That was just a fact of life at the Naval Academy, especially coming out of the Vietnam era. After a few years, Welsh learned how to make the most out of the talent that he had. His solution was simply to put the 22 best athletes he had out onto the field. It didn’t matter what position they were recruited for; if a player was one of the best 22, he was going to play. Sometimes this meant that Navy would have defensive tackles that weighed 220 lbs., and sometimes it meant that guys would switch positions every year based on who was coming up in the program. It wasn’t always pretty, but it worked, especially on defense.
There might not be a better example of Welsh’s methods than Navy’s 1980 season. Steve Callahan, the running back from the famed 1978 team, switched to wide receiver to make room for Eddie Meyers. There were lingering problems from spring practice, where a rash of injuries sidelined several players. Some, including nose guard Terry Huxel, receiver Dave Dent, and tackle Rick Welch, required surgery and still hadn’t healed by the start of the season. Linebacker Mike Krozner, the team’s leading tackler in 1979, was sidelined in fall camp with a sprained ankle. The defense faced another retooling job, especially in the secondary. The situation was made more complicated by the fact that the team’s most experienced defensive back had just switched to quarterback.
That player was Fred Reitzel, a two-year starter who led the team with five interceptions in 1978. Reitzel was the #3 quarterback when Welsh, out of need, switched him over to defense. After the graduation of Bob Powers, Navy entered the 1980 season very little returning experience under center; vying for the starting role were two sophomores, Tom Tarquinio and Jeff Korn, as well as strong-armed freshman Tony Colao. The youth at quarterback led Reitzel to ask Welsh for another shot at his old position before spring practice. Welsh entered the fall having “no idea who our quarterback will be,” but by the end of camp, the senior Reitzel had won the job.
Reitzel got off to a rough start, going 0-4 passing in a 6-3 season-opening loss to Virginia. He would improve, though, and the defense remained stout all season. They forced six turnovers the following week against Kent State, and limited William & Mary to 174 yards. Boston College was forced to punt 12 times– a school record– and only ran two plays in Navy territory in a 21-0 shutout. Later in the season, the Mids stifled Joe Morris and Syracuse, 6-3. Against Georgia Tech, the defense kept the Yellow Jackets from crossing midfield until 5 minutes left in the game. Army was held to only 144 total yards against the Mids as Navy rolled, 33-6. The crown jewel of the season was a 24-10 win over nationally-ranked Washington, who would go on to win the Pac-10 and face Michigan in the Rose Bowl. When the dust had settled, the makeshift Navy team had earned an 8-3 record and a berth in the Garden State Bowl, led by the country’s #6 defense that gave up only 10.1 points per game.
Navy’s opponent in the bowl game was the University of Houston, a Southwest Conference powerhouse. The Cougars joined the conference in 1976 and immediately took charge, playing in the Cotton Bowl in three out of their first four years in the league. It was expected that 1980 would be more of the same, but injuries plagued the Cougars all season.
Houston’s split-back veer offense sputtered with “musical chairs” at quarterback, as head coach Bill Yeoman called it, and came into the bowl game with a 6-5 record. However, by the time they took the field in the Garden State Bowl, they were mostly healthy. The offense was buoyed by the return of two key players: quarterback Terry Elston, lost earlier in the year with a wrist injury, and running back Terald Clark, who ran for 1,063 yards as a junior the year before. Combined with consensus All-American and future first-round draft pick Leonard Mitchell anchoring the defensive line, Houston came into the Navy game looking like the team they were supposed to be all year.
They played like it too. Houston thrashed the Mids, 35-0. The Navy defense, which had surrendered only 223 yards per game, gave up 450 to the Cougars, 405 coming on the ground. Clark was named the game’s MVP after running for 163 yards and three touchdowns.
For Navy, it was a case of everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. The problems started before the game, as All-American tackle Frank McCallister was ruled ineligible to play. McCallister had played a season at North Carolina before transferring to Navy. He spent a year on Navy’s JV team before finishing his last three years on the varsity. Under the rules of the Eastern College Athletic Conference, which governed Navy’s regular season games, McCallister was still eligible. The ECAC allowed transfers to service academies an extra year of eligibility provided that the first post-transfer year was played at a level below varsity. Bowl games were played under the rules of the NCAA, however, and they made no such exception.
Things didn’t get any better after kickoff. Eddie Meyers fumbled on Navy’s first play from scrimmage, and Houston had a 7-0 lead eight plays later. Navy’s second drive ended with a blocked punt, and it was soon 14-0. Somehow, Navy’s third drive was even worse. Meyers, who came into the game needing only 43 rushing yards to break 1,000, was injured on his third carry and lost for the game. On Navy’s next drive, Meyers’ backup, Mike Sherlock, was also injured. With his best offensive lineman and two best running backs out, Welsh replaced Reitzel with Tom Tarquinio, who was considered the better passer. It didn’t matter. Without a running game to account for, Marshall and the rest of the Houston defense had a field day, and Navy was held to only 7 of 25 passing for 65 yards and an interception. David Barrett’s 14-yard run made it a 20-0 Houston lead at 7:51 in the second quarter, and after the Mids fumbled the ensuing kickoff, it was 28-0 one play later.
The loss was a crushing blow to a Navy team that, according to Welsh, “overcame more to get where they ended up than any team I’ve ever had.” It was even worse than that, though. The Garden State Bowl was a turning point in the history of the Navy program.
One of the storylines being pushed before the game was that it was a chance at redemption for Navy. This was the Mids’ second trip to East Rutherford that season, the first being a 33-0 loss to Notre Dame. In the postgame press conference, reporters asked Welsh about his misfortune at the Meadowlands and when he’d be bringing his team back, to which he answered, “Never, never.” After one reporter reminded him that Navy and Notre Dame were scheduled to play there in 1982, Welsh replied, “The team will be here, but I won’t.” Welsh was probably kidding around when he said that, but the words were prophetic nevertheless.
When Welsh decided to leave the Naval Academy at the end of the 1981 season, it was a disappointment, but not necessarily a surprise. Navy Athletic Director Bo Coppedge said at the time:
George took Navy football from the bottom to the top and everyone had great admiration for him. He got offers to leave every year, and, although we took them seriously, we were always hopeful he would stay. We didn’t want to face reality he might leave one day.
Indeed, Welsh was probably always destined to leave. Navy’s fan support had eroded during the Vietnam years to the point that the Mids were forced to play a majority of their games on the road, a fact that always bothered Welsh. The lack of alumni excitement over football also meant that Navy didn’t have the deep pockets to pay Welsh what other schools might have been able to. Welsh alluded to this after the breakthrough season in 1978:
This is not the usual university. We created some excitement this year. The Army game last year woke up a lot of people and this year the game was more important for the Brigade than it has been for a couple of years. But we don’t have the alumni around here that get things stirred up at other schools.
It would be unfair to say that Welsh always had one foot out the door, but he was always willing to entertain legitimate offers. Wisconsin, Florida, Colorado, and West Virginia were all reported to have made inquiries regarding his services. But if that was the case, then why would he choose Virginia, a school with a history that mirrored so much of what frustrated him at the Naval Academy?
According to Welsh, the timing was right:
It was mostly a personal decision. It was something I wanted to do. I wanted another coaching job. From the time I was 18 when I went to the Naval Academy as a student, I spent four years, then two years as an officer, and nine as a head coach. That was a total of 15 years, or over half of my adult life spent at the academy.
I had talked with other schools in the past, but I had been happy where I was. But when the opportunity here arose, I liked what I saw and I liked the idea that all the schools I’ve coached at have had a strong academic tradition.
He certainly said all the right things, but it only tells half the story. Welsh knew that the time was right to leave Navy in large part because of his experience at the Garden State Bowl.
Navy’s entourage for the game included the usual crowd of players, coaches, and support staff, but it also included one more group: six professors made the trip as well. The game was one of the earliest of the bowl season, played on December 14. That date was right in the middle of the Naval Academy’s final exam schedule. Navy players had a choice: they could either have their finals administered to them by the professors at the team hotel the week of the game, or they could take them when they returned to Annapolis. For the players, it was a lose-lose situation. If they took their exams the week of the game, they would miss out on bowl activities and practice time. If they chose to focus on the game and take their finals afterwards, the time away from class could leave them unprepared, and they would lose part of Christmas leave. Mids would be miserable either way. Meanwhile, Welsh could see Houston’s players spending their week having fun around town and getting more practice time without distractions.
It was an eye-opener for Welsh. Navy’s academic and military requirements were nothing new, but times were changing, and it was more difficult for Navy to be competitive than when Welsh played for the school. Coppedge had worked to lighten Navy’s schedule load a little bit to help them be more competitive, replacing juggernauts like Penn State and Michigan with more manageable opponents like Connecticut, Rutgers, and The Citadel. However, as Navy’s fortunes improved, more and more of those difficult games were returning to Navy’s future schedules. When Welsh looked at who Navy would be playing in the years following the Garden State Bowl, he saw games against Washington, Michigan, Arkansas, Mississippi State, and South Carolina alongside Navy’s traditional games against Notre Dame, Pitt, and Syracuse. Welsh saw the writing on the wall; he was going to be on the wrong end of a lot of games like the Houston game if he stayed at a school where fewer accommodations would be made for his team compared to his opposition.
Years later, Welsh was a bit more frank about what he thought of his Garden State Bowl experience:
I’m in complete agreement about not playing in a game that conflicts with exams. We had the same situation once when I was at Navy where we decided to play in the Garden State Bowl, and it was a terrible distraction. It just didn’t work out, and it was a complete embarrassment for the program.
Given their history, it might not have seemed like Virginia would be much of an improvement over Navy’s situation. However, Welsh was optimistic that the school would make changes to help his program:
I’m not foolish. I know if there weren’t some problems at Virginia, I wouldn’t be here. But if you accept limitations without trying to change them, you don’t belong in coaching.
He had reason to believe that the school was more dedicated to a winning football program based on his salary alone. Welsh reportedly made $52,500 per year at Navy, and while terms of his new contract were not disclosed, a Virginia spokesman did say that he doubted Welsh would “take anything less than a pay raise” to come to the school. It was a far cry from the days when Virginia lost Art Guepe to Vanderbilt.
Welsh lasted one more year at Navy, leading the Mids to the Liberty Bowl after another winning season. He met with the team two weeks before the game to tell them that he was moving on, but the seeds for that decision were planted almost exactly one year earlier. It took 20 years for the program to recover.