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High school coaching legend Welsh, 79, dies in Augusta

Photo by John Millikan

Photo by John Millikan

AUGUSTA -- Luther Welsh, a Georgia high school football coaching legend and former coach at Albany High School and Dougherty High School, died Thursday morning in Augusta after losing his battle with ventricular tachycardia. He was 79.

Welsh coached football for 55 years, most recently at Thomson High School, where he won three state titles in 19 years. He retired after the 2010 season.

Welsh coached at Albany High and Dougherty for 15 years and left Albany almost two decades ago. Welsh won 333 games during his career and three state championships.

Widely regarded as one of the greatest high school football coaches to ever walk the sidelines in the Peach State, Welsh will be remembered in Thomson, where they declared Feb. 5 "Luther Welsh Day" during a retirement celebration earlier this year.

He also will be remembered in Southwest Georgia and across Georgia, where he made several stops in a career that spanned five decades. He never missed a game during his bout with lymphoma in 2000, and went on to coach a decade afterward.

"He was a great guy,'' Johnny Seabrooks -- the Dougherty County Director of Athletics who was the football coach at Monroe when Welsh was at Dougherty -- said Thursday after hearing the news of Welsh's passing. "No doubt about it. He was a Hall of Fame coach.''

It was impossible to forget the image of Welsh.

"He was a small man in stature, but a big man,'' Seabrooks added. "When you watched him walking the sidelines, you wouldn't find a coach who was more intense. He got his teams ready. He was a hard-core coach, an old-school coach who taught discipline and fundamentals, a man who believed in doing it the right way every day.''

Simply put, he was a legend.

"As a young coach coming up in the system, we all heard and knew about Luther Welsh,'' said Westover principal William Chunn, who coached for years at Monroe. "I never coached against him, but we all knew of him and how he built the program at Dougherty and then went to Thomson and built the program there. Everything I ever heard about him was positive -- as a coach and as an individual and a fine gentleman.

"He was a legend. Everybody in Southwest Georgia who has anything to do with football knows about Luther Welsh.''

Bruce Bowles, a life-long friend, lived two doors down from Welsh in Radium Springs.

"I knew him my whole life. I knew him as a friend, and I also coached against him when I was an assistant football coach at Westover for 11 years,'' said Bowles, who is now the assistant principal at Radium Springs Elementary. "He was a great guy and a great coach. He was a throwback, one of the toughest coaches I've ever been around. He had a system, and he won wherever he went. He got the most out of his kids. And his players looked up to him. I was at his retirement party in February, and a lot of his former players were there. They really respected him. He was really a great guy.''

Welsh sadly died a week after his wife, Anne, lost her battle with cancer. Anne's funeral was Monday. They were married 58 years and are survived by two daughters, Lucia and Andrea. Anne was always by his side, missing only a dozen games of the 520 her husband coached. His career coaching record was 333-181-6.

Long before Welsh ever walked the sidelines at Albany High, or Dougherty, or Crisp County, or Warner Robins, or Camden County, or Greensboro, or Sylvania or Thomson -- all coaching stops along the way -- he grew up as a "simple country boy," as he described himself to The Herald in an interview in February, in a small town in South Carolina called Mayesville -- population, these days, of just around 2,000.

He was a star athlete at Maywood High School in baseball and football, so much so he earned scholarships to play both sports at Presbyterian College after graduating from Maywood in 1948. Once he arrived at Presbyterian, Welsh said he knew right away what career path he wanted to take.

He took his first coaching job in 1955.

"I was gonna get my degree in health and physical education and then serve my country in the U.S. Army," Welsh told The Herald in February. "When I graduated, the Korean War was going on, and I was ready to go. I got the call to go serve, and they sent me to Anchorage, Alaska -- and I enjoyed my time there, it was better than most think -- as I waited to go over.

"They called a truce to the war (in 1953) and I never went; ended up serving just a year. Then I came home to South Carolina (to Anne) and my family and tried to figure out what was next."

Welsh's first job was at Warrenton High School in South Carolina as administrators from Presbyterian recruited him to take over the vacant head coaching job.

In 1965, a job came open in Cordele at Crisp County High, and Welsh took it. He never returned to South Carolina and became a staple of Georgia high school football.

Welsh coached the Cougars for one year before becoming an assistant under coaching legend Harold Dean Cook at Albany High. Three years later, he became the second head coach in Dougherty's history, taking over for John Duke, who helped start the program in 1963.

He immediately made an impression on another coaching legend, Ferrell Henry, whose career included a stop in Albany.

"(In 1971), I was the coach at Albany when Dougherty beat us for the very first time (21-14). And I give all the credit to Luther Welsh and his kids. He was as innovative as any coach you'll ever meet -- especially for the time," Henry recalled during an interview with The Herald back in February -- one day before Welsh's retirement ceremony in Thomson. "He didn't always have the best players, but he taught toughness. He taught quickness. He taught discipline. And that's why he's won everywhere he's ever been. I can remember the slant defense he got from watching (college coaching legend) Bear Bryant. He taught his kids that defense, and it just gave teams fits. He'd line these skinny little kids up on the line of scrimmage against another teams' big offensive linemen -- the biggest kid (for him) probably weighed 135 pounds -- and when the ball was snapped, they'd just start looping in all kinds of directions, left and right, and you just couldn't stop it."

Welsh sent several Dougherty players such as Lionel James, Eddie Johnson and Mike Reid on to major college programs and eventually the NFL.

Dougherty's best season under Welsh was 1976 when the Trojans went 10-2, won the city title and reached the quarterfinals of the state playoffs before losing a heartbreaker to Wayne County, 7-6. They went 8-2 the next season, but that was Welsh's last winning campaign in his final five seasons in Albany.

After the 1982 season, Welsh -- who was starting to earn a reputation for being the kind of coach that could come in and turn a program around -- got an offer in 1983 to be an assistant at a bigger classification program at Warner Robins. He stayed at Warner Robins one year and then took the head coaching job at Thomson, where he led his team to the state title the first season he was there.

He won the state title the next season but left Thomson after the 1991 season to take over the program at Camden County. He left Camden in 1994 to coach Greensboro, and then moved on and coached at Sylvania from 1995 through 1998. He returned to Thomson in 1999 for his second stint with the Bulldogs, who won their third state title under Welsh in 2002 -- two years after Welsh won his battle with large-cell lymphoma.

Everyone respected Welsh. He was larger than life.

"I believe he might have some players in their 60s and players in their 20s or whatever. I believe all of them respect him and have high regard for him,'' Alton Bentley -- who was an assistant coach with Welsh for nine seasons from 1997 through 1996 -- told The Herald on Thursday. "He was fair and consistent with everybody, coaches, players, everyone. He was always fair. He treated everyone the same. He was hard on his players but they respected him. His players wanted to play for him, and they wanted to excel for him.''

Welsh didn't play games.

"Whatever that man said, you could depend on it,'' Bentley said. "He was always straight forward. Never any doubt. He was a great guy.''