, Salem, MA

September 2, 2010

Living Legend

Welch became an Ipswich institution in his 37 years on sidelines

By Phil Stacey
Sports editor

There are numbers that diehard Ipswich High football fans can recite by heart: the 224 career victories, accumulated over a 37-year span; the eight Cape Ann League titles; and of course, the five state championship crowns.

Those facts and figures tell a big part of the story that is the legendary Jack Welch, who patrolled the Ipswich sidelines over five decades beginning the year The Beatles landed on American soil for the first time and ending 362 games later.

But the numbers that mean the most to Welch? That's easy: 52, seven, 11 and three.

Those are, respectively, the number of years he's been married to his wife, Sandy; the number of children the Welches have, and the number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren they now dote over.

"Nothing is more important than your family. I really enjoy watching my grandchildren and great-grandkids grow up and play sports and compete," said Welch. "For me, it's a little like coaching in that I want to make an impression on them and be an important part of their lives.

"I always equated a football team as being a family, too. You have the players for four years and they become very important to you — and they always are. And watching them grow up and go on to become successful adults — that was always so important to me."

Welch, who turns 78 years old a week from today, hasn't coached a high school football game in 10 years. But his passion, excitement and love of the game is as vibrant as ever.

He is the Jerry Rice of Cape Ann League football coaches — the greatest ever at what he did, without a doubt. He also holds the distinction of winning more games with one school than any other North Shore coach in more than 110 years of high school football history in the area.

He is known for many things, from his famous Delaware Wing-T offense to wearing orange socks on game days and never, ever wearing a baseball hat on the sidelines.

But perhaps more than anything, Welch is known as the coaching genius who almost always had tiny Ipswich — the smallest school in the Cape Ann League for almost every one of his 37 years coaching — near the top of the league's gridiron standings.

"Coach Welch was exceptional in the way he dealt with people," said Brett Budzinski, who as a quarterback led the Tigers to back-to-back Super Bowl championships in 1991-92. "He was very good at understanding and relating to the players and getting the most out of each and every one of them.

"I remember thinking in high school, 'I would do anything to win for Coach Welch' — and I'm sure I wasn't the only one. He was that sort of guy."

Toughness Inc.

When you stop coaching football, said Welch, it doesn't mean that you stop being a football coach. That's especially true at this time of year, with the leaves about to turn and football teams about to get going for another campaign.

"No question, I still think about it," said Welch from his Newburyport home, which many of his former players visit regularly. "Coaching's in your blood; it doesn't leave. The difference now is that I don't get wound up the way I would (as a coach), being so competitive and knowing what I wanted us to accomplish. Now I can just go to the games and watch and relax.

"What I miss the most is the preparation and trying to get that competitive edge."

If there's one word that best describes Welch — at least in an athletic sense — it is competitive. Whether he was playing or coaching, Welch was always looking for any way to beat his opponent.

As the years go on, that fire hasn't dimmed in the least. Welch still plays tennis with his regular group twice a week — and plays to win. A sore knee hasn't prevented him from hitting the courts or getting out on his bike; if it's something active and he can fit it into his schedule, Welch is game to do it.

"Even near the end of his coaching days, when he had bad hands and bad knees, he was leading the calisthenics every day. Every day," said Doug Woodworth, a tight end for Welch in the early 1970s who was later part of his coaching staff for 20 years. "To see that, how are you not going to do it if you're a teenage kid?"

A huge reason why Welch stayed in Ipswich as long as he did — and he certainly had opportunities to go elsewhere, both in high school and the college coaching ranks — was that he had what he perceived as a perfect situation, especially one that worked in perfect harmony with his killer instinct as a coach.

"I had great kids, the kind of kids that I grew up with," said Welch. "We had a lot of tough kids from big families in town; Greek kids, Polish kids. That was my bread-and-butter; tough, tough kids who never quit and were always competitive and hard working.

"I wasn't the easiest guy to play for, but they'd do everything I asked of them. You could drive the hell out of them and they never stopped working. That was my kind of kid; they were the backbone of Ipswich High football."

Wing-T'ing it

Toughness was certainly a welcome trait if you wanted to don the Tigers' colors. But you also had to be able to fill a role, be it that of a two-way superstar or a plugger who filled a valuable spot on one of the lines.

In order to do that, you had to know the offense.

The intricate Delaware Wing-T, a formation predicated on deception, misdirection, fakes and the ability of the offensive linemen to trap or pull in order to draw the defense away from the football, became as much a part of Ipswich during the Welch years as clamming. The quarterback and his backfield mates (usually a halfback, fullback and wingback) would use various run fakes to keep opponents constantly guessing who was carrying the pigskin.

What it did was allow Ipswich's smaller, yet athletic linemen the necessary time to hold their blocks against bigger defenders and open up running lanes for their teammates to scamper through.

"Our offense was perfect for those kids. We ran the hell out of the ball, then played great defense," Welch said without a hint of braggadocio. "It was simple as that. They enjoyed playing that kind of football, and I enjoyed coaching them. Those kids would go to war with you."

That's not to say Welch couldn't change if the situation dictated. When the 6-foot-4 Budzinski, a fleet-footed runner (he was a champion in the 100 meters) with a rocket arm, was running the offense as QB from 1990-92, the head coach adjusted accordingly.

"My junior year, we had guys like Jon O'Flynn and Greg Brotherton who could really catch the ball and we probably threw the ball more than any of Jack's other teams," said Budzinski, who went on to a stellar career at Princeton University. He remains Ipswich's all-time leader in passing yards (2,402) and touchdown passes (24).

"But my senior year, we ran the ball all over the place. I think I ran more that season (808 yards, an IHS record for QBs) than most Ipswich quarterbacks ever had. But both methods worked, since we won the Super Bowl both years. Coach was great at identifying the strength of his teams."

But don't underestimate the toughness factor. Schools as small as Ipswich don't win almost 63 percent of their games under any coach's watch without a healthy dose of swagger, bravado and a we're-tougher-than-you-let's-see-you-do-something-about-it attitude.

"We won games because of toughness," Welch said bluntly. "A lot of people might not like to hear it, but we were tougher than kids from other towns; that's why we won a lot of games."

Bit by the coaching bug

Jack Welch was born in 1932 in Newburyport; his family was by no means wealthy. But with a strong Irish Catholic upbringing and a family-comes-first ethos, they were taught to look at life's glass as always being half-full.

One of the great influences of Welch's young life was Rev. James J. Mooney, who taught and coached football at Immaculate Conception High School, from which Welch graduated in 1950. "He took me under his wing," said the former single wing quarterback, "and I don't know where I'd be now if not for him."

Welch had a tryout after high school with the Boston Braves and was eventually sent to their minor league team in South Carolina, his first time away from home. But when the Korean War rolled around and Uncle Sam came calling, he came home and, at his mother's insistence, went into the Navy.

Although he never went to Korea, Welch spent five years in the Naval Academy and was on the UD4 underwater demolition team — which became the Navy Seals. He also played football for the base team, the Gators, which won the Navy championship and went on to face Fort Hood, Texas, for the service championship.

At age 23 when he got out of the Navy, it was time for Welch to go to college. Holy Cross wanted him to play ball there but required he go to prep school first; Welch nixed that idea. Instead, he wound up at the University of Maine, where he played football for four years (and baseball for two), captaining the Black Bears as a running back in 1959.

Already married to Sandy and with one child when he graduated in 1960, Welch thought about getting into marine biology, but the coaching jones had bitten him hard. Harold Westerman, his coach at UMaine, had made a tremendous impact on Welch both in his philosophy of coaching football as well as the way he handled his players.

Thinking he'd be wise to start as an assistant coach, Westerman told him about a Maine graduate who got the head coaching job at Newburyport High and needed some assistants. He applied, got the job and was an assistant with his hometown Clippers for four seasons. But when the head coaching job there came up in 1964, Welch went for it — and didn't get it.

"My wife didn't want me to get the job, being a hometown kid. She knew the problems I'd be facing," Welch said, laughing now at his wife's insight 45 years ago. "She was right."

Instead, Charlie Genakakis, head of the Ipswich School Committee, asked Welch to apply for the Tigers' vacant job after Elliott Roundy, a legend in his own right, stepped down after 13 years to focus on his duties as the school's athletic director.

This time, Welch got the job.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Winning early and often

Admittedly, Welch figured he'd use the job in Ipswich as a stepping stone to something bigger and supposedly better. "I figured two years tops," he said. "I thought I wanted to coach in college."

But he soon realized he had a good thing going in this tiny, hard-working seaside town, and as his family grew, he became less inclined to move them. Starting as a science teacher at the school, he later taught physical education, then got a nice raise and the opportunity to move out of the classroom as the director of PE for grades K-12.

What's better than this situation? he would ask himself — and Welch could never come up with a suitable answer.

Almost immediately, the wins started coming. His second IHS club, in 1965, went 7-1-1; his fifth squad went a perfect 9-0-0 and captured both the CAL and Class D state championship. The following year (with an 8-1 mark) was a repeat of both crowns.

Welch's 1968-71 teams won four straight CAL titles, going a combined 34-2. Under the arcane scoring system used at the time, they lost out on the 1970 Class D title to an Amesbury team that not only had three losses, but one that was also shut out by Ipswich, 12-0.

Ipswich remained strong throughout the 1970s with only one losing season. The 1977 club was one of the school's all-time best, going 10-1 behind one of the state's all-time greatest running backs, Bernie Adell, who went on to Notre Dame. The Tigers gained a huge measure of redemption in the Division 3 Super Bowl that season, avenging their only loss by crushing league rival Newburyport, 54-13.

His assistant coaches — long time confidant Kenny Spellman, Arthur Carey, and later Steve Hopping, Glenn Foster, Woodworth and Dave Drown — were an invaluable part of the Ipswich football machine. All were loyal to Welch and almost all of them coached other varsity sports at the high school. John Thomas, the beloved team statistician and sensei of all things Ipswich athletics, was also a integral part of the scene.

The 1980s were up and down; there were some very good Tiger teams, but also some tough years — including an 0-10 mark in 1987.

But good things were on the horizon. A young Ipswich team went 4-6 in 1990, but tore through the competition the following fall to go 10-2, win the school's first CAL crown in 14 seasons and topple Dom Savio, 33-14, for Welch's second Super Bowl championship.

The highlight of that season was a thrilling 13-12 Thanksgiving Day victory over Hamilton-Wenham, a game in which the winner would win the league and advance to the playoffs. To secure the one-point win, Ipswich blocked a last-minute field goal attempt, then tackled the kicker (H-W's Mike McGowan) just short of the goal line after he picked up the blocked kick.

"Jack always had a way of challenging you to be a better person," said Woodworth. "And with all the hard nosed kids we had, he found the best way to utilize them to help the team as a whole."

One of Welch's favorite parts of coaching was after the game, when he could wind down, review what had just happened and sit back with satisfaction after a job well done. He'd often do so in a cluttered science room inside Ipswich High, ruminating about the sport he loved among the beakers and test tubes to reporters fortunate enough to learn from the great gridiron teacher.

Another Super Bowl followed in 1992, capped off by what Welch says is the game he remembers most: the wild 40-33 Division 4B Super Bowl triumph over visiting Hull on a frigid day at Doyon Stadium in Ipswich. It remains the only game in Massachusetts playoff history in which both halves began with a touchdown off the opening kickoff.

"There was snow all around the field and a huge crowd there, supposedly ready to see two great defenses," chuckled Welch. "There wasn't much defense that day; we just had a little more firepower than them."

The next year, 1993, was Welch's last CAL title (9-1); he retired seven years later following a Thanksgiving Day loss to Hamilton-Wenham.

Reflective mood

Since his retirement, Jack and Sandy have travelled the globe. They went to Switzerland on their 50th wedding anniversary two years ago, and spent three weeks in China. They've also been to Ireland twice, Italy, Australia, Portugal and France, where Welch realized a dream by visiting Normandy.

They've also spent time seeing different parts of their own country. During one such trip out West to visit the national parks, Welch found himself talking to a man at Yellowstone National Park. He asked what Welch did for a living, and after telling him the man asked him who his best player ever was.

"I figured I was out in Montana, and who's going to know the difference out here?" said Welch. "So I told him, Peter Gorniewicz (a star from 1968-70) was our best ever two-way player.

"The guy tells me, 'That's a good answer. Because that woman standing over there? That's Peter's aunt!'"

In truth, Welch always valued those special players — the Gorniewiczs, the Budzinskis, the Carl Mattarocchias, the Bubba Galanises and Jeff Vitales — tough, talented players who gave every drop of themselves to making the football program at Ipswich as strong as possible.

Five of his former players — Woodworth (Ipswich boys basketball), Foster (Ipswich boys lacrosse), Ted Flaherty (Ipswich football), Rollie Hinckley (Georgetown football) and Roger Day (Danvers baseball) — went on to coach state championship teams of their own.

Last Thanksgiving, the football field at Ipswich High School was officially christened Jack Welch Stadium. And earlier this year, it was announced that Welch would be inducted into Ipswich High's inaugural Athletic Hall of Fame class this November.

"I've been very, very blessed in my life," said Welch. "I have a great family, had a great career and great kids who played for me. I wouldn't change a thing."

JACK WELCH — by the numbers

37 — Seasons as Ipswich High head coach

224 — Wins at Ipswich, most by a North Shore coach at one school in history

5 — State championships (1968 and '69 Class D champs; 1977 Division 3 Super Bowl winners; 1991 and '92 Division 4B Super Bowl titlists)