Thomson High football supporters are in eager anticipation of the upcoming season. There is nothing profound about that statement; the fans are always eager. This anticipation is different though. Coach Luther Welsh is only two victories away from his 300th career win. He will join a list of only seven others in Georgia history and 73 nationwide with that distinction.
Bulldog fans have seen victories galore over the years, but Coach Welsh heading toward 300 is truly history unfolding before their very eyes. It is even a greater feat if you consider the stature of high school football in our state. This accomplishment would be awesome in any league, but Georgia is easily in the top five nationally when it comes to competitiveness and the emphasis placed on the sport. One is only as good as the league he is in, and Georgia high school football is the big leagues.
Coach Welsh and the McDuffie County football community can also claim another unique distinction. He has served, and the fans have faithfully supported, two separate tours of duty with great success. This is not totally unheard of, but not very common either.
When Coach Welsh left for Camden County in 1991, I arrived in town to serve on the staff of his replacement, Jay Hodgin. It didn't take very long to see what big shoes we were filling. I'm not talking about the technical football aspect of the job. We kept virtually the same system and terminology that Coach Welsh used, and our practice routine was similar. I'm speaking of the shear reverence and esteem in which the team, their parents, the boosters, everybody, held Coach Welsh.
The 1991 team was a senior-laden squad that had come to expect Coach Welsh to will them through tough games and practices. His persona had obviously been his greatest asset, and suddenly he was gone. To say the least, 1991 was a tough season. Our record was 8-4, and we finished in second place in the region. We lost to Peach County 19-0 in the first round of the state playoffs. As coaches, we were not happy with those results, and the players and fans were devastated.
During the 1991 season and to this day, one question has stayed in my mind. Why did this school system and community ever let Coach Welsh leave? I mean, they kept his name on the tips of their tongues for the seven years that he was here, and the eight that he was gone.
As I understand it, Camden County literally made Coach Welsh an offer that he could not refuse. Besides better pay, it was a growing system, a bigger school and had better facilities. What did McDuffie County offer him to at least encourage him to stay? Did the community push the administration and board to see to it that he would remain a Bulldog? Did somebody perhaps take Coach Welsh-type results for granted?
I can't answer those questions because I was not here then. When I got here, it became obvious that Coach Welsh had been the perfect fit for Thomson. Besides winning games, his style had endeared him to everybody, especially the football players.
As the years since then have passed, the facts bear out that Coach Welsh is indeed the perfect fit for Thomson, and Thomson for him. Thomson's success, and his, has been unprecedented when the two have been joined.
Except for those coaches and players, in the minds of most, the 1991 and 1992 seasons are as if they never occurred. Even the seniors on those teams will quickly tell you that playing for Coach Welsh as underclassmen lingers in their memories the most.
The next set of years - 1993-1998 - are not forgotten, but for the wrong reason. The record in 1991 and 1992 was 18-6, but from 1993-1998, the record under Butch Jacobs was 38-29. All of this was far below the standards set by Luther Welsh and expected by the Bulldog faithful.
Further evidence that Coach Welsh and Thomson go together like hand and glove is an examination of his record. His Thomson record is 148-30-1, three state championships and 10 region championships in 14 years. That leaves his record elsewhere as 150-131-4 and no state championships. It should be mentioned that during all of his Thomson years he has enjoyed the services of a very good right hand man, defensive coordinator John Barnett.
Coach Welsh was invited to return to Thomson in 1999. After eight long years this community was, in essence, granted a mulligan. When he agreed to return, that in and of itself reinforces to me that this is where he should have been all along. Many schools prefer not to bring someone back when it might be perceived that he once left for greener pastures.
It proves that Coach Welsh burned no bridges upon his departure. His willingness to return and pick right up with his winning ways let many feel like he had never gone away. For folks who care about THS football, that has been a real blessing.
My earlier question may best be answered with more questions. What if Coach Welsh had never left Thomson? What would his record be now? To answer would only be guesswork, but he clearly would have tallied number 300 a few seasons back. He likely would be challenging second place on the Georgia career wins list. That spot is now held by Mary Persons legend Dan Pitts who registered 346.
There might even be other state championship banners hanging around, and we could be counting down toward win number 400. All of that is pure speculation, but it does make life fun to just wonder sometimes. While I'm at it, I wonder if I am the only one to have ever thought of this. I doubt it.