EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the seventh in a series on north country sports figures of the past.
Twice a week Jerry Welsh logs on to his computer at home, activates the Zoom video-conference app and greets 20-to-30 students virtually to begin teaching his Theory and Practice of Coaching class at Duke University.
Welsh, 84, would prefer to follow the teaching pattern that had been his ritual for 23 years since moving to North Carolina. Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, he traveled 25 minutes from his home in northwest Raleigh, N.C., to the Duke campus in Durham to greet his college pupils in person for two classes twice a week, the coaching class and another on basketball skills.
“It’s not really a job, it’s fun is what it is,” said Welsh, the author of a legendary run by the SUNY Potsdam men’s basketball team through the 1980s. “You stay productive, you feel like you’re still making a contribution.”
Long past the point when many retire, Welsh’s tenure as an adjunct professor at Duke has matched the length of his stay at Potsdam in which he coached the Bears to two NCAA Division III championships, in 1981 and 1986, and three national runner-up finishes between 1968 and 1991.
During that time, Welsh built a must-see team that crammed the Maxcy Hall gymnasium every time the Bears played at home.
Born in Chateaugay and raised both there and in Massena, Welsh was an immensely popular figure in the north country as he led his precision Potsdam team on winter weekends. He developed the program through building relationships, in basketball and the north country community. That required greeting everyone who passed by, going into the bleachers before games to shake hands and talk with fans, traveling into New York City and all over the state to talk shop with fellow coaches and uncover recruits, and simply, to enjoy people, face-to-face.
But these days Welsh and his wife Cathy stay hunkered in their Raleigh home on the Brier Creek golf course. The SUNY Potsdam camp that he created and was set to celebrate its 50th anniversary in July with a special appearance from its creator, was canceled by the pandemic. Welsh misses seeing his colleagues and friends in the Duke athletic department where his son-in-law, Tony Sales, is an assistant athletic director. He misses going to Rhode Island to see his son, Tim, a former NCAA Division I coach who broadcasts college basketball games for ESPN. He misses his eight grandchildren who haven’t visited since the pandemic took hold six months ago.
“He’s very limited, and he’s a social guy,” said Bill Mitchell, who replaced Welsh as Potsdam basketball coach in 1991 and talks with him almost as frequently as when they worked side-by-side. “He wants to spend time with people. ... I think it’s really starting to affect him.”
Welsh constructed the Potsdam basketball empire player by player, through constant communication, conducting practices with religious-like devotion to ensure that his team knew how to behave in any game situation down to the smallest detail once tip-off began.
SUNY Potsdam compiled a 494-141 record during Welsh’s time as the Bears’ coach. His 1985-86 national championship team launched a 60-game winning streak that lasted into the 1986-87 season and remains the second-longest winning streak in college basketball history. Welsh’s teams were almost invincible in their home gym, losing just 13 of 267 games at Maxcy Hall. Fittingly, the facility was named the Jerry Welsh Gymnasium in 2001.
“Looking back, boy we had something,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell joined Potsdam and Welsh in 1985 out of the University of Michigan, taking the job after witnessing the Potsdam summer camp in action and a 45-minute late-night conversation with the coach at the Burger King in town.
Mitchell, still at the college as director of club sports and summer sports camps, remembered scrambling to keep up at the start of that first season, trying to absorb the systems and Welsh’s intense and fiery practices by scribbling into a tiny notebook. Potsdam won the national title in Mitchell’s first season in 1986.
“What I failed to sense back then was the years of building the foundation, and the pride to establish the habits to developing great basketball players and great basketball teams,” Mitchell said. “The basketball was phenomenal ... but the real lessons for me was sharing an office with him for six years.”
Steve Kmack, an assistant with Potsdam during the first national title in 1981, often roomed with Welsh on the road. Welsh hated to lose, Kmack said, and he recalled sharing a hotel room with the coach after a particularly tough loss and witnessing Welsh bolt upright out of bed in the middle the night, saying, “I can’t believe it, I can’t believe we lost! Never again.”
Said Mitchell: “I remember when we lost to Clark (in an NCAA quarterfinal in 1987) that snapped our (60-game) win streak. He was almost despondent. I don’t think he was despondent because we lost the game, he thought he let everybody down. All the people who supported him, the program, he was truly upset.”
Welsh remains in contact with many of the players he coached at Potsdam, several of whom have become notable coaches themselves. Probably Potsdam’s greatest player, Derrick Rowland, dropped Welsh a text just last week. Steve Babiarz, Potsdam’s all-time leading scorer with 2,089 career points, has called Welsh once a month for 30 years, Welsh said.
“I get them all the time, emails, text messages, that makes coaching very rewarding,” Welsh said. “Most of them when they call, it’s not because they won championships and stuff, it’s because they learned life lessons, it’s because of their teammates.”
His former players continue to follow Welsh like Welsh followed them on the recruiting trail. Welsh said he built his recruiting network within the state — because tuition was cheaper for instate residents — traveling to all corners and communicating with coaching friends who would feed him tips and sometimes players.
Welsh said he landed Rowland through a relationship with the late Brentwood High School coach Stan Kellner. In 1976, one of Kellner’s former players, Mitch Kupchak, the future three-time NBA champion and current general manager of the Charlotte Hornets, was competing in the Summer Olympics in Montreal. Kellner wanted to attend and needed a place to stay. Welsh acquired tickets and then offered his home and to drive Kellner, Harborfields High School coach Joe Mayer and Welsh’s son, Tim, to Montreal and back every day of the Olympics.
The following fall, Mayer, saying that he was repaying Welsh for allowing them to stay at his home, recommended he check out a 17-year-old kid who had just joined Brentwood. That player was Rowland, who would become a two-time All-American for Potsdam and star for the 1981 national title team. Welsh said he was the only coach recruiting him at the time.
“(That happened) by just being good to those guys and being friends with those guys,” he said.
Those who remain friends with him through the decades continue to see Welsh reciprocate and provide the knowledge that comes from more than 50 years of teaching.
“He’s an outstanding coach and even more importantly an outstanding person,” said Kmack, who led three Potsdam high school teams to the state Final Four. “He makes contact with everybody, and as he gets on in life, he makes a point to stay in contact with his coaches.”
The connections continue through his teaching position at Duke. Welsh landed the job a few years after leaving Potsdam to become the Division I men’s basketball coach at Iona, where he added his son, Tim, as the top full-time assistant, leading to the younger Welsh’s coaching career at Providence College.
Welsh left Iona and retired from NCAA coaching due to health problems in 1995. He moved to North Carolina to be closer to his two daughters, Marykay Wells, who is senior executive vice president for Pearson Publishing Company, and Ann-Marie Sales, who is co-owner of Intrepid Marketing Group, which helps promote North Carolina teams like Duke, North Carolina and N.C. State, as well as the Jimmy Valvano “V Foundation”.
Pete Gaudet, the former longtime Duke basketball assistant to Mike Krzyzewski, ran the coaching class that Welsh currently teaches and when Gaudet left for Vanderbilt in 1995, Welsh, who knew Gaudet well, interviewed for the position and landed it on the spot.
Since then he has taught thousands of students on how to coach, or simply how to interact with coaches.
““Here’s what I tell them,” Welsh said of his students. “‘This course, if you want to coach someday on the high school or college level, this class will help you. If you don’t want to be a coach but you want to play a sport, this course will help you. If you don’t want any of that, you don’t want to coach anything, this class could still help you, because if you’re a parent of an athlete ... this course will help.’”
Welsh said “you don’t have to be an athlete” to take his course, but he has taught many athletes in his class, including former Blue Devils players Grayson Allen and R.J. Barrett, both now playing in the NBA. He said he recently received an email from one of his former students, Rachel Kahan, the head women’s tennis coach at Middlebury College. “Your class got me into coaching,” she said.
Welsh said he traditionally teaches the class at 8:30 a.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays and it covers every aspect of coaching, much like a Welsh basketball practice would at Potsdam.
“I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t enjoy it,” said Welsh, who also scouted in the Southeast for the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Clippers through his association with Mike Dunleavy Sr. before giving it up a couple years ago. “I don’t do it for the money ... not that I’m rich.”
Welsh used to return to Potsdam each summer, helping with the camp that he started. But due to his wife’s health issues, they haven’t been there in seven years. Welsh last visited the north country in 2017 when he was part of the first induction class in the North Country Hall of Fame, the sixth Hall of Fame that has enshrined Welsh.
Despite all the accolades, Welsh often attempts to deflect praise directed toward him. SUNY Potsdam officials battled with Welsh to get his name on the gymnasium. Welsh wanted it called “Alumni Gym” to honor all of the players that helped the program get to such a high level.
Potsdam hasn’t played at that height in three decades but retains pride in those teams. In April, the college streamed the televised broadcasts of both the 1981 and 1986 championship games to give sports-starved fans something to watch during the first weeks of the COVID quarantine.
“You never went to a game at Potsdam where there were empty seats,” Kmack said. “With Jerry being a local attraction and having an active following, especially from the Massena area — and everyone likes a winner. He had a strong base in the community and the students followed the team. Every game was packed. It was just a great atmosphere and fun to be part of that.”
Kmack, who said Welsh was “as knowledgeable as any coach in the country,” credits him for those sensational Bears teams and the hoopla that surrounded the squad. Welsh’s final game with Potsdam took place at Hamilton College in the ECAC Upstate final March 4, 1991. The Bears played 26-0 Hamilton, which was attempting to match Potsdam’s feat as the only Division III team to complete a season unbeaten and ranked No. 1. Potsdam, which had been denied a spot in a 16th straight NCAA Tournament, stunned Hamilton, 85-80, as Bears fans mobbed the Hamilton court.
“It was a good way to end the year,” Welsh said.
And it was the end of an era as Welsh took the Iona job three weeks later.
“It hasn’t been the same since he left,” Kmack said. “... It was special working with him and that’s the way I learned the game. He instilled in me how to be successful.”