Coach liked to 'go for it'

The 1984 state championship contest hung in the balance when Thomson coach Luther Welsh faced a dilemma.

His Bulldogs, holding a slim three-point lead early in the fourth quarter, faced fourth and inches deep in their own territory. Conventional wisdom says punt the ball.

Welsh went for it.

Thomson gained four yards on the play, finished the drive with a touchdown and went on to defeat Marist.

"You don't have to worry about tomorrow," he said after the game. "You're going to win or lose this week, so you might as well go for it."

Coaches, former players and members of the Thomson community remembered Welsh as a hard worker with his own philosophy of winning football. Welsh, who captured the first of three state championships that December 1984 evening, died Thursday morning at University Hospital. He was 79.

Welsh was diagnosed with esophageal cancer soon after coaching his final game eight months ago. He died exactly one week after his wife, Anne, lost her prolonged battle with cancer.

Lincoln County coach Larry Campbell, a close friend of the Welshes, spoke to Anne and Luther on a regular basis, especially in their final years. He said the couple, who would have celebrated their 50th anniversary in September, had a special relationship.

"Luther worshipped two things: Miss Anne and football. They were two fine people," Campbell said. "I have an empty feeling in my stomach right now."

A funeral service for Welsh will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at Thomson High School. Burial will be at 4 p.m. Saturday at Mount Zion Presbyterian Church Cemetery in Bishopville, S.C.

Visitation will be from 6 to 9 tonight at Beggs Funeral Home in Thomson.

"He's no longer suffering," said Lee Hutto, who played for Welsh and served as an assistant on the 2002 state championship team. "He's with Miss Anne and the Lord. He's where he wants to be."

Welsh began his coaching career in the midst of the Eisenhower era in 1955 in Warrenton, Ga., just outside of Thomson. He served 46 years as a head coach and another 10 as an assistant at 11 schools, and he never missed a practice despite a list of ailments -- kidney stones, lymphoma, heart surgery and knee replacement. He finished with a 333-181-6 overall record.

Welsh, known for constantly chewing tobacco on the sidelines, found his most success in 19 years at Thomson. In two stints, he guided the Bulldogs to a 183-50-2 record, along with 11 region titles and state championships in 1984, 1985 and 2002. Welsh retired in November after leading the Bulldogs to a 9-3 record and a second-round appearance in the state playoffs.

"Coach was a great mentor," said Minnesota Vikings linebacker Jasper Brinkley, a member of the 2002 team. "He taught me to not only be a great football player but to be a great young man as well. He was very caring about his players."

Former Thomson principal Bob Smith recommended Welsh to the McDuffie County Board of Education in 1984.

Welsh made Smith look like a genius, going 29-0-1 his first two seasons. Smith said there was much more to Welsh than just football. He would help students with clothes or lunch money, and he also helped adults.

"Even kids who had graduated came back to him with major life decisions and he advised them well," Smith said. "They looked at him as a father figure."

Harlem football coach Jimmie Lewis said Welsh was a hard-nosed coach who possessed a dry sense of humor.

"He could make you laugh," Lewis said.

"He's one of the best coaches I've ever seen. But that's just one small aspect. He's also one of the finest men I've ever met."

After watching Thomson win back-to-back titles with the powerful Wing-T offense, Lewis switched to Thomson's offense in 1986. For three days that summer, Welsh spent his time helping explain the intricacies of the formation to Lewis and his coaching staff.

"If you want to be a winner, you emulate Coach Welsh," Lewis said. "That's because he worked hard."

Thomson vied for another region title last season, but the Bulldogs lost to Burke County. Welsh took the loss in stride. After the game, he shook hands with Bears' coach Eric Parker. Then, Welsh offered a piece of light-hearted advice.

"Coach, you need to keep winning," Welsh said. "If not, they'll talk about you."

Morris News Service's Garth Snow contributed to this article.

GALLERY: LUTHER WELSH THROUGH THE YEARS

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