THOMSON, Ga. -- The sign in front of Thomson Sporting Goods has been up since late January.
"Are you ready for some football? Luther's back."
The way people are acting here, you'd think their beloved high school football team is heading for the Super Bowl.
The reason for all this football frenzy is the man who helped build Thomson into a state football power in the mid-1980s, with state titles in 1984 and 1985, has come home. Luther Welsh, hired Jan. 21, is being asked to resurrect a struggling program that has finished 9-11 over the past two seasons and is coming off its worst season in 24 years.
The 67-year-old coaching legend specializes in rebuilding and one-on-one work in the trenches with players who are at least 50 years younger. On any given afternoon during practice, you can find the balding, 5-foot-6 veteran coach down on all fours showing his lineman how to get down low and block.
But for the oldest head coach in the state, his final job may be his most challenging.
"It's probably the hardest job I've ever taken and the reason for that is a great deal of changes that are having to take place," Welsh said. "The kids are not familiar and they're not used to the offense (a complicated Wing T) and the defense (five-man front) that we're using and they've never been involved in it.
"And it's taking a long time to get them to change from the type of offense and defense that they've been accustomed to. Everything in it as far as from the movement of defense or the movement of the offensive lineman, blocking down and staying down, you have to do that in this type of offense. It's just something we have to continue to work on and the kids have to discipline themselves and say, `This is the way it's going to be."'
WHY WOULD WELSH
take on a major rebuilding project late in his career? He left behind a wealth of talent in Sylvania at Screven County, a team expected to be a state contender, to come back to Thomson.
When Welsh left Thomson in 1990, he left behind close friends and his youngest daughter, Andrea Gay, to take on a new challenge at Class AAAA Camden County in southeast Georgia. He coached there three years before taking over at Greene-Taliaferro in 1994, then at Screven County in 1996.
While in Sylvania, Welsh's mentor, Sandy Hershey -- the man who first gave him an opportunity to coach football as an assistant at Sumter, S.C., in 1961 -- was the mayor and couldn't be happier his old pal was coaching the Gamecocks.
Welsh said he didn't want to move anymore, that he loved Screven County. But when Hershey died last year, something changed.
"Coach Hershey had something to do with (me going back to Thomson)," Welsh said. "It was easier for me to leave Sylvania since coach Hershey wasn't there. Sylvania was good to me and I couldn't have asked for anything better. It's one of the best coaching jobs that I've ever had."
Ann Welsh, the first lady of Thomson football, will tell you part of the reason for returning to Thomson was because of her daughter and granddaughter who live there. But that wasn't the only reason.
"When we were in Sylvania, the doctor there had referred me to a diabetic specialist in Augusta," she said. "And so I was going back and forth (from Sylvania to Augusta) and I also began having a lot of eye problems. We figured if I continued to have some of the eye problems, it would be helpful being where my daughter is."
However, the first lady of Thomson football doesn't feel like moving back to Thomson was all her fault.
"Luther likes the challenge," she said. "I don't think he would have made that decision to return to Thomson just because of me."
LUTHER WELSH DOESN'T
believe he's too old to coach football. It isn't every day a 67-year old gets involved in daily football drills.
"People that say that I'm too old to coach football, I don't pay them any attention," he said. "I'm 67 and I still feel young. I've been fortunate to have the good health that I've had. The Good Lord has taken care of me.
"I'm going to continue coaching as long as I'm able, or die. But when it gets to where I can't demonstrate (techniques) to them, I'm going to give it up."
As a young country boy growing up in Bishopville, S.C., Welsh says hard work has never been a problem. His father was a farmer and a logger, long before the days of chainsaws. Maybe that's where Welsh's motto, `We're going to do it until we do it right,' came from.
But he shows no signs of slowing down. He keeps himself in shape by running during the off-eason and he lifts weights during his weight classes at school.
"I'm more tired after practice is over," Welsh said. "I don't expect my kids to do anything different than I do. If I work hard, they work hard too."
BOB FELLERS HAS SEEN
the excitement Welsh brings to the football community. As a season-ticket holder for the past 16 years, he says sales of Thomson sporting apparel and merchandise in his store, Thomson Sporting Goods & Trophies, is at an all-time high.
And Fellers is equally as excited about this season. His calendar on the wall in his store had the first day of football practice circled and the date of the Bulldogs' jamboree with Screven County tonight marked.
"Like anything else, if you work hard at it you're going to have success," Fellers said. "We know his (Welsh's) work ethic. Everybody knows that Luther is going to put a winner out there. He's a proven coach and he's proven himself time after time."
Former players are also looking forward to Welsh's return.
Jerry Mays, Welsh's prized running back who helped lead the Bulldogs to state titles in 1984 and 1985 and went on to star at Georgia Tech, always wanted to coach football.
But after graduating from Georgia Tech and establishing himself as a successful accountant, Mays has just returned to Thomson as an accountant at Regions Bank.
Not that Mays would want to give up his banking career to coach football, but he has always wanted to give coaching football a try.
"I told him as long as I'm the coach here, I'm not going to let him," Welsh said. "He has too good of a job to get into this business."
ROME WASN'T BUILT
in a day and the football program at Thomson won't be either.
But Welsh has raised the interest level right from the beginning.
"You're not going to change these people overnight that have been doing something for three or four years," Welsh said. "So I've got to have the patience, which is hard to do and to put up with it. Eventually, it'll click one day and after awhile, they'll do it."
But will time run out on Welsh before he's able to see the rewards from his hard work?
"You can better believe you'll see a difference in the program," Mays said. "I just hope people give him time and don't put too high of expectations on him (for the first year)."