November 14, 2013
Welch, IC team both revitalized
Heart surgery kept coach home for last year’s game
ITHACA — For the first time since returning to the Ithaca College campus as an assistant coach in the autumn of 1984, Mike Welch was not at the Cortaca Jug football game last November.
Because of emergency double-bypass open heart surgery, the venerable Bombers head coach had to miss the final four games of the 2012 regular season. That included an agonizing 16-10 loss to rival SUNY Cortland, when a 4th-and-goal play from the 1-yard line was stuffed short of the end zone in the final seconds in a frantic finish that just added to Cortaca Jug lore.
Though the 7,635 fans in attendance at the SUNY Cortland Stadium Complex on that day included family members, Coach Welch was battened down alone in a room at his house to watch last year’s drama unfold on television.
“Home, by myself, with no sound on the TV. I can’t listen to commentators talk about what’s going on with my team and what they’re saying and things like that,” recalled Welch of that day. “My daughter and wife went to the game, so everybody was there and I was just by myself. It was a difficult time.”
Ithaca finished last season 6-4, with close late-season losses to St. John Fisher and Cortland keeping the Bombers from post-season play.
From that adversity has come this dream season, as the Bombers are currently 8-1 and have captured the regular season Empire 8 championship prior to hosting Cortland in the 55th annual and sold-out Cortaca Jug contest being played at noon Saturday at Butterfield Stadium.
An appreciative Welch will be back on the sidelines going up against counterpart Dan MacNeill, whose Red Dragons are 5-4 and needing a victory to earn a possible ECAC Bowl postseason invitation.
Welch is just one of 19 coaches in Division III who has 150 wins in his career, with a 152-61 overall record in his 20th season as the head coach of his alma mater. He was a past team captain and running back out of Dansville who graduated from IC in 1973.
MacNeill has been just as successful. A former Red Dragons defensive stalwart out of Walton who graded from Cortland in 1979, MacNeill has had 113-60 success in his 17 seasons as the head coach. That ranks him first in career victories and career winning percentage at the school.In Cortaca Jug battles against Welch, MacNeill’s teams have won nine of their 16 meetings.
The MacNeill and Welch coaching paths nearly crossed, too. MacNeill was on the Bombers’ coaching staff 1982 and ‘83 under legendary head coach Jim Butterfield, and then moved on to Villanova in 1984 — the season Welch returned to Ithaca.
THE SURGERY WAS more important than any game, obviously. Welch understands that.
“Fortunately, they found it before I had any kind of stroke or any kind of heart attack, so I was really, really lucky. They fixed it up and put it back together. I had a great surgeon, great rehab, so it all worked out. Now there’s a lot more energy,” he says.
Still, missing games was the harder part even though that time spent away from football had a positive side.
“You really appreciated being in the atmosphere of college football and coaching players and being involved in that together, being with a team working towards a goal,” said Welch. “It’s a ball. As long as you recruit good kids, which we have, and have great support.... I love it.”
Welch has really savored the five-game win streak the Bombers will bring into the Cortaca Jug game, which earned his squad a berth in the upcoming NCAA Division III playoffs. During that stretch, Ithaca beat a tough Alfred squad 17-6, pulled out a 26-21 win at Utica, nipped St. John Fisher 25-22, blanked Frostburg 23-0 and then won a 24-23 overtime first place battle at Salisbury last weekend in Maryland.
Last year’s adversity certainly helped this year’s team become resilient, with Welch leading the way.
“Coach Welch is a Bomber through and through,” said Ithaca starting linebacker and graduate student Will Carter. “When you have him by your side it just gives you strength in every aspect of the game. He’s a coach where you want to do better for him, and that’s a rare thing.”
Last year Welch was back on the recruiting trail by December, and could have helped out with the team but opted not interfere with the work being done by interim head coach Mark McDonough the team’s defensive coordinator.
“Functionally, I could have helped a little bit, but I was out for four games,” he noted “Once a staff gets a rhythm, and I thought they were doing very well, I didn’t want to get to where it was going to be a problem.”
THAT DOESN’T MEAN Welch was passively watching last year’s Cortaca Jug game alone at home, admitting a few cuss words may have filled the air during the course of the afternoon.
“With today’s technology I could watch practice at home. You can do it on the Internet now. So I was watching practice and there were a couple of things I wanted to cover and emphasis and unfortunately it happened in the game and not to our benefit,” he said. “I know if I were there I would have emphasized it and it would have been a different result. Things like that, there’s nothing you can do.”
So now Welch’s task is to end a three-game losing habit to Cortland in Cortaca Jug games. Being in so many tough games in the Empire 8 will help the Bombers, in the coach’s thinking.
“If you get by our league you’re kind of ready for the next level,” says Welch.
Ithaca will be the third Empire 8 team Cortland has faced, and the Red Dragons lost to both Buffalo State 41-28 and St. John Fisher 33-25.
“We feel good where we are right now, we really do,” said Welch of his squad, ranked 20th nationally in Division III. “It’s never too tough to get up to play the Cortland game. It’s going to be a physical game, there’s no question about that..
“Once we get through this game, we’ll just start looking down the pipe and see what we’ve got in front of us and get it all laid out, and that’s the fun part, too,” he added. “It’s just so glad our staff and our players got to get into the playoffs. It’s what you shoot for, and once you get there it’s the best. It’s an atmosphere that means you are good.”
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