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The Emotions of Sports: Harry Welch, tools of the trade

Legendary Canyon football coach was respected and feared by his team

Posted: August 5, 2011 1:55 a.m.
Updated: August 5, 2011 1:55 a.m.

Former Canyon head football coach Harry Welch, left, took a hard-line approach with his players, but the goal was more than winning. It was building character.

 

The email begins with a blunt statement.

"I have never met anyone I could really dislike with all my might. Someone whom I wanted to just deck. Someone who drove me up the wall. Someone who made me grow and get through some of the worse pain I ever experienced. Someone who made fun of me and broke me down."

Then it takes a completely different turn.

"I have never met anyone who could do all of these things to me and yet completely and entirely win my respect. Harry Welch is the exception. When coach Welch talks, I listen."

The email was written by Stephen Wirthlin, a two-time CIF-Southern Section division champion wide receiver who was a key member of the 2006 Cowboys state championship team.

He wrote it while on his Mormon mission in Romania, thinking about the time Welch said he wasn't teaching football, he was teaching life.

It was about a coach who was feared by players and used fear as a tool.

And few, if any, have done it more effectively in the Santa Clarita Valley.

Wirthlin fired off the email on July 26, 2010.

There's a pride Welch gets from the email.

"I was so honored," Welch says of the email.

He was tough on Wirthlin and tough on his Cowboys.

Would he raise his voice?

"I did have a lot of problems with my vocal cords," he admits.

Would he get in a kid's face?

"If kids were loosey-goosey, I blew up," he says. "I screamed, ‘If you are going to be here, be here.'"

What Wirthlin got, though, he says, was the message behind everything Welch did.

Welch had a philosophy - test a young man's limits, push them. Once they've reached that limit, go further.

That philosophy helped a lot of kids realize that the only person that was limiting them was themselves.

There were kids who feared Welch - some hated him.

"He's an old man. All the kids could have fought him, but no one would dare get in his face or give him lip," Wirthlin says. "He has this intimidation about him. He almost radiates something. When I wasn't with him I hated him, but when I was with him, I respected him so much."

Many grew to understand that their hatred was childhood misunderstanding.

"If I challenge a kid, I don't leave him out on a limb," Welch says. "(Former Hart head baseball coach) Bud Murray or a John Wooden, they'd follow through. They wouldn't crush them and let them be. They'd push them to an edge and made sure they survived there and grew there."

Welch used to keep a picture in his office at Canyon High of Wooden, a man known as a gentle educator, with the UCLA coach screaming on the sideline.

He thought the picture showed how even Wooden had a fierce side.

Murray coached at Hart for nearly 20 years and carried a similar reputation with his players - firm, but fair, and coach with a little fear."

It's effective when it works.

But it's also only effective if it's real, explains Valencia High athletic director and former Vikings head coach Brian Stiman.

Stiman was one of Welch's longest serving assistant coaches, beginning in 1982 and ending his term with Welch in 1994.

He says there was no question that players feared Welch.

If they turned in a poor effort on Friday, Welch would make them run to exhaustion in practice on Saturday.

Stiman says it got to the point where the kids knew after a bad effort that they had to run on Saturday, so they'd line up without Welch telling them to.

But Stiman says the kids respected their coach because he was real.

"Right is what works for you, and everyone's got to do it in the fashion that their person is built on," Stiman says. "If you try to be hard and you're not a hard guy, if you try to be soft and you're not a soft guy, it's going to come off as being wrong and out of place, and the kids won't buy into it."

Wirthlin says there were definitely kids who feared Welch on his teams.

Why?

Wirthlin, now a student at BYU in Provo, Utah trying to walk onto the football team, found it hard to describe.

"He knew his stuff. He wouldn't back down to anyone. He knew how to deal with every situation. He knew when to be crazy, when to be calm," Wirthlin says. "He knew when to break you down. He knew when to give you confidence."

Five CIF-Southern Section division titles and a state title shows that fear, if used in the right way, can be effective.

It worked for Welch, and it worked on Wirthlin.

In his email, he says he didn't understand the barking by Welch and other coaches and the repetition of the drills.

Time and life experience has changed his mind.

"Coach used to say, ‘The little things are what count! Take care of the little things and the big things will take care of themselves,'" Wirthlin wrote. "Not going to lie. Didn't really understand at the time. Now I feel it. I live it. I understand."

 

 

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