"We Are Family": Football Coach Mike Welch '73
Longtime football coach Mike Welch ’73 carries on a proud tradition of IC coaching. by Michael Warwick with Mbeti Hyess
“Ithaca College [athletics] is a family; once you are in it, you are in it forever,” says Mike Welch ’73, who joined the Bombers family in 1969 as a freshman football and lacrosse player. “There’s a unique bond that can be shared with all alumni.”
Although he was in that “family” himself as a student and then as an alumnus, Welch never imagined that he’d return to his alma mater and join the football coaching staff, let alone go on to become a member of the select group of successful and influential longtime IC alumni coaches. “I thought I was going to be a high school teacher and coach,” Welch says.
He did fulfill that dream. For three years after graduation he worked as an assistant football coach at Rush-Henrietta High School in Rochester, New York. “I did not have any thoughts of coaching at the college level,” he insists. “It wasn’t until I returned to college for my master’s degree and coached football as a graduate assistant at Albany State that I changed career goals.”
He then became offensive back coach at the University at Albany, SUNY, which reached the NCAA semifinals in 1977, and later defensive line coach, before moving on to Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, where he served as offensive coordinator until 1980. However, he never felt too far away from South Hill.
“Coming back to Ithaca College as a coach became a goal of mine once I started coaching at the college level,” Welch says. “This was and continues to be one of the best small college coaching jobs in the country. For Division III, it does not get much better than Ithaca College.”
Now, with more than two-and-a-half decades of experience on the IC coaching staff, he knows the program inside and out, he knows most of the football alumni, and they certainly know him. Under his leadership the program has posted a 180-49 (.786) record. His teams have made ECAC playoffs five times (1984, 1987, 1996, 1998, and 1999), NCAA playoffs seven times (1985, 1986, 1990, 1992, 1994, 2001, and 2003), and twice won national championships (1988 and 1991).
But with Welch it always comes back to relationships — with those fellow members of the Ithaca College athletics family. Having had such a similar student-athlete experience to that of his players makes it much easier to relate to them. He has mentored hundreds of young men over the years, and understands their disappointments and dreams. “There is definitely a closer relationship that you feel as an alumnus of the College. You can relate to each alumnus on a personal level because we shared similar experiences as undergraduates. Ithaca College is truly like a family.”
He’s keenly aware of that family’s genealogy. He’s proud of its culture and traditions and of those who paved the way for current student-athletes and coaches. “Playing and coaching at Ithaca College is a unique experience,” he says. “The values learned here can be traced back to Bucky Freeman, Carp Wood ’39, Jim Butterfield, and Iris Carnell ’42* — all wonderful people, classy people, who loved teaching and coaching, who pursued excellence, yet always kept life in proper perspective.
“I will be forever indebted,” he says, “to Jim Butterfield, Bill Ware**, and assistant coach Gary Fallon***, all hall of fame coaches, who had a tremendous influence on me and my coaching—and on how I live my life and coach my players. I know there is a long line of people [who] will say the same thing. I feel very fortunate.”
Welch is glad to pass along his coaching knowledge and share the family atmosphere with the student-athletes of today. “The young men and women who play athletics here and earn an Ithaca College degree,” he says, “will all look back and say, ‘This was something special. I am proud to be a Bomber.’ ”
They will be in excellent company.
* James “Bucky” Freeman (football coach 1931–43; baseball coach 1932–65; professor; and honorary alumnus), Carlton “Carp” Wood ’39 (men’s basketball, 1952–64; j.v. baseball 1954–64, varsity baseball 1966–78, and soccer 1963–69), Jim Butterfield (football 1967–80), Iris Carnell ’42 (women’s basketball 1966–68, women’s tennis 1972–84; also IC’s assistant athletic director and coach of bowling, field hockey, and golf)
** Men’s lacrosse coach, 1966–77 (and longtime multiple sport coach; currently women’s cross country head coach and women’s track and field assistant coach)
*** An assistant coach with football and lacrosse from 1969 to 1972 who coached Welch in both sports