Harry Welch
Head Football Coach, Canyon High School

Interview by Cary Osborne
Signal Sports Editor

Sunday, January 7, 2007
(Television interview conducted January 2, 2007)

    "Newsmaker of the Week" is presented by the SCV Press Club and Time Warner Cable, and produced by Signal Senior Editor Leon Worden and SCVTV Community Programming Manager Susan Shapiro. This week's program is hosted by Signal Sports Editor Cary Osborne. "Newsmaker" premieres every Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, repeating Sundays at 8:30 a.m.
    This week's Newsmaker is Harry Welch, head coach of Canyon High School's Cowboy Football team, which won the first state championship to be held in 79 years.
    Questions are paraphrased; answers are presented in full.

Signal: You've been doing this a long time — 18 years at Canyon. Of all the victories in your career, when you beat Concord De La Salle in the state championship game, was that one the most special?

Welch: It was the most significant. Every one is very special. Each year (throughout) the 18 years I've been the head coach at Canyon High School — each year had its own identity, and there are young men on each of those teams that I admire completely and know that they'll be great contributors to our community. Every one of them has given a whole lot.
    But winning the first state championship in 79 years is historic. It rallied the entire community together. It certainly made Canyon High School and the Cowboy Football program feel just terrific. The resonance of this victory was felt throughout the state. I've gotten feedback from people from across America. It was historic, in the small world of high school football. But this probably will be the most significant.

Signal: You were at the Holiday Bowl a few days ago, and Jeff Tedford, the Cal head coach, had something to say to you. What was is?

Welch: Tongue in cheek, in his preparations for the Holiday Bowl. I was there to watch (Canyon graduate) Nate Longshore prepare for the game. He'd had a great game. He was the co-Offensive Player of the Game for winning the Holiday Bowl over Texas A&M.
    He (Hedford) came up to me and said, "Is this the legend?" So we both had a little bit of a chuckle. He's a good coach, a great coach. He'll probably end up in the NFL — maybe very soon.

Signal: Schwarzenegger didn't give you call?

Welch: It's his broken leg. It's the medicine. It's holding him back.

Signal: A week earlier, Canyon played Moorpark in the CIF championship game. You guys came away from that game with a lot of injuries. Canyon was a heavy underdog against De La Salle. Looking back, what were the factors that enabled you to pull it off?

Welch: Well first of all, the players were the major factor for pulling that off — the young men who had banded together so strongly and played so courageously in that game.
    They were directed by a group of assistant coaches — I don't know if I've ever been more proud or more pleased with the effort of my assistant coaches. It was a group — at first, a ragtag bunch of men who wanted to coach Cowboy Football, wanted to be proud of Cowboy Football and wanted to participate — but we really didn't come together until the middle part of August. So (it was) this great coaching staff that I was blessed to be part of, and the young men who played with as much focus and determination as we've ever had.
    And the incredible community support. Santa Clarita is the best community that I have ever known. The entire community seemed to be behind these young men and supported these young men — because they represented not only Canyon High School and Canyon Country, but all of our valley. It was a wonderful experience. But the major factor was the young men playing so well, and playing with such concentration and playing with such confidence.

Signal: It was said before the game that De La Salle had established itself over the years; you knew they'd come in and run the ball — and run it to death. What was your game plan going in, both offensively and defensively?

Welch: You're absolutely right — everyone knew that De La Salle was coached by perhaps the greatest coach in America, Bob Ladouceur, and everyone knew that he and his strong assistant coaches had molded a program that was second to none in any sport in America.
    We knew that the best chance for us was to play what we proudly call "Cowboy Football." Essentially it's playing within ourselves, doing what we do, and doing it as well can — and then trying to continue to push the edge of the envelope, seeing if we could muster up a little more courage, a little more teamwork, and staying healthy with our minds and bodies as much as possible.
    Because we were very battered. The Moorpark game the week before, for the CIF championship — it was the second year in a row that we'd played a dramatic CIF championship game, and in both games we were very fortunate to win.
    The year before, versus Hart High School, we were very fortunate to pull that off and to defeat a very strong and impressive Hart Indian team. And then to play Moorpark for the second time in the year and to defeat the same quality team twice in one year — and we've done that three times in the last two years. I'm very, very impressed with the young men.
    But we did come in and we were very, very beat up. Our first game was in August, and here we were, playing in the middle of December. It was a 16-week season. The first game in August to the middle of December, 16 weeks, very difficult for football players at any level, especially at the high school level. They've played beyond my greatest expectations. I've gotten feedback from coaches and supporters from throughout this valley and literally throughout America — so impressed with what they accomplished and how well they played.

Signal: How important was this victory in terms of the sports history of the Santa Clarita Valley?

Welch: One of the things that football does that the other sports are not able to do is to grab the attention of the larger community. For example, the wonderful girls at Saugus High School won the state championship in cross country this year, and that's at least an equal feat with what we did. And some of those girls there are as good of athletes as any team will have anywhere.
    But with some of the sports, where there is limited fan participation, it's difficult to grab the attention of a large community. What we were able to do with a football program, and a football victory, we were able to show the high school sports world and beyond — the sports world, the people in Southern California and beyond — what outstanding young people we have in Santa Clarita, and what a great place this is.
    So I thought our victory was a victory for Saugus High School and Valencia and Hart and Canyon and West Ranch and Golden Valley. This was a celebration of all the successful athletic teams and the good young people in Santa Clarita.

Signal: A week earlier, you defeated Moorpark in the CIF Southern Section-Northern Division championship. You were up for pretty much the whole game; then they scored a touchdown with about a minute left to play. What was going through your mind at that point?

Welch: Well, first of all, I've been told by some people that we're winning too large, and that if we won real large again, we might be accused of running up the score, so they wouldn't give us a chance to be selected for the state championship game.
    So, naturally, what I wanted to do was make it a closer game so that everyone would feel a little sympathy for us. So when we allowed them to score with 75 seconds to go, being an English major and having an affinity for some drama, I was just trying to bring a little drama.

Signal: That was part of your game plan, let them score?

Welch: Absolutely. Let them score. A little drama. Show a little humanity from the Cowboys. But then we still had to win the game.
    Actually it was one of the more exciting football games I've been involved in, and to have the Moorpark Musketeers score with 75 seconds and then have (Canyon quarterback) Ben Longshore make so many key plays and (running back) J.J. DiLuigi lead us again down to position to win the ball game and then (kicker) Chris Chapman — just ice water in his veins — kick that winning field goal, it was a great moment.

Signal: You've earned the reputation as a bit of a gambler. You regularly go for it on fourth down. What do you have against kickers?

Welch: (Laughs.) I have been blessed with some of the finest kickers. My last two kickers have both played college football. To have a young man on a full scholarship just for swinging his leg — my kickers have bailed me out again and again.
    I do have a feeling that I'd rather have the ball than to give the ball to the other team. So I don't mind kicking off. We kick off a lot. I don't mind if the kickers kick. Chris Chapman was a leading point earner of all kickers in all of California this year. I've really enjoyed the success of our kickers. But no, on fourth down, I'd rather we continue to have the ball, so I usually go for it on fourth down.

Signal: With 7.6 seconds left, you had the ball. It was maybe on the Moorpark 8-yard line and you had to kick. What was going through your mind at that point?

Welch: What I thought at that time was, first, obviously we can make the field goal or not make it, but if there was anybody on the team who really wasn't going to be rattled by the situation it was going to be Chris Chapman. He is so cool. I knew he would make the great effort.
    But some of the things that sometimes go unrecognized — all year long we had this young man named Mike Cooper who did the long snapping for him. His snap was perfect. I thought it would be good, but it was perfect. And we had Chris Kingsbury, who had sprained his ankle rather severely earlier in the game, and he could barely walk at that time — and I called a time out and I asked Chris if he could just hold the ball. Because he as terrific hands, great hand-eye coordination. Since he had been doing this all year, I asked if he could hold the ball, place it on the tee; would he be good for that? He assured me, absolutely.
    So actually I felt pretty good. I didn't know what was going to happen, but I felt good that we were making the good effort, and if it didn't come to be, it was a great game, and I was going to be proud of the young men.
    If we made it, and I had an inkling we might, I was going to be not only proud but very happy.

Signal: The end result was great for Canyon football this year. But the beginning was a bit of a struggle, and it started with coaching staff departure. What happened in the beginning of the season, and how were you able to regroup?

Welch: Over the years, I've been blessed with some of the finest assistant coaches that any head coach could ever have. Years ago, Brian Stiman, whom I coached at Valley College, coached (for Canyon) when he went to college. He was my assistant for 13 years at Canyon High School. We had terrific success in the '80s and early '90s, and so much of the credit would have to go to him and some of the other assistant coaches.
    Then I took a hiatus from football coaching and came back in 2001, and I was able to secure the services of Scott Blade. Scott Blade was an all-CIF linebacker for me and played at San Diego State and had some other coaching experience at College of the Canyons and Glendale College. Well, he and I were able to build a football program about the way we wanted to, and last December, he decided that he and his family were going to join some other members of his family near Nashville, Tenn. He was going to leave Southern California and make Tennessee his home.
    When he left, when he told me he was leaving in December, it was very, very difficult. I went to our administration and asked for some assistants, even in the off season, because Scott was magnificent in the weight training and conditioning. Over the next eight months it was an interesting situation of trying to get coaches and different people walking in and out the consideration door for being an assistant coach.

Signal: A couple of weeks into the season, you had a scheduled game with Lancaster. It was canceled for poor air quality. There was a fire in the area. The game couldn't be rescheduled, and you were outspoken about that. What was that about?

Welch: First of all, there was this natural disaster, I believe it was the Day Fire, on the day of the game. The winds turned; I think we were supposed to play on a Thursday due to honoring the Jewish high holy days, and the day of the game, the winds turned and brought horrible smoke conditions — really unsafe conditions to play a game in the Lancaster area.
    So we tried to reschedule the game for Saturday, and it just became a fiasco of miscommunication. It was really, really unfortunate, because the situation ended up polarizing the administration with the football program, and that was very unfortunate.

Signal: You took some heat later in the season when you beat Golden Valley 90-0. Some said you ran up the score. Was the heat justified, and did the criticism bother you?

Welch: I never felt in any way that we ran up the score. I pulled our key starters, all at the end of the first quarter. Some of the best athletes we've ever had at Canyon ended up playing less than a quarter in a three-week period, so it was a real disadvantage for us to have a game canceled, a bye coming up, and having only an opportunity to play about one quarter of a game.
    But no. The young men I asked to play — and I asked every single member of our team — we had 56 football players; every single athlete played extensively. The starters did not play beyond the first quarter.
    I have a great deal of respect for each of the schools in the Santa Clarita Valley, and I thought the young men at Golden Valley were at an amazing disadvantage this year. But they fought hard, and to the very end, they were trying, and they were making the good effort.
    Whether it was my third or fourth or fifth string, they were out there; they gave their very, very best. So, the young men at Golden Valley can say, "I tackled J.J. DiLuigi" or "I made this play against Ben Longshore" or "I played defense against this great offensive line," or we lined up against what some people were saying later in the year, one of the best defensive groups, especially against the run, that high school football is seen in California.
    I thought that there was dignity in Golden Valley and dignity in the efforts that the young men at Canyon made. I would never ask an athlete to work very, very hard for six, eight months of a season, and then finally have his opportunity to go out and play and then lay down.

Signal: That seemed to be the case with some of your players. I believe it was in the third quarter against Golden Valley and there was a fourth-string running back. How do you tell a kid like that who rarely gets a chance to play to call it off?

Welch: Well I would never do that, and I didn't. We minimized the type of plays that we were calling; we went straight forward — I think Golden Valley could anticipate what the play was. But I would never ask someone to give less than a good effort.
    But I didn't feel any animosity whatsoever from Golden Valley. In fact, I like the young men there and the coaching staff there, and I have very good friends who teach there. I didn't feel there was any disrespect whatsoever.

Signal: Having spent a week with you prior to the Moorpark game, I found there was a lot of sensitivity in Harry Welch. When people criticize you, or when message boards, for example, put a negative label on you, how does it make you feel?

Welch: I'm not comfortable with that. I care very, very much about what I'm doing at Canyon High School. I care that I'm giving everything that I can to what I've accepted as a challenge and what my profession demands.
    When people make unfounded or misguided remarks, trying to bring down what I'm doing or what some of the young men are doing, I let it bother me, and I probably should have thicker skin than that.

Signal: Why do you think they do it?

Welch: I'm not sure. I probably would have to ask them. But I have always been honored when someone would say that "Cowboy Football makes us work harder" — makes us work harder in the weight room, in training, in preparation for them.
    Some people like to bring people to their level by trying to bring — people who are achieving a lot, trying to bring them down. That's unfortunate.

Signal: What was the most stressful thing about this season for you? Not just football but personally.

Welch: Toward the end of the season, I had some physically stressful situations. I ruptured some vertebrae in my back. I've done some damage to my vocal cords. So of the physical nature, that was challenging.

Signal: If you wouldn't yell at the kids in English class, you wouldn't have that problem, right?

Welch: (Laughs.) I think the problem is that I'm doing too much yelling in the English classes. I have to save it for the football field.
    As we became more and more successful, I was very concerned that maybe I wasn't going to be able to do enough to bring this team to the excellence that they hoped to have, and that maybe I couldn't help them reach the pinnacle of success that the community hoped for them. So that was rather stressful, and that was self-imposed. I never felt that from anyone else, but that became very, very difficult.
    My assistant coaches had done such a great job, and the players, week after week after week. They never missed practice. If they were ill, if they had broken bones, they wouldn't miss meetings. I had boys have unfortunate injuries, maybe have to go to a hospital, and still come for a lunch meeting or still make it back for the end of practice. We'd have 100-percent attendance almost every day of the season. So I felt a burden that I needed to do all that I could to help them — and that became rather stressful.

Signal: Before the season began, there was a lot of hype about high school football. Jimmy Clausen, the lead quarterback for Oaks Christian, was on the cover of USA Today. How big is high school football now — and is it too big?

Welch: Well, it's very big right now. It's very big. Whether it's too big would depend on someone's perspective, and if someone is perhaps negatively influencing their son's life to promote the football program. I don't think that, in general, the football program — or any of the football programs in this valley — are too big.
    One of the good things that happened at football games in this valley is the revenue generated — and there are some great revenue generated at these football games — goes back to the associated student bodies. Which means, all of the activities at the various schools benefit from the terrific revenue that's brought in. The money doesn't go to the football programs. It goes to the student body, and then they decide if they want to put it toward the band or a choral group or a newspaper or presentation at a rally, or they want to use the money for a dance, or whatever they decide to do with the money.

Signal: CIF championship. State championship. What a great way to go out. Are you coming back to coach Cowboy Football in 2007?

Welch: I've never coached saying that "I'll resign if I achieve this goal," because my goal is to do the very best I can, to help the young men who are my charges, to use football as a metaphor for life so that they can become better citizens and better family members.
    And so, becoming CIF champion two years in a row, or in this year with the team to be the first state champion in 79 years, it's not the goal that I was seeking. The goal is to do the best that I can every day.
    With that in mind, I'm looking forward to teaching resuming on Jan. 16. I'm looking forward to everything about the next semester. If my health situations are able to resolved and if I can get the right support at Canyon High School, I would love to continue to teach and coach at Canyon High School.

    See this interview in its entirety today at 8:30 a.m., and watch for another "Newsmaker of the Week" on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, available to Time Warner Cable subscribers throughout the Santa Clarita Valley.

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