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ITHACA, N.Y. – When Mike Welch was hired to replace the legendary Jim Butterfield as the ninth head coach in the storied history of Ithaca College football prior to the 1994 season, he was just trying to maintain the high standards that Butterfield had established during his Hall of Fame career.
Welch, a 1973 Ithaca graduate, played running back for Butterfield’s teams and learned first-hand about the importance of discipline, hard work, integrity, and fairness from Butterfield, who guided Ithaca to three NCAA Division III national championships and 206 wins during his decorated career.
Fast forward 22 years, and Welch has carved out a highly successful coaching career leading the Bombers. His teams have compiled a 163-67 record (.709 winning percentage) with eight NCAA appearances and NCAA victories.
On Sept. 25, Welch followed in Butterfield’s footsteps, earning induction into Ithaca College’s Athletics Hall of Fame during the 46th annual induction ceremony.
Welch was one of eight individuals and two teams (the undefeated 1965 football squad and the 1982 national championship-winning field hockey team) to earn enshrinement into the Bombers’ Athletics Hall of Fame.
“My emotions were mixed because we were preparing for a football game with Alfred, too, so my total focus was on prepping for the game up until that point in the evening when the ceremony began,” said Welch, who credited Susan Bassett ’79, Ithaca’s Director of Athletics, and Kevin Connors ’97, the emcee, for making the event a memorable one.
“Once the ceremony began I was able to take everything in and enjoy the moment. It is a great honor to go into the Hall of Fame and I’m very proud to be part of a special group like that. What made the night even more special was having my family there, along with our current team and many of my former teammates.”
Welch’s teams have won seven or more games 17 times and posted a winning record in 20 of 21 seasons, including a 10-3 mark and an appearance in the NCAA semifinals during his first campaign in 1994.
After that highly successful first season, Welch was named Division III Coach of the Year by College Sports magazine, and also earned the Eastern Division III Coach of the Year (Stan Lomax-Irving T. Marsh Award) by the Metropolitan New York Football Writers Association.
Ithaca has claimed seven Empire 8 titles during Welch’s tenure, including back-to-back in 2013 and 2014.
But when Welch took over for Butterfield, he was just trying to make the most out of his first collegiate head coaching position.
After serving as an assistant coach at Albany (1976-79), Washington (Mo.) University (1980-83), and his alma mater (1984-93) as a linebackers coach, Welch was given the reins to the Bombers job. He said from his first day on the job he relied on the valuable lessons that Butterfield taught him during his playing days to get by as a coach.
“Having played for (coach Butterfield) and going into my profession, he gave me the ingredients I needed to be successful in coaching: Discipline, integrity, hard work, fairness, and class. That’s what I took from him . . . as my foundation in coaching,” said Welch, who served as president of the American Football Coaches Association (AFCA) in 2014.
“It was a job I really wanted and it was a goal I set for myself, and I achieved it. I knew that if this was going to be the last job that I had, it would be a great one. But you can never predict the future and how things will go. It’s been a great ride and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Much like the two coaches who directly preceded him – Butterfield and Dick Lyon – Welch strived to be a players’ coach, an organized leader with a great work ethic, and an ability to both relate to and inspire his student-athletes to accomplish greatness on and off the football field.
Reflecting on his Hall of Fame career, Welch said he has many fond memories from his Ithaca College coaching career, including
“I do feel like I’ve made a difference in the lives of our student-athletes and it means a lot for them to have coaches who treated them as more than football players,” said Welch, Ithaca’s second-winningest football coach.
“A real key factor in coaches who go on to have successful careers is to have that great relationship with their players. If the players know their coach cares about them and wants the best for them, they will go the extra mile for the coach. For me, it’s not about the wins, it’s how your players grow and develop as people. That’s the ultimate prize, to see players become better people and citizens.”
Welch is quick to give credit to his family for their never-ending support during the season, which as a head coach does not stop once the final game is finished. The offseason can be long and grueling with recruiting trips that crisscross the country, but Welch said he has an amazing support staff in his wife, Susan (a 1973 Ithaca alum), and their two children: Jessica, a 2003 Ithaca graduate, and Jeff, a 2005 graduate.
“My family has always been there for me,” Welch said. “People don’t really understand what a coach’s wife goes through. Sue has been my partner for 42 years and she has given up a lot of her personal life to be with me for my coaching career, and I can’t thank her, Jessica and Jeff enough for supporting me.”
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