Gerald Welch says he never envisioned the day Timmy Chang would become Hawaii’s head football coach, a reality that came to fruition on Saturday.

As Chang’s classmate and top target as a star slot receiver at Saint Louis, Welch knows his football journey intimately. The two have been close friends since the sixth grade, and each turned down offers from Power Five schools to team up at UH from 2000 to 2004.

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After catching passes from Chang for over a decade, Welch believed Chang was destined for a prolonged NFL career.

“I didn’t (see Chang becoming UH’s head coach one day). I thought he’d be in the NFL for quite a long time as a player and maybe as a coach there,” Welch said. “Watching him from when he started college coaching with June (Jones) at SMU, he’s learned from a lot of good coaches. He’s been around a lot of good coaches throughout his career and I think he’ll take bits and pieces of each of those successful coaches and use it towards a good package in this situation.”

Compared to other current college head coaches, Chang is relatively new to the profession despite having a decade of experience under his belt. The 40-year-old got his start under former Hawaii coach June Jones as a graduate assistant at SMU in 2012. From there, he’s risen up the ranks as an offensive coordinator at Jackson State and Emory & Henry, as well as a receivers and tight ends coach at Nevada. Chang followed Colorado State head coach Jay Norvell to Fort Collins as the team’s wide receivers coach following the 2021 season but departed CSU in order to take the Hawaii job.

As a player, Chang saw time in NFL training camps as a member of the Philadelphia Eagles, Arizona Cardinals and Detroit Lions over a span of two years and never saw action in a regular season game. Although Chang’s professional playing career never took off the way many in the islands had hoped after he set a handful of NCAA records for UH, Welch wholeheartedly believes he’s the right person to take over the program in 2022.

“I was excited for him, proud of him. He’s worked really hard to get where he’s at,” said Welch, who currently serves as a co-athletic director, assistant football coach and kindergarten teacher at Saint Louis. “I think he’ll be able to get this thing turned around and be successful. I’ll help him out in any way I can, whatever capacity it is. I’m excited. I know all of our classmates are excited. It’s big news for us and any way we can help, we’ll be there for him.

“The best thing about him is he’s a humble guy. He’s not all about himself, he cares about the people around him, his family, his friends and he’s an all-around good guy. This opportunity to come in and take over a program that has been kind of down in the past couple of years. … He’s a student of the game and I think he’s ready. I wish him nothing but the best.”

Former Saint Louis quarterback coach Vince Passas echoed Welch’s sentiments about Chang being a student of the game. After grooming a long line of Crusaders quarterbacks that include the likes of Chang, Darnell Arceneaux, Jason Gesser, Marcus Mariota, Tua Tagovailoa, Chevan Cordeiro, Jayden de Laura and AJ Bianco, Passas says in addition to Chang’s physical abilities, his eagerness to break down film and study the game is what stood out and ultimately translated into success as a college coach.

“Working with him as his quarterback coach, watching film with him, he was always attentive in film and always talked and suggested this and suggested that and he just was one of those guys that was just a student of the game and found every minute he could for watching film and tried to see how he could slow the speed of the game down by continuously watching film and running those videos in his mind before he takes every snap and just finding ways to make things easier for himself.

“He’s a real amazing educator. Knowledgeable about the game, he can relate to his players well, he teaches it well as far as technique and leverage and the X’s and O’s. He’s got an amazing mind that he can be a real asset to a program thinking outside of the box. He handles pressure really well. Nothing fazes him, he just moves on to the next play and just tries to continuously gets better every day and every snap and I think that’s what Hawaii is looking for.”

In his opening press conference on Saturday, Chang said his heart never left the islands even as he started a new life on the mainland following his college days. He also took a moment to thank his late father, Levi, who passed away in 2015.

Welch and Passas praised Chang’s humility and ability to maintain relationships, which were two common themes that arose from those across the country publicly congratulating Chang on social media since the news of his hiring. It started at the slopes of Kalaepohaku, where Chang has been entrenched in the Saint Louis Brotherhood.

“I got goosebumps. I’m so happy for him. It’s a job he’s been wanting and worked really hard for, tried to learn all the positions and I think it was his time to be the guy. I think he’s ready for the challenge and a new journey for him and I’m just so happy for him and his family and especially for Hawaii to have a coach like Timmy,” Passas said. “He’s an excellent teacher and he’s a real genuine person, just a people’s person. He’s a good communicator and a player’s coach. I know they’re all gonna love him there and really appreciate having a coach like him there.”

When reached for comment, former Saint Louis head coach and former UH assistant Cal Lee said via text: “Congratulations to Timmy being named the new head coach. We are all here to support the football program any way we can and are proud of the person he has become. His dad is smiling with pride from above.”

Although Hawaii has received four consecutive bowl game invitations, Chang takes over a team that’s facing a rebuild. A multitude of impact players departed the program following the 2021 regular season due in large part, but not entirely, to Todd Graham‘s mistreatment of players, which went public via social media.

Chang faces the tall task of restocking UH’s roster via the NCAA transfer portal, as well as via high school and junior college talent ahead of National Signing Day on Feb. 2.

Above all else, healing a fanbase that witnessed its share of drama and toxicity appears to be Chang’s most time-sensitive priority moving forward. Unlike signing day, it’s an item on Chang’s checklist that doesn’t have a specific date attached to it. To that end, members of the program who chose to stick around amid the tumultuous weeks that followed the end of the 2021 season united through a new “Braddahhood” mantra. Dozens of current players, coaches and program alumni took to social media using the #Braddahhood hashtag to show solidarity even when UH had yet to name a new coach. When Chang made his first public comments as the program’s new head coach, he sat behind a Braddahood graphic and accentuated the phrase when he uttered the word in his opening statement.

As a former player, Welch is invigorated to see the fate of the program in Chang’s hands once again. And as a father, Welch is comforted by the fact that his son, Harvey, a safety on the team, will be coached by someone he fully trusts.

“Timmy’s been around my son since Day 1. I had him in college, he was around during my playing days so he knows his uncle real well but he knows he ain’t gonna get any freebies from his uncle, he knows what’s expected of him,” Welch says of his son. “I’ve been tough on him all the way through from eight years old, Pop Warner through the years. He knows how to work hard, he knows what it takes to be successful and I don’t see anything changing from that standpoint but he’s excited. Last year, he would come home from practice, he wasn’t as excited, the opportunity wasn’t there as much but that’s part of life. You go through your ups and you go through your downs. That’s the great part about football — being successful but going through some hard patches, but working through those hard patches and making things happen for yourself.

“It’s very exciting, it’s very refreshing. The last few years, it was kind of rough and some of the kids expressed that. I hope Timmy’s able to come in there and listen to the kids and see what their needs and wants are and make it happen for them and put them in the position to be successful. I think that’s his frame of mind coming in. He understands what it’s like being a Warrior. It wasn’t all roses for him when he was here. … He knows what it’s all about. He can relate to these kids very well. I see that being a very positive thing for him coming in.”