CHC: Watson Brown - Always a Commodore
Aug. 29, 2007
Watson Brown, former Vanderbilt football player and head coach, knew what a football was just hours after he was born. While laying in his Cookeville General Hospital crib on his April 19, 1950 birthday, Brown's grandfather placed a toy football by the infant's side.
In two years Brown was forced to face his brother Mack who was the head coach at the time for Tulane. Mack won both contests. Brown said that it was a problem playing against his close brother since they had never been against each other in anything.
Mack, who is one year younger than Watson, actually followed Watson to Vanderbilt as a football player. When Watson was hurt and it was apparent his football career would be limited, Mack left Vanderbilt. He saw little action in one season and transferred to Florida State. There were a few times the brothers faced each other while Watson was an assistant and Mack a head coach.
In Brown's five seasons (1986-90) at Vanderbilt, he managed a 10-45 (SEC, 4-29) record including three 1-10 tallies. His biggest win was against Florida in 1988 when the Commodores stunned 20th ranked Florida, 24-9. In Brown's final season his Commodores defeated LSU in another upset in Nashville.
The opening game in 1990 would turn out to be a low point in Brown's effort to rebuild Vanderbilt's football program. SMU was coming off a two-year death penalty imposed by the NCAA for recruiting violations while on probation. Vanderbilt was embarrassed, 44-7 in Dallas.
"Any loss is a low point," said Brown. "We were a real young team and we were better than SMU, but they were more experienced and older than us. You go back and looked at who played for us in that game. Those kids went on in the next couple of years to make Vanderbilt more competitive.
"Right at the end we were really fixing to have a good football team. I knew it was going to take longer there than it would any other place. I thought we wee looking at six or seven years before we could have it going. We had to do so much. We had to change the image and the SEC was rolling at that point it was really tough at those times. It was a tough time to be in the SEC and I knew what I was walking into.
"We played so many close games. I would hate to go back and see how many less than a touchdown losses we had. I know that we were in the lead going into the fourth quarter many times just not good enough or deep enough to hold on at that point. I really would have loved to have a couple more years and I believed we would have had it turned around. It was the decision that I made and never regretted it in any way."
After the SMU game, rumors were circulating that Brown's job was in jeopardy. Brown said that those rumors did not reach him and he did not feel any pressure. He thought the press was good to him and understood his situation in rebuilding the program. But he was surprised by the way his time at Vanderbilt ended.
Before the final Tennessee game, Brown met with Vanderbilt Chancellor Joe B. Wyatt and athletics director Paul Hoolahan. Brown left that meeting realizing he was in trouble. After a loss to the Vols in Dudley Field, it was announced that Brown was reassigned to the alumni development office. Brown's contract was later settled and he left Vanderbilt.
Vanderbilt fans were in an uproar in the way Brown's departure was handled. Brown was very popular with the Commodore fans and in the Nashville community. A few days after the UT game, Gerry DiNardo was named as the new Vanderbilt coach. John Bibb of The Tennessean reported that DiNardo had been in town one day during the week of the Vols game to discuss the Vanderbilt coaching job. Brown did not want to talk about the events concerning those controversial final days."
"The tough thing for Vanderbilt is they've had much better teams than their records," Brown said. "That's because they are in the best league in the country--top to bottom. It's the toughest league in the country. When you beat an SEC team, you've played well. You have to stay healthy. But again times are different.
"Bobby [Johnson] has it going and has the best shot to get it going. It's a good time for them and I'm 100 percent behind him. I will help in any way that I can to do that. It's not easy. It never has been. But it's not because Vanderbilt doesn't try. In those early years it was the competition and who you were playing."
Brown would coach for Jackie Sherrill at Mississippi State (1991-92) and Gary Gibbs at Oklahoma (1993-94) before beginning a 12-year tenure at UAB. The Blazers began playing football in 1991 as an Independent in NCAA Division III. When Brown joined the team in 1995 they were in Division I-AA, but moved up to Division I-A and joined Conference USA.
"We started that one from scratch," Brown said. "I loved it. I'd never taken a program where you just start from scratch. Your ordering new shoulder pads and helmets the whole thing. They were just starting. They just had a few scholarships. That was different from any that I've taken over before. You look at where I've been. I seem to go find the toughest ones there are, and take them."
During Brown's first three seasons the Blazers were a very respectful 5-6. It was in his second season he faced an SEC foe--Vanderbilt. The game was played in Nashville and the Commodores won the hard-fought contest, 31-15. It was not a homecoming for Brown.
"That was hard," said Brown. "We weren't very good. It was our first year in Division I-A, but we were competitive that whole year. I would love to have brought in one of my teams from the past four or five years. Just coming back was hard and I knew after that time, I didn't want to do it again. It brought back too many memories in too many ways."
While at UAB, Brown was later in the dual role of athletics director and head coach. Brown did an amazing job in upgrading the facilities and building the program into a conference championship contender. The other sports at UAB were also improved during Brown's time at the school.
In 2000, the Blazers went to Baton Rouge and shocked LSU, 13-10. UAB has been bowl eligible three times and earned a trip to the school's first and only bowl game in the 2004 Hawaii Bowl. The Rainbows won, 59-40. Brown's overall record at UAB was 62-74 while his overall career record is 94-151-1.
In December of 2006, Brown was named the new head coach at Tennessee Tech. Brown returned to his hometown of Cookeville and became the Golden Eagles 10th head football coach. He was asked if going home was destiny.
"It came at a time in my life where I'm 57 years old and I've been doing this for 35 years," said Brown. "It's a little bit of the same reason I went to Vanderbilt. I wanted to come back and give something to my community. My best friend's daddy was the head coach at Tennessee Tech. The stadium is named after him. His daddy and my daddy were roommates in college. So the families have been so close.
"Tech has great tradition here and hasn't had an OVC championship in 30 years. So here I go again. I really want to this to be my last go around. This will be it for me. I want to leave a mark here at Tennessee Tech and leave this program really strong. I want to bring back a championship or two before I go play golf, get into a ski boat or fishing boat and have a good time."
Brown contributions to athletics have not gone unnoticed. He was inducted into the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame in 2003 and was recently inducted into the first Cookeville High School Hall of Fame. Other partial inductees into the inaugural HOF were his grandfather "Jelly" Watson and brother Mack. Mack has been a longtime college coach and will be entering his 10th season at Texas. His Longhorns won the national championship in 2005 with quarterback Vince Young.
Brown's daughter, Ginny, was a four-year letter winner in basketball at Georgia State University (1996-2000) and son Steven played football at UAB for his father. Also living in Cookeville is Brown's brother Mel and mother Katherine.
Looking back, would Brown do anything differently concerning his career?
"You always look back and say what if I'd done this," Brown said. "What if I'd not gone to Cincinnati? What if I'd gone to Alabama as offensive coordinator when Ray Perkins offered me that? What if I'd gone the baseball route that I very well could have done? Life has been great for me. What would have happened if I hadn't gotten hurt?
"I've had a wife for 35 years, two great children and been healthy except for my physical deal with my arms and leg from the injuries from football. It's been a wonderful life and I don't think you can go back.
"One thing I can say that every place I have coached, we tried to do what was best for that school and I always wanted the kids to be No.1. And try to take care of them the best I can and teach them the right things. I know I've done that wherever I've been. That's what will really matter when it's all said and done and it's really over."
While Watson Brown has a connection to Vanderbilt athletics with highs and lows, he remains one of the most popular figures with Commodore fans and in the Nashville community.
Said Brown, "Make sure that the Vanderbilt fans know there is still Vanderbilt blood right there down deep, and there always will be."
If you have comments or suggestions you can contact Bill Traughber via e-mail WLTraughber@aol.com.