Watson Brown: The man, the myth, the number

Coach Watson Brown, Center.

200. That’s the number of losses Tech’s head football coach Watson Brown now holds under his belt. The number, unfortunately for Brown, is now the most in NCAA history.

With a final score of 50-7, last Saturday’s loss to the Northern Iowa Panthers marked number 200 to the coach’s career loss column, a column that spans over five decades at six different schools.

The story of Brown’s imminent record-breaking loss total first broke the Wednesday prior to the team’s trip to Cedar Falls, Iowa last Saturday. The idea of making history was also news to Brown when ESPN senior writer Ivan Maisel traveled to campus to interview the veteran coach.

“I didn’t know anything about the number when he asked me,” said Brown. “He [Maisel] said, ‘What do you think?’ and I said, ‘When you have been coaching for 30 years and you’ve had the tough jobs that we’ve had as a staff, it would make sense.’”

To refer to the coach’s job opportunities as tough would be and understatement, for lack of a better term. In his sixth season as a head coach, Brown returned to Nashville, Tenn., to take on the challenge of revitalizing his alma mater, Vanderbilt, a program that had a winning season just once in the 10 years prior to Brown’s return in 1986.

The Commodores cut the cord on the coach after posting a 10-45 record during his five seasons with the black and gold.
Brown then left the state for new coaching opportunities in Mississippi, Oklahoma and Alabama before making his return 17 years later. In December 2006, the hometown kid from Cookeville moved back to his old stomping grounds to become Tennessee Tech’s 10th head coach in program history.

Much like his alma mater, taking on the task of rebuilding the team from his hometown would be no walk in the park for Brown, either. Up for the challenge, he inherited a team that had been in a conference championship drought since 1975. Five years after his arrival, Brown led the purple and gold to its first set of OVC championship rings in 36 years.

Although Brown admits coming back to his hometown to coach the local Division I team wasn’t something that was ever on his radar, he says he’s enjoyed returning home.

“It’s been neat to be back and get the team back to that first championship in so many years,” said Brown. “We got that first one and it took 36 years to get it. We don’t want to take 36 to get it again.”

Brown’s coaching record currently stands at 128-200-1. Before Masiel’s article surfaced online through ESPN last week, there may have been just as many people who paid attention to the coach’s wins and losses rather than the total number itself. At 200 though, the number of losses for such a head coach can be rather alarming for someone seeing the stat for the first time.

Unconcerned with the number, however, was Athletic Director Mark Wilson, who says he pays little attention to the coach’s individual performance when evaluating his entire body of work.

“A concern? None whatsoever. We don’t evaluate our total program on winning and losing. It’s a total package,” said Wilson.

Wilson, who has directed the University’s athletics program since 2004, shows zero signs of apprehension while discussing Brown’s lofty loss total.

“[He] does things the right way. I don’t lose sleep worrying about the integrity of our football program and our head coach,” said Wilson. “Our program is in good hands.”

But what about Brown’s team? After being told your head coach is approaching the wrong side of history, it could be easy for players to become discouraged. Senior quarterback and wide receiver Darian Stone holds his own take on his coach’s recently remarkable win-loss record.

“In my eyes, I don’t look at that 200 number as a number of losses,” said Stone. “I look at it as the number of challenges he’s taken on to try and make winning programs.”

Stone’s take further accentuates what appears to have been his coach’s M.O. throughout the course of his coaching career, but in particular, his time at Tech.

As black and white as winning and losing may be, Coach Brown seems to have found his area of gray. The area of gray for Brown, however, is what is often considered in the sports world to be “intangibles.” Ironically enough, these intangibles are ever so tangible. Throughout his coaching career, Brown has made an effort to see his players step across both the end zone and the stage at graduation. While caps, gowns and diplomas may look like intangibles to some, they are ultimately a byproduct of the program building Watson Brown has crafted during his time at TTU.

Here are what some of those intangibles look like: For the past two seasons, the Golden Eagles football team has won back-to-back OVC Academic Achievement Awards, as well as recording its highest GPA in team history last spring. In addition to the academic achievements awarded by the conference, the football program was recognized this past summer by the Football Championship Subdivision Athletic Director’s Association for having the highest academic progress rate in 2012-13 in the OVC.

Brown’s commitment to academic excellence is something that is almost atypical to the program’s history.

“We’ve always been highly committed to academics, but Watson has taken the academics at Tennessee Tech to a whole new level,” said Athletic Director Wilson. “That’s what intercollegiate athletics and a higher education environment is all about—graduating. Do we want to get championships, too? Yes, but it’s not an end all, be all.”

Another focal point in building the football program at TTU has involved playing in what Wilson describes as guarantee games, or paycheck games, as they are more commonly known as. Since 2007, Coach Brown has purposefully scheduled 10 guarantee games which have, in turn, given TTU what Wilson refers to as “significant financial resources,” which have not only benefited the football program, but the entire athletics program.

“Those resources have allowed us to grow and put a foundation in place that will help us for years and years to come,” said Wilson.

During last week’s media buzz around the university and its head football coach, players seemed to be more discouraged by the initial responses made by those outside of the program who might use their platform on social media to voice their opinions on the coach’s new NCAA record.

 “I think people need to realize the 200 losses speak more to Coach Brown’s longevity than it does to his wins and losses,” said senior running back Stephen Bush.

In addition to Maisel’s article on the coach’s story-filled career, Brown was featured during a segment on the weekly Saturday airing of “College GameDay” on ESPN.

Making an appearance in the segment was Tech defensive back Marty Jones, who says he enjoyed the feature piece that Tom Rinaldi and ESPN produced about his head coach’s body of work.

“I think they put the right spin on it,” said Jones. Much like his teammates, Jones says he’d rather people be slower to respond to the number 200 on paper, but to look at the big picture.

“There’s always going to be hecklers on social media, but they don’t see the things Coach Brown does behind the scenes,” said Jones. “They don’t see the extra mile he goes for his players.”

Stephen Bush added that while on paper Brown may be the losingest head coach in NCAA history, he’ll never remember his head coach as such a title.

“I’ll remember him as a man of high character—a coach that wanted the best for his players and always made sure they were prepared for life after football,” said Bush.

An area of concern for students, fans and sports enthusiasts alike has been the contract extension given to Brown to keep the coach in his hometown through the 2019 season. While many will outcry “why” given the nature of the number of losses in Brown’s career, Mark Wilson feels no reason to justify his decision to keep the coach around for a while.

 “The bird’s eye view is we look at the total program and we evaluate things other than just wins and losses,” said Wilson. “Watson has done what I, as an administrator, have asked him to do in building our program. Tennessee Tech should be thankful for the way he has led our program.”

There are also frequent and often misguided comparisons made between the head coach and his brother, former Texas Longhorn coach and 2006 BCS National Champion, Mack. Although he says they are apples and oranges, Watson doesn’t mind the comparison between him and his little brother. In fact, he loves it.

“Oh, I love being compared to Mack,” said Brown. “Mack and I have gone different routes. I feel strongly that we’ve both done good jobs at what we’ve done and wherever we’ve been, but competition? Heavens no. I’m very proud of him and he’s proud of me.”

With the number 200 buoying over a lengthy career, the question for Watson Brown remains what’s next? Wilson believes that if he and Brown continue to be true to their philosophy of winning both on and off the field, the next OVC championship ring is ready to be sized.

"We want to have our cake and eat it, too,” said Wilson. “Our goal for every one of our student athletes is that they’ll leave Tennessee Tech with a degree in their left hand and a championship ring on their right.”