Four days shy of his ninth year since being introduced as the head coach of the Tennessee Tech football program, Watson Brown returned to the podium as he announced his retirement at a press conference on Wednesday.
On Dec. 6, 2006, Brown assumed the position as the Golden Eagles’ 10th head coach. Since then, the veteran coach added 42 wins (22 in conference play) and the team’s first Ohio Valley Conference championship in 36 years.
And there were times before Wednesday, even before this season, that he considered hanging up the whistle. After winning the title in 2011, he thought about going out on top. In the process of re-building Tech’s program, Brown scheduled “guarantee” games against Football Bowl Subdivision programs nearly each season — trips to Auburn, Georgia, TCU, Iowa and Wisconsin to name a few — but most notably at Oregon in 2012, a game that resulted in a laundry list of injured Tech players. The roster quickly grew thinner in numbers.
But Brown knew he had to stay and walk out when he felt the time was right.
Nearly two weeks after Tech’s season-ending win at home over Tennessee State on Nov. 21, and after 43 years of coaching in the collegiate ranks (31 as a head coach) with 348 games under his belt, Brown said the time was now.
“I feel good about it,” said Brown of his decision on Wednesday. “I’m very proud of what we’ve done (at Tech), what we’ve been able to do on and off the field. If I would have left three years ago, it wouldn’t have been pretty because the cupboard would’ve been bare. I know I can leave now with things in a good place. There are championship players in that locker room, and for the next two years, there’s that shot (at another OVC title) again.”
Brown, 65, had previously coached at 12 programs in various roles and as a head coach at five. As most coaches do, Brown spent the weeks following the end of each of his fall seasons reflecting on the strengths and shortcomings of the past year while looking ahead to the duties and obligations of the next.
While routine for most coaches — as it certainly had been for him over the years — this year felt different to Brown, as he weighed more options and reasoned bigger implications.
The process was still the same this time around, but for Brown, the self-evaluation didn’t feel right.
“I do it every year,” Brown said. “Late in the year, you’re tired, you’re worn out. I don’t care if you’ve got a great team, things don’t always go the way you want. I’ve always said, ‘Don’t make decisions at that point.’ So I always wait a week (after the final game) because there’s always Thanksgiving and I have some time. And usually by the next week, my juices are flowing. This time, though, I just didn’t feel it. I just do not want to hurt these kids. They need the ‘it’ factor. That’s the word I like to use. They need that from their coach, and I’m not sure that it’s there (from me). It’s too special a time right now to take a chance, so it’s someone else’s turn.”
That someone else is Dewayne Alexander, who previously served as Tech’s assistant head coach of the offense under Brown for the past four seasons and was named Wednesday as the team’s acting head coach during the program’s national search for its future full-time leader.
Shortly before Wednesday’s presser, which announced Brown’s retirement from college coaching and Alexander’s interim role, Brown met with players to inform them of his decision.
“It’s sad,” he said. “It’s the sixth time I’ve done that. The other five, I was leaving to take another (head coaching) job. This time, I was retiring. It’s sad and very quiet, but I told them how proud I am of them, what their responsibilities are and how capable they are.
“They’re mine for life,” Brown added of his remaining roster. “There will be another coach here, and they will be his, but they’re also mine for life. I told them I’d always be there for them ‘till I’m laid to rest.”
As many players would say Brown was a “player’s coach,” the coach would say the opposite for his Tech lineups over the years, from his first in 2007 until his last one this fall.
“We’ve had so many upsets and competitive games,” Brown said. “Every week, when you came and watched us play from the stands, you never felt like our kids weren’t together and weren’t playing their guts out. I’m as proud of that as anything. To have a plan and to carry that plan out and it flat hit right where it was supposed to, that was neat, and I think it’s about ready to hit again. I will be a very proud daddy if it does in these next two years.”
Brown admits that he — and anyone who knows him, quite frankly — would be naïve to assume he’s stepping away from the game, especially away from Tucker Stadium on Saturdays.
“I think there’s a time when you know,” he said. “I told (players) I won’t coach college football anymore, but hopefully, I’ll be up in those stands sitting there when one of them makes a great play saying, ‘Yup. Let me tell you about that one.’ So I may be the best cheerleader they got in the stands.”
A Cookeville native himself, Brown, a 1968 graduate of Cookeville High School, said the decision to return and coach his hometown’s Division I football team made the most sense after his departure from the University of Alabama-Birmingham nearly a decade ago.
“It’s been fun,” he said of his time at Tech. “It brought me back to Cookeville. I’ve been back nine years after being gone for 40. Being back around Cookevillians, meeting old friends and making new ones, I’m a Cookevillian for life.”
As for what’s next, Brown said your guess is as good as his.
“Where’s the last chapter? I don’t know,” he said. “It might be on the golf course. It might be fishing. You might see me on a high school football field.”
Because sometimes, not having a plan is the best plan, especially when there’s no shortage of long-term opportunities and options.
“Nothing,” Brown laughed. “I’m going to relax with Brenda and see what’s around. I do not have a direction. I don’t think I’m retired from college football. I strongly feel that way. 31 years and 3,000 kids is a lot. I’ve had opportunities in the NFL in the past, and I’m going to look at that now. I’ve been an athletic director at the Division I level at two different schools before, and I’m going to take a look at that again. Radio and television have always been fantasies of mine. I went to college to get into communications — radio, TV, newspapers — but after a couple of English classes, I said, ‘Whoop, not for me.’ I don’t think I’m ready to retire, but I don’t know that until I take a little time off, and I’m looking forward to that.”