Want to start an argument amongst a gathering of Vanderbilt football fans? Just bring up the name "Watson Brown."
To some, he's one of the greatest heroes in Vandy football history. Still others see him as the coach who drove the Vandy program into the ground, so deeply that we've still not recovered to this day.
I confess up front that Brown has always held a special place in my heart. As an impressionable youth, I was present at Dudley Field in 1969 the night the young hotshot quarterback from Cookeville led Vanderbilt to a stunning 14-10 victory over Bear Bryant and Alabama. It was one of the greatest nights of my young life.
I was also at Vanderbilt Stadium 13 years later for Vanderbilt's cherished 28-21 win over Tennessee. The head coach was George MacIntyre, but the undisputed genius behind MacIntyre's explosive offense was again named Watson Brown. The '82 Commodores went 8-3 and snagged a bid to the Hall of Fame Bowl.
Thus it's not a stretch to say that Watson Brown was the architect behind Vandy's two greatest home wins of the last half-century. I hope you youngsters understand why I and other old-timers revere him so, and still follow his career.
After that golden '82 season, offensive coordinator Brown suddenly became a hot commodity. He jumped ship for a Division I-A head job at Cincinnati, then after one season jumped again to Rice. After the '85 season Roy Kramer (then Vandy's A.D.) hired Brown to replace MacIntyre as Vanderbilt's head coach. Those were heady days for Brown-- there was hoopla and tickertape as one of Vandy's icons returned home triumphantly to lead his alma mater to more glory.
Except that it never happened. Brown's record was an abysmal 10-45 over the next five years, culminating in a disastrous 1-10 season in 1990. It was an era marked by disappointment, injuries, heartache, and plenty of plain old bum luck. After Paul Hoolahan fired him (an event Larry Woody and Joe Biddle never let us forget), it looked as though a promising head coaching career had been cut short. Vanderbilt, the so-called "coaching graveyard", had claimed another victim.
The rap on Watson back then was that he was a great coordinator, but a lousy head coach. Lots of great coordinators fail miserably when they get a shot at the top job-- they may be brilliant at X's and O's, yet lack the administrative skills to run a bigtime program in these progressive times.
Little did anyone know that Watson Brown burned for another shot. After two years on Jackie Sherrill's staff at Mississippi State and two more under Gary Gibbs at Oklahoma, Brown got another opportunity at a head job, this time at I-AA Alabama-Birmingham. UAB had had success at the I-AA level, but the school had determined to go I-A in the near future. They needed to find someone crazy enough to take the job… and Brown was their man.
And you thought the Vanderbilt job was a tough challenge… by comparison, the UAB job made the Vanderbilt job look like a walk in the park. UAB was dwarfed in attendance and interest in the state by Alabama and Auburn, and was largely ignored by the local press. The Blazers played their games in decrepit Legion Field, in front of only 15,000 or fewer fans. By going I-A, UAB would have to go the road-warrior route to build its program, i.e., travel to places like FSU and Nebraska as a sacrificial offering in return for a big check.
When UAB came to Dudley Field in 1996 and got blitzed by Rod Dowhower's Commodores, I could see the handwriting on the wall all over again. After Brown's first five seasons at UAB were losing seasons, many UAB alumni were ready to sack him. "He'll never get us to the next level," they moaned. Some suggested that he move upstairs to become A.D. and let someone else more competent handle the coaching… but Watson resolutely chose to stay on the field.
Then suddenly Y2K arrived, and good things seemed to magically start happening. (Or, hard work began to pay off, take your pick.)
In September Watson's Blazers went to Baton Rouge and upset LSU, 13-10. Winning in Death Valley ANYTIME is a noteworthy achievement (Tennessee failed to do it a week later; Vanderbilt hasn't done it since Bill Wade). Suddenly the fledgling program got some national notice.
UAB finished 7-4 in 2000. Hey folks… MTSU going 6-5 in the Sun Belt, sorry, that "don't impress me much." But UAB whipping LSU and going 7-4 in Conference USA… that's nothing to sneeze at. With programs like Southern Miss, Louisville, Cincinnati and East Carolina on the rise in recent years, Conference USA is slowly earning legitimacy. Also, it didn't hurt anything that UAB's breakout season in I-A happened the same year Alabama's program went in the dumper.
Suddenly Watson Brown's star is on the rise again, and I'm happy about that. Now 51 years old, he's still got that boyish charm. He's upgraded recruiting, and he's got folks excited. While in Birmingham last week I heard that the Birmingham News' 2001 gala football preview edition is going to feature on its cover not Alabama nor Auburn… but UAB. Now that's something I never DREAMED I'd see.
Will the wily Watson be able to sustain the success? The Birmingham radio talkmeisters were buzzing last week about Blazer football, saying things like "UAB fans are going to be more demanding this year… Watson has raised the bar over there… now, when they go play these big programs, I don't think the fans are going to settle for moral victories."
Gosh. There's something about that kind of talk that sounds oddly familiar.