Watson Digs for Finest Diamonds

By NU Athletic Communications
Offensive Coordinator Shawn Watson and Athletic Director Tom Osborne share a handshake on the field.
Offensive Coordinator Shawn Watson and Athletic Director Tom Osborne share a handshake on the field.
Photo by Scott Bruhn/Nebraska Communications

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It’s fortunate that Shawn Watson’s grandfather was a coal miner and his father owned a trucking company before deciding to downsize and get into the excavating business in southern Illinois.

Watson’s father, now in his 70s, still goes to work every day as soon as the sun comes up, and he doesn’t come home until it goes down. During football season, the kid who waited for his dad until 10 or 10:30 almost every night doesn’t get home that early himself.

“There’s no other way to do it and do it well,” Watson said, acknowledging that growing up around hard-working people helps him understand that nothing of great value comes easily. “I’ve always thought of my dad as the greatest leader I’ve ever been around. He worked as hard as anybody and treated everybody fairly.”

Watson remembers being at his dad’s side almost every day, climbing up into the truck and riding right next to him to job sites all over the area. If he wasn’t with his dad, he’d be with his grandfather, who was just like his dad, but didn’t want his son following him as a coal miner because the job was just too dangerous. His grandfather worked closely with people who died working in the mine, so he encouraged his son to try something else.

Watson’s dad decided to go into business for himself. In high school, he bought a shovel and borrowed a beat-up pick-up. He’d hand-shovel coal and deliver it straight to people’s basements. Once he saved up enough money, he bought his own truck. And then another and another. He negotiated contracts to supply coal to Southern Illinois University and to the big power plant on the river.

It got to be a fairly big business. But when a couple of his drivers had back-to-back accidents, he realized he could have lost everything. So he sold his trucks, used the money to buy excavating equipment and continues to pour his heart and soul into that singularly driven business almost every day.

“All of our kids got our work ethic from our dad, and he got it from his dad,” Watson said. “My grandfather always said if you find something you love and if you live in your heart, you’re always going to be happy, and you’re never going to work a day in your life. My dad lives and works that way, and I’ve always tried to live and work by the same creed.”

Ganz Felt Relief when Watson Turned Down Alabama

Watson, Nebraska’s offensive coordinator who’s called “Wats” by most coaches, players and friends, is in his 27th year of coaching college football, and even though he’s enjoyed every place he’s been, Nebraska is “by far” his best stop. The experience in Lincoln has been so motivating that last winter he quickly turned down a much more lucrative offer to become Alabama’s offensive coordinator.

“It was a big sigh of relief for me when Coach Watson made that decision,” senior quarterback Joe Ganz said. “It would have been really hard for me to start all over again, especially when I was just beginning to build something. It wasn’t just crucial for me. It was important to the whole team. Our receivers didn’t have to start from scratch either, and they’ve really stepped forward as leaders of this team.”

Nate Swift, who broke Johnny Rodgers’ career receptions record last weekend, can’t imagine life without Wats. “Everybody likes him, respects him, talks to him and enjoys being around him,” Swift said. “He shares a lot of life stories with us. One of my favorites is about Ahab getting lost in the desert but continuing to talk to God, who told him to fill up his saddlebags with rocks while he looked for an oasis. I won’t bore you with the details, but the moral of the story is something about even though you may carry a lot of rocks in your pockets, over time, they’ll turn into diamonds, and you want to pick up as many of those as you can.”

Yep, the coal miner’s grandson never stops dreaming about those diamonds that lie deep in the earth. He says coaches and players can never stop believing what might be theirs if they just keep working hard and digging deep like the Huskers have this week in their preparations for Saturday night’s nationally televised game at fourth-ranked Oklahoma.

Ganz and Swift are hoping the rocks collected from a lopsided loss to Missouri can turn into some diamonds in the final stretch of the season.

“Our coaches have put together an offensive plan that plays to our strengths, and we understand it and we’re executing it,” said Ganz, who has completed 75 percent of his passes in the last three games for more than 1,000 yards and six touchdowns with only one interception. “Credit Coach Watson. He’s a great offensive coach. I’m glad he’s wearing a Nebraska headset.”

Bo Knows This . . . Wats Approaches the Game Like He Does

Bo Pelini agrees. “I’ve always had a lot of respect for Wats and his body of work over the years,” Nebraska’s head coach said. “He’s not only an outstanding coach, but an outstanding person. He puts his heart and his soul into this job. Good ideas are only good ideas if players are buying into them, and to make that happen, you have to remove ego from the situation. It can’t be about you. It’s about the players. Wats definitely understands that, and the players definitely feel that when they’re around him. It makes them really want to play for the guy.

“Wats approaches the game the same way I do,” Pelini said. “He has a system and he has beliefs, but ultimately he wants to put his players in a position that gives them the best opportunity to succeed. You can’t have the kind of success he’s had without being a tremendous competitor. He spends a lot of time at his trade. He’s always looking to get better, and that filters right through to his players.”

Husker players feel an innate sense of loyalty to Wats, especially after the allegiance he showed them in rejecting Alabama. “He told us that he took money completely out of the decision and when he looked at what was best for him and his family, the decision was easy,” Ganz said. “That says a lot about Coach. He tries to teach us every day about character and always being a man of your word, and that’s what he’s been for all of us.

“From the day I met him, he’s been nothing but a positive influence on me. Even that year he coached our tight ends, he helped the quarterbacks. He’s been a great blessing and taught me so much about football. He makes a really, really tough game easy just by the way he coaches and the way he teaches. He gives you a foundation, and you live by that foundation every day in practice and you live by it when the bullets start flying for real on Saturdays.”

Watson knows how important it is to coach at a place that values loyalty. Before coming here in 2006, he spent the previous seven seasons at Colorado, including the last six as offensive coordinator. He helped coach CU to four Big 12 North titles and the Buffs to the 2001 conference championship after they beat the Huskers, 62-36.

Before his final season at Colorado, Wats gave his blessing to good friend Ted Gilmore to leave CU and join Nebraska’s staff.

A year later, CU Head Coach Gary Barnett gave Watson the same blessing. He remembers the conversation from Barnett going something like this: “Hey, Wats, you need to go someplace where you wake up in the morning, and they love football. You need to go somewhere where they appreciate what you’ve done, and there’s no place in the world like Nebraska. You should go there.”

McCartney ‘Had the Greatest Respect in the World’ for Nebraska

Barnett’s predecessor, Bill McCartney, told Watson virtually the same thing. “Different words, but same message,” Watson recalled. “People don’t understand that Coach McCartney had the greatest respect in the world for Nebraska’s program. He designated Nebraska as CU’s rival because he felt like Coach Osborne built this program the way all great programs should be built – through hard work and great people . . . people who operate with integrity, trust and a passion for the game.”

The minute Watson arrived in Lincoln, he knew he was in the right place. “It’s unbelievable to feel 1.7 million people – everyone in this entire state – who are absolutely invested in what you’re doing,” Watson said. “I think good fans love their program, and I can’t imagine anyone loving their football team more than Nebraska does.”

That’s why Wats immerses himself in his work the same way his father and grandfather did.

Anton Engel, a security guard for Nebraska’s Athletic Department, is amazed at the football coaches’ 80, 90 and 100-hour work weeks. “When I leave here at 12:30 in the morning, Coach Watson and others are still here,” Engel said. “I don’t know how they do it.”

Wats burns the midnight oil because he doesn’t want to leave any stone unturned.  “I usually get out of here between 11:30 and 12:30, but I’m back at it and ready to go again at 5:30 in the morning,” he said. “I don’t want anyone feeling sorry for me because, honestly, I want to do that. I love doing it. I’ve always loved the strategy of the game. God’s given me a gift for organization and given me a gift of taking complexity and trying to simplify it.”

Coordinating an offense is time-consuming duty, especially when you listen to as many voices as Wats does and then systematically structure a game plan to leverage Nebraska’s strengths, minimize its weaknesses and attack speed and talent that might be better than his own.

“Shawn listens. He goes into every conversation open-minded. He has some fundamental beliefs, but he listens to everybody,” said Barnett, who now works as a college football analyst for Fox Sports Network. “He’s extremely well organized in every facet of his life, so he can show a lot of focus and give attention to every detail. He really knows the value of running the football, and I think he’d really like to run it more than he is now.”

Running Game Will Decide the Fate of Two Pass-Oriented Teams

Whichever team establishes a running game Saturday night has the best chance to win. The way Oklahoma and Nebraska have been moving up and down the field, time of possession – which Nebraska has hogged in its last three games by a 2-to-1 ratio – could be as revealing a statistic as it has been all season.

Watson and Gilmore, who have worked together long enough that they can predict each other’s thoughts, have the base pass package and the base run package locked and loaded for the talented Sooners. It is the result of five men, including Barney Cotton, Ron Brown and Tim Beck, working together as one.

“Wats is like Coach Pelini. He empowers you to do the job you were hired to do,” Gilmore said.

“That offensive staff is really jelling,” Pelini said. “They’re all good men, and they’re all good coaches. They all have ideas, and they all leave their egos at the door when they walk in the room.”

Barnett is not surprised. “Guys on our staff would go to Shawn, and players he didn’t coach would go to Shawn,” Barnett said. “Even people who just worked in the office would go to Shawn because they knew he would listen, be open-minded and fair. Shawn Watson does not have an ego. He’s just a very humble guy and has always operated that way in everything he’s ever done.”

Gilmore agrees, but says it would be a mistake to think that his good friend is anything less than ultra-competitive. “Shawn gets just as excited as the rest of us,” he said. “The best way to describe Shawn is like a duck on the water. When you look at him, he looks cool and calm. But underneath, his feet are going 100 miles an hour all the time.”

The Handwriting Is No Longer On the Wall. It’s in the Computer

Simplifying complexity isn’t easy. “When we were at CU, we hand-wrote everything,” Gilmore said, pointing to a stack of computerized printouts that Wats had put together. “Here, we have resources that force you to learn more than you ever thought you could. Shawn does all of the offensive scripting from his computer. It can’t be in better hands.”

And Nebraska’s offensive coordinator can’t be any more driven. “It’s been a blast coaching this week,” he said. “I wake up every morning loving the opportunity I’ve been given.”

Wats’ appreciation for life is as deeply rooted as the diamonds he keeps digging for. “I grew up right,” he said. “My mom was an English teacher, history teacher and librarian. She was the rock of the home and the glue to our family. She’s the most kind-hearted, determined soul I’ve ever been around. I was blessed, big time, to get her heart, spirit and organization at the same time my dad taught me to work hard and be tough, and my grandfather told me to never, ever, ever, ever quit or give up. I got important things from each of them.”

Wats hopes his three kids are as fortunate as he’s been, and he credits his wife, Anita, for keeping things basic. “She gives me a $20 Starbucks card every week,” he said. “During football season, that’s all I really need.”





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