QA with new Harford Tech coach John Watson
John Watson is back for thirds. After taking over as Harford Tech's head football coach on two previous occasions (he went 24-35 in total), Watson decided to give it another go in late March.
Watson served as an assistant the last three years under coach Mike Woods. But after Woods won just two games combined the last two seasons he was let go. The administration asked Watson to come back, and the 61-year-old football lifer accepted.
Watson grew up in Washington, D.C., and attended Potomac High in Prince George's County. He starred as a fullback for the Wolverines and earned a full scholarship to the University of Miami in 1969. But his Hurricanes career was quickly derailed when he suffered a devastating shoulder injury.
Watson decided to leave Miami entirely in 1971 and come back home to D.C. He finished college at Salisbury University, where he not only earned a degree but also a chance to try out for the NFL. The Washington Redskins signed Watson to a one-year, $18,000 contract, which was less than minimum wage. That one year is all he had; a second debilitating injury knocked him out for good.
With his playing days in the rearview mirror, Watson decided to teach and coach. His high school alma mater, Potomac, hired him in 1975 as their head football coach. He stayed there for four years before taking an assistant's job at Salisbury. Three years after that, however, he left high school and college coaching for the business world (he still coached youth football).
A decade later, however, C. Milton Wright in Harford County offered him a spot as an assistant coach. He took the job and stayed for the next eight seasons. But in 2001 the Harford Tech head-coaching job opened up. Watson took the gig and coached football and baseball at Tech for three years before taking a one-year hiatus for health reasons. He came back for a second stint in 2006, but had to leave for more health-related issues in 2008.
Now, he's back again and ready to finish the job.
MdHigh publisher Dave Lomonico recently spoke with Watson about his third time around as Tech's head coach. The full transcript of their question-and-answer session is below.
Coach, from what I hear you had a lot of injuries in your football career. You got a full ride to Miami coming out of high school. Then injuries derailed your career. What happened?
In spring ball my freshman year at Miami I got speared by a linebacker and totally separated my shoulder. It got knocked right out of its socket. I was never the same after that, but then it happened two more times over the years.
Now, to this day, I'm 40 percent disabled in my right arm. If you look at it, it's like half the size of my left arm. On top of that my knees are gone after taking shot after shot on the field. I have two medal knees now.
But even after I was injured at Miami, I still was able to come back and play for Salisbury and then get a tryout with the Redskins. But I knew I wouldn't be able to physically hold up for long. I knew I wasn't going to make a career out of playing pro football.
So you got into coaching… And 20 years later you wound up at Harford Tech. What was the program like when you took over the first time back in 2001?
You know, when I first got here 10 years ago Tech had won like two games in the last five years. It was my job to change the culture and the mindset.
So my first day in the gym, when I met the kids for the first time, they said their goal was to win just a couple games to get a little winning spirit back. I just shook my head and I told them flat out, 'Why don't we go 10-0 the first year?' They looked at me like I was crazy. Well, then I said, 'We have 10 games on the schedule. Why can't we win them all? Every game starts 0-0, and there's no reason we can't give our best effort for four quarters and come out ahead when the final gun sounds.'
And, wouldn't you know it, we won six games that first year, more then we ever had before.
You must have been pretty proud…
Well, we went 6-4 the first year, then 5-5, then 4-6 and then 5-5 again. So we didn't make the playoffs, but we were competitive in every game. But my goal was to develop young men and find a place in college for those that wanted to go. So even though we were playing with guys who weighed 120 pounds, I had them understanding that if they wanted something bad enough no one could stop them. So, in that sense, yes, I was proud.
I find it interesting that after you had Tech moving in the right direction you stepped down in 2005. What happened there?
In 2005 I was going for my first knee operation and my son was getting married. Then I was also the head baseball coach at Tech.
I always told my kids, 'If you're going to coach football it has to be a 100 percent commitment.' And I wasn't able to give 100 percent. So I told Mike [Woods], who was an assistant, and the staff that I was going to be out a few days here and there. I couldn't do that and be a head coach. I told Mike, 'It's in your hands now. I'll still be involved, but I can't be the head coach.' So he became the head coach and I became an assistant.
But taking a year off was actually good for me. It let me pursue my next goal of getting the practice and game facilities up to par. I got on my pulpit and started going in front of the legislators and demanding that they treat our school equally to some other schools who had more benefits. It took awhile, but it finally came through.
But after all of that, you stepped down again in 2008. What happened that time?
Well, I went for a physical at the doctor's one day and they found a little blip on the heart monitor. They found out I had a heart defect all my life and never knew it. The left side of my heart was not pumping blood. So I had to go in for emergency bypass surgery to repair my heart.
At that point my son was married, I had a grandkid and I had a heart condition, so I had to step aside. I was still the baseball coach and I was still teaching, but I couldn't coach football. I really had to concentrate on my health.
But then I came back a year after that and was an assistant football coach under Mike [Woods]. And now, I'm a football coach, I'm a baseball coach, I do weight training for wrestlers, and I do rehab for the athletes who aren't able to go to a physical trainer.
I can't believe you've been able to do all that with a bad shoulder, two medal knees and after having quadruple bypass surgery. You've really been through a lot…
Well, my doctor says I'm a medical marvel; he says I'm like a 25-year old (laughs). But, for example, people can watch me in the gym and I can pick up 80 pounds with my left hand and only five pounds with my right hand. So it can be tough…
But I use that as a teaching tool. I tell the kids that you can overcome a lot of things if you put your mind to it. You don't have to put yourself down because you're handicapped. You don't have to tell yourself, 'I can't do it.' No. That's an excuse.
So I'm assuming that you got the itch to come back to being a head coach again after stepping away in 2008?
No, I really didn't even apply for it. I had people asking me and asking me to come back. And it kind of annoyed me because they knew Mike was my choice to succeed me when I left in 2008. So I turned the job down every time I was asked about it.
But there were some things going on [this offseason] and the principal decided to do what he needed to do [Woods was fired]. I was asked again to take over and I said, 'No.' But enough parents and kids kept asking me to reconsider. So I eventually said, 'OK.'
What is different about coming back to this for the second time? What's changed at Tech?
Well, I've always been here as a teacher and an assistant coach. So I never really left. But, now, I have a better handle of what's going on what to expect. When I first took over 10 years ago I walked into a situation where I … had no idea about the athletes and the type of kids who were here. I really didn't know what was going on. So I had to get acquainted with the players and find out where they were at with football. Then, from there, I tried to instill the discipline and winning attitude.
What's the biggest challenge you have at Tech now?
The same thing as the first time through: Make the kids believe in themselves and make them believe in hard work.
Hard work is not going to kill you. And I'm talking about working hard on the field and in the classroom. If they want to go to college, then they're going to have to hit the books first before they hit out on the field. If they do that, I'll find them a school somewhere. There is a school out there for anyone who's willing to do his work and give his all on the field.
Is it more of a challenge this time around since Tech has won two games in the last two years?
It depends how you look at it. If a coach's ego is dependent on wins and losses then I guess it would be more of a challenge. But I would question what was going on with that coach if he measured himself on wins and losses.
My thing as a coach is, Can I instill discipline and a winning attitude in the kids? And, Can I see their faces at the end of the day and see that they worked and accomplished something? It's all about working hard for a goal every day. That's what high school football is about.
But, obviously, wins and losses are important. High school coaches do get fired when they don't win…
Absolutely wins are important. My goal is to win a state championship. And I told the boys that, too. That should be their goal every year - get to the playoffs and go for a state championship.
If we don't win, it wasn't because we didn't coach them well or prepare them enough. It's just because we ran into a team that was a little better then us. That's the attitude I have.
Is that realistic to expect at Tech though?
I don't care if I was coaching Maryland School for the Blind. I expect to win every game. And the games we don't win, we'll find out why and we'll fix it.
I think any coach that's gone against me in the past realizes they're going to have a game on their hands. They know we'll be prepared.
Was that preparation not happening under the previous regime?
I'm not saying the kids weren't prepared or weren't well coached. They were. It's just that sometimes a change has to occur in order to have a positive effect.
But, being in the school as a baseball coach and a teacher, did you see anything in the football program you'd like to change or do differently?
No. Mike did the things he felt were right and what he thought would take the program in the right direction. I coached under him and he coached under me before. We share similar visions.
But, are there things that have to change? Yeah. If your program isn't going the way it should and the parents are complaining, then, yeah, maybe there does need to be a few adjustments.
So, there were problems with the parents?
Well, let's put it this way: There's one thing I have to let the parents know - I'm in charge. Not them. They're the mom and dad and I'm the coach.
That's one major thing that needs to change - who's actually running the program. It's not the 30 parents sitting in the stands. It's the coach.
This is not parks and recs. Little Johnny is not going to be guaranteed a trophy at the end of every season, nor is he guaranteed that he's even going to get playing time. Little Johnny has got to come in and earn in. I don't care if he was the MVP of his 105-pound rec program. This is varsity high school football - different game, different rules.
OK, besides taking control of the parent situation, anything else you'd like to see change?
I'm going to take the good things Mike did with the program and emphasize them.
Then I'm going to try and make the kids understand that you can't put it all on the coach if you don't win. I want them to understand it's on them; it's their responsibility. I'll ask them, 'What did you do tonight to make yourself a better person and player? What did you do to make your team better?' The emphasis has to be placed on the kids, and the parents and kids have to understand that.
And that goes beyond what you do on Friday nights. It starts with the classroom. The kids have to be doing their homework and studying for their exams. If they're not doing their work, they aren't going to play. Then they're going to be hurting the team.
But if a kid isn't working in the classroom, then how is he going to work for me out on the field? I don't want any part of a kid who isn't willing to work.
So you're willing to lose numbers at a school that's already very small and doesn't have a large squad?
One of the things I tell the kids is, 'You only need 11 guys.' I watched Bohemia Manor last year and they had like 17 kids. And look at them - they made the playoffs. Then I've seen some of Johnny Brooks' best teams at Havre de Grace only have 17 to 20 guys. He proved you could win with a small team.
It's not the numbers, it's the quality of those numbers.
One of the things you said before was how you're going to 'emphasize the good things that were going on.' What are those good things?
Well, we have facilities now that we can take pride in. When I got here we didn't even have a practice field. Now we have a practice field, a game field, a weight room and a stadium. That's what the new kids have to understand. The older kids had to put up with a lot, and these younger kids coming in have to work to earn their place and appreciate what the older kids had to go through.
Another good thing is the emphasis placed on teaching. That's a big thing with me: All the coaches have to be teachers, too. You're a teacher in the classroom, and you're a teacher on the field. Don't tell the kids what to do - show them what to do. Showing them is much more effective.
Those were some of the 'good things that were going on.'
What is the perception of the football program at Tech. Sometimes when you lose a school can take on a sense of apathy…
No, I don't sense apathy here. I look at our girl's tack team, girl's soccer team and our baseball team and I see winning programs and heavy support for those programs. If it was every sport doing bad, well, then I could sit back and say, 'Maybe it's the quality of the athlete here.' But it's not. There are athletes here, and they just need to be given a little direction.
But, at the same time, Harford Tech is not a sports school. It's a school you won't get into without a certain background in academics. There are plenty of sports kids who want to come here but can't get in because their grades aren't in place.
So, basically, we take the students and we make them into athletes…not the other way around.
What is your goal at Tech?
My goal is to get the kids to understand the necessary discipline and education it takes to succeed in life. I want them to work hard to win on and off the field.
Then, I also want to find my successor. From Day One now as head coach I'm going to be looking for a guy to train to be my successor.
So how long do you think you'll be there?
I tell the kids I'll be here until I'm 100 (laughs). But there's still some unfinished business here in terms of our facilities and putting good things in place. So I'm thinking I'll be here another four, five, six years until it all gets put in place.
But my friends keep telling me, 'John, you've put in the time. You're 61. It's time to retire. You're ready for it.' But I tell them, 'What would I do? I don't have a job now. '
I don't consider what I do a job. I enjoy getting up at 5:30 in the morning and coming to school and dealing with the kids. I enjoy getting home at 8:30 at night after spending all day teaching and assisting the athletic director.
When I don't like what I'm doing and can't give everything back to the kids, then I'll know it's time to retire.