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Bayou La Batre’s Todd Watson retires at Bama after climbing to the pinnacle of the game

Todd Watson spent three seasons as the special assistant to Alabama coach Nick Saban. Watson decided to retire a few days before Saban. (File photo)

An 8-year-old Todd Watson is seen on the sidelines next to his father, Alba coach R.L. Watson, during a game in 1979. (File photo)

 

 

“He had as much energy and fire as the day I walked in there three years ago. He held himself to a standard he expected of himself. But like it was with me, there comes a time when you want to experience life while you can. The one thing you can’t get back is time.”

Todd Watson on Nick Saban

 

 

By JIMMY WIGFIELD

Deep South Media Editor

There is a photograph of an 8-year-old Todd Watson crouching on the sideline, ready to run a kicking strap out to an Alba High School player, while his father held a walkie-talkie to speak with an assistant coach perched atop a ramshackle plywood cube which served as the press box.

It was 1979 and there were no headsets, and not much grass, because it was all the school could do to turn on the lights following the heavy damage Bayou La Batre incurred from Hurricane Frederic.

A few weeks ago, Watson, now 53, finished his football career in the Rose Bowl standing on the sideline with the man many consider the greatest college coach of all time.

The day after Alabama returned from its loss to Michigan in the College Football Playoff semifinal, Watson walked into coach Nick Saban’s office to tell him he was retiring from his job as Saban’s special assistant.

Watson had no idea that Saban was ruminating about his own retirement, which he announced on Wednesday.

“Not a bit,” Watson said. “We had no idea he was going to retire. We exchanged pleasantries. He told me he appreciated what I had done.”

Watson felt satisfied with his career — he had coached under Rush Propst when Propst opened Alma Bryant’s program and during Hoover’s run of four state championships during the early 2000s, coached Julio Jones at Foley and served on the operations side of football at Troy and Tennessee before joining Saban’s staff. But he was ready to move on from the seemingly endless hours of toil college football requires.

“I felt like I had done what I wanted to do,” said Watson, whose retirement is effective at the end of February after he speaks at a coaching clinic in Germany. “I started out wanting to be a high school coach like my dad. I was part of four state championships at Hoover. I was a head coach for 10 years. I was at Tennessee three years. I coached under the greatest coach who ever coached this game. What else is there?”

Watson said he and his wife Christie, a teacher, have long planned to retire together. His mother, Lynda, still lives in Mobile. His family has a vacation home on Lake Martin. He has a 1½-year-old granddaughter. He has time.

“You want to be young enough and healthy enough to enjoy it,” Watson said. “I have the opportunity now to spend quality time with my family. I’ve got a grandbaby and they can change a lot of perspectives. I’m going to go spoil her a little.”

 

‘You’re not going to say no’

 

Watson said he has also been spoiled by a career full of success and associations with great players and coaches.

“I worked under Rush Propst and Neal Brown (at Troy) and coach Saban,” he said. “I coached on a team (at Bryant) with Antwan Odom and Brandon Johnson. And John Parker Wilson (at Hoover), Julio Jones, Robert Lester and D.J. Fluker (at Foley). I’ve been extremely blessed to be around great coaches and players in high school and college.”

After three years at Tennessee and collecting enough years in Alabama to retire, Watson got a call from Saban.

“You’re not going to say no,” Watson said. “I came to Alabama because of coach Saban and because Alabama is home to me. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

Saban effusively praised Watson when he hired him in February 2021 to oversee high school relations, break down offensive and special teams schemes and contribute to camps and clinics — important elements in Saban’s unyielding recruiting success.

“We are excited to add his knowledge and experience to our staff,” Saban said. “Todd has always been someone we have had the utmost respect for as a person and a coach.”

The respect Watson has earned will make him a prime candidate for coaching jobs in high school and college, not that he will entertain offers.

“I have no plans to (coach again),” he said. “Everybody I’ve talked to has told me, ‘You’ll get bored and six months later you’ll be back in it.’ Well, I’m going to test that theory and see. I’ve got enough friends that I can bug them and go talk to them. I’m not going to never say never but I’m happy with where we are right now. I’ve been looking forward to this time and I’m going to enjoy it.”

 

Amazed by the process

 

But no one spends three years with Saban and fails to appreciate and soak up every bit of knowledge he imparted.

“The respect for him and who he is, what he’s done and how he did it never goes away,” Watson said. “You understand the greatness and the excellence. I enjoyed every minute with him. When I first got there, seeing the whole thing in action, his process, was fascinating to me. I loved watching the little intricacies. I was amazed by his energy and the tireless worker he was.”

When he announced his retirement to his players and coaches, Saban, 72, said it was getting harder for him to do the job the way he wanted because of his age.

Watson said he saw no deterioration of Saban during the 2023 season.

“A resounding no,” Watson said. “He did not waver from his routine. He had as much energy and fire as the day I walked in there three years ago. He held himself to a standard he expected of himself. But like it was with me, there comes a time when you want to experience life while you can. The one thing you can’t get back is time.”

Watson said a vacuum of silence fell over the room when Saban announced he was retiring.

“It was just quiet,” he said. “It was so unexpected. He was so classy as he spoke to the kids. He said he was still going to be around and help the university and he told them he would help them any way he can.”

Washington’s Kalen DeBoer was named the Crimson Tide’s new coach Friday and Watson said notions of a possible drop off in the program are highly speculative.

“It’s hard to say,” Watson said. “Alabama will always have an opportunity to be successful. The fan base is phenomenal and there are resources there. The brand is so large, whoever the new coach is will have a lot of tools to start with. … We know there’s not going to be another coach Saban but there are a lot of young coaches out there who understand the climate of today’s football.”

 

The game has changed

 

That climate — cooled and heated by NIL and the transfer portal — is not to the liking of old-school coaches such as Watson and Saban.

“The game has just changed,” Watson said. “It’s not the same. There was a time when football the game was about the team, where you’d learn things by being a great teammate and you had the right work ethic and attitude. There were lessons you learned being part of the greatest team sport there is.”

Watson said he supports players being compensated but doesn’t think the NCAA thought out the consequences.

“I’m all for players making whatever they can make but when that becomes the focus instead of winning championships or wanting to be the best I can be playing with the guy next to me, it makes you wonder how watered down the game is,” he said. “I’m fortunate to have coached kids who were in it for the right reasons. But the landscape has changed and you’ve got to adapt to it.”

 

No wasted time

 

Watson will find it hard to adjust to daily life without Saban despite his demanding personality.

“My wife and I looked at that this fall and it averaged out to 88 hours a week and that doesn’t include the away games,” Watson said. “Coach Saban was the most structured, efficient, organized guy I’ve ever seen. In those 88 hours, there was no wasted time. There was no sitting around telling stories. You produced the quality he expected.”

Watson said he was amazed by Saban’s recall of the tiniest details from games early in his career, which he applied to working strategies at Alabama.

“He could recall scenarios from way back, from when he coached at Michigan State and the Cleveland Browns and apply it to what we were doing,” Watson said. “He’d say why we should do this and do that. It was so much fun for me. Like he could be talking about red-zone offense and say, ‘If we run this route, this is the coverage they’ll be in.’ He knew those things. He was open to new ideas but you had better come with the why.”

Nothing escaped Saban’s eye.

“It was amazing, not only the way he ran football but academics and healthcare and nutrition and strength and conditioning,” Watson said. “Nothing went on with a player he wasn’t aware of.”

 

‘I got both sides’

 

While Watson’s career ended with Saban, it started with the man he admired most, his father, R.L. Watson, who converted moribund programs into championship contenders and instilled in his son the characteristics which have served him well. R.L. Watson passed away in August 2021 at age 74 from COVID-19.

“The work ethic, the discipline, the care for the players, so much of that I learned from him,” Watson said. “He’d bring those old 16-millimeter reels of film home and he’d shine it up on the wall and we’d sit around and watch film. He was never too busy for family. He had a love for the game and for education. A lot of people look at their coach as a father figure. I got both sides.”

1 Comment

  1. Bill Meredith on January 14, 2024 at 5:44 pm

    Congratulations. I have many fond memories with Todd. Time goes by to fast.

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