He will never say it. Shawn Watson is far too polite.
But there is no doubt that the Louisville offensive coordinator has been redeemed with the Cardinals, a man whose image has been so completely rehabilitated, he drew head coaching looks this past offseason.
Two years ago, well, he was placed on the assistant coaching scrap heap. Following a closely scrutinized and heavily criticized 2010 season as Nebraska's offensive coordinator, Watson was not retained. He had no offensive coordinator opportunities anywhere else. Rather than publicly air dirty laundry, Watson says of what ultimately went down in Lincoln: "Just a difference in philosophies. Really, that’s about all I want to say about it."
Watson ultimately landed in Louisville as quarterbacks coach in February 2011, arriving in town a month after highly touted prep quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. Interestingly enough, Watson had never worked with Charlie Strong at previous stops. But he and Strong had built a friendship bridging more than 20 years -- and beginning at Southern Illinois, where Strong coached Watson's brother, Shane, in 1986 and 1987. Shawn Watson is a Southern Illinois graduate and its former head coach.
There was one other key connection -- offensive line coach Dave Borbely. He and Watson worked together previously at Colorado. Everything made sense for Watson -- working with Strong and Borbely, plus the enticing possibilities of coaching Bridgewater. At the time, it hardly mattered that he was no longer a coordinator, despite spending the previous four seasons in charge of the Huskers' offense.
"At that time, you go through a lot at Nebraska and ... the best way to put it is I just wanted to get a peace about the business and coaching. I just wanted to coach," Watson said in a recent phone interview.
He had the perfect student in Bridgewater, a player so eager for perfection he and Watson developed a solid working relationship almost instantaneously. "I thought Teddy was a talent in high school before I ever got a hold of him, so when I got here, he was coming in and I was just knocked out at the type of kid he was, how easy he learned, and a great, great work ethic to go along with it. It became a really good marriage," Watson said.
But it did not take long for Watson to get back in control of the offense. Strong decided to relieve offensive coordinator Mike Sanford of his duties four games into the 2011 season. Eight months after Watson arrived as quarterbacks coach, he was now calling plays again. Strong made him no guarantees, but the turnaround was noticeable. Louisville averaged 18.8 points per game in its first four games; and 23.3 points per game in its final nine with Watson in charge.
Following that season -- in which Bridgewater won Big East Freshman of the Year honors and Louisville won a share of the league title -- Watson officially became offensive coordinator. The Cardinals had one of the best offenses in the Big East in 2012, averaging 31.2 points and 418.8 yards per game.
Not only did Bridgewater take the next step, but Watson was able to use the spread/West Coast concepts that have defined him throughout his career. One stat he takes particular pride in -- 11 players caught 10 or more passes this past season. Now the question you really want to ask: After what happened at Nebraska, did he feel he had to prove himself all over again?
"Not really," he says. "I’m very comfortable with who I am and what I believe in. I’m very comfortable with that. I just wanted to make sure I represented myself for who I am. Charlie’s empowered me to do that. He's let me put in this philosophy."
The recent success drew head coaching opportunities, Watson confirmed without mentioning specific schools. Why did he stick around for at least another season?
"When I look at those opportunities, I do want to be a head coach. I do. That’s something that’s still in my goals professionally," Watson said. "But I want it to be the right situation. This is a great place. And I’ve got a special guy I’m coaching, and I’m coaching with a bunch of special people. There’s a lot of chemistry here. We know we can get to where we want to go."