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Losing, his way

Watson Brown's career has survived several difficult coaching stops, including a 10-45 stint as head coach at Vanderbilt, his alma mater. Robby Klein for ESPN

COOKEVILLE, Tenn. -- Coach Quixote's black hair has gone to white, and the left arm, the one that smashed into the wall at old Dudley Field his junior year at Vanderbilt, doesn't hang so much as dangles. That shoulder cost him his athletic career, football and baseball both, just as Coach Bryant told him it would. As a 17-year-old high school senior, Coach Quixote drove to Tuscaloosa to tell the Bear he wouldn't be coming to Alabama. He wanted to play for Vanderbilt.

It takes stones to defy a man so imposing, but Coach Quixote's daddy said you told him you were coming, and now you're not, so you need to tell him to his face. So Coach Quixote drove to Tuscaloosa from right here in Cookeville.

"Here's what's going to happen," Bryant said. "You can go up there, and you might have a good career. But I doubt you'll finish, because you don't have good players around you. In this league, you gon' have a tough time."

Nearly a half-century later, Coach Quixote belly-laughs at the memory.

"Coach Bryant hit it on the nose!" he said. "Hit it on the nose."

Coach Quixote often repeats a sentence for emphasis, a habit developed by perpetually talking to a locker room full of 19-year-olds. He has been talking in locker rooms and meeting rooms and living rooms since 1973 without ever sitting out a season. He is in his 30th season, having been a head coach at six schools: Austin Peay to Cincinnati to Rice to Vanderbilt to UAB and, for the past seven seasons here in his hometown, Tennessee Tech.

His résumé looks like the road to career perdition, which means his coaching career mimics his playing career.

"Everybody says you can't do it," Coach Quixote said. "I'm gon' go try."

He has been drawn to the perennial loser, convinced he can turn it around. Coach Quixote has had seven winning seasons. He has won a total of 128 games, and tied one. As of this past Saturday's 10-7 defeat at Tennessee State, he also has lost 199 games, which tied him with the legendary Amos Alonzo Stagg for the most losses in the history of major college football.

At some point, perhaps as soon as Saturday, when Tennessee Tech plays at No. 10 Northern Iowa, Coach Quixote will own the record. He will be the first man to lose 200 games.

"I didn't know that. But it doesn't surprise me," Watson Brown said. "Who's had the jobs I've had and is still a head coach?"

ON OCT. 27, 1984, Texas A&M steamrolled Rice 38-14, a game in which a mediocre Aggies team bullied the young, overmatched Owls. The significance of the game can be seen only in the rearview mirror. The loss dropped the career record of Brown, the Owls' first-year head coach, to 18-19-1. He never got his record to sea level again.

Brown is 64 years old, and he doesn't have far to look to see what his career might have been. He is 16 months older than his brother Mack, who also worked as a head coach for 30 years. Mack started out on the same rung as Watson. He coached at Appalachian State and Tulane. But then he moved to North Carolina and then to Texas, where he won the 2005 BCS championship. Mack won 244 games, almost twice as many as his older brother, before resigning after last season.

"He's never thought of them as hard places," Mack said of Watson. "He's thought of them as a fun challenge."

To most of us, a fun challenge is going for a par-5 in two, or trying to slice the 7 pin into the 10. But Watson Brown decided to find the biggest guys on the block and poke them in the chest. He's got the bruises to show for it. He has coached a whole lot of paycheck games: Take your money and your beating and go home.

Tennessee Tech needed money for a new training center, so Brown took the Golden Eagles on the road to Georgia and Wisconsin and Auburn and TCU. UAB needed a new everything -- Brown is the coach who shepherded the Blazers into the FBS and Conference USA -- so he took them to Nebraska and Arizona and Florida and, one memorable night in 2000, to LSU.

That one turned out all right. UAB won Nick Saban's fourth game with the Tigers, 13-10.

As a schoolboy athlete, Brown rarely stepped between the lines as an underdog. The Browns descend from locker room royalty. Their grandfather, Eddie "Jelly" Watson, is a high school coaching legend, a member of the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame. The Brown boys rode the bus to Cookeville High games with their granddaddy.

Watson might have been the best athlete ever to come out of the Upper Cumberland. He hit two home runs in a Connie Mack League game off Nashville phenom Wayne Garland, who would become the Orioles' first pick in the 1969 draft and pitch nine seasons in the majors. In basketball, Brown turned down a scholarship to Western Kentucky, which would reach the 1971 Final Four.

In their childhood, you never saw Watson without Mack. Depending on the season at Cookeville High, they played in the same backfield, the same backcourt, the same double-play combination. They planned to play football at the same college, too.

"He was going to saaavvvee Vanderbilt," Mack said, teasing, and I mean teasing, out the verb. "He was going to be the difference. It was just like all the jobs he took."

But he teased with love.

"I wanted to go to Alabama," Mack said. "And I was offered a scholarship there. But there was no way I could do that. In fact, Mother and Dad said, 'No, you might play safety at Alabama and tackle your brother and hurt him.'"

WATSON DIDN'T START his coaching career as an underdog, either. He might not have played for Bryant, but the Bear took a shine to him anyway. Maybe it's because in Brown's sophomore season, 1969, he led Vanderbilt to a 14-10 upset of Alabama.

"We were warming up in Nashville before that game," Brown said. "... So he's walking down the sidelines and I'm on the sidelines throwing. He kind of slows down, and he said, 'You couldn't throw when I recruited you. You can't throw now. And you'll never be able to throw.' And just kept walking. And of course this is Coach Bryant, so I don't know if he's cutting up with me or he's serious."

Brown threw for 119 yards, including the winning fourth-quarter touchdown, and rushed for an additional 68.

"And through the whole melee -- of course, Vanderbilt hadn't beaten Alabama in forever -- he finds me," Brown said. "Gives me a hug, tells me congratulations, and walks off the field."

A year later, Brown hurt his shoulder -- as Bryant had warned -- and it soon became apparent that his future in football would be in coaching. Bryant got him his first job, with former Bryant assistant coach Pat Dye as quarterbacks coach at East Carolina in December 1974. A few years later, the 29-year-old Brown became head coach at Austin Peay, which he led to consecutive 7-4 seasons. Then he returned to Vanderbilt as offensive coordinator, and the Commodores went 8-4 in 1982.

"We went to the Hall of Fame Bowl, had a good year," Brown said. "I'm up at West Point, interviewing for the head job, and the phone rings at my hotel room. I don't know how he found me. It's Ray Perkins."

The New York Giants' head coach had agreed to replace Bryant at Alabama. He asked Brown to drive down to New Jersey and meet with him.

"So he feeds me supper," Brown said, "... and he says, 'I want you to be my offensive coordinator.'

"I said, 'Ray, I don't even know you. You don't know me.'

"He says, 'Coach Bryant says hire you, I'm gon' hire you.'"

"To be young and hot, and all of a sudden, you go [through] seven years of really hard jobs, and then get fired at your alma mater ... I thought that was the stretch where the decision-making was not very smart by me."

Watson Brown

Remember "It's a Wonderful Life," when Clarence the angel would freeze the film at critical points in George Bailey's life? Stop the Watson Brown story here, because this might have been the high-water mark. If Brown goes to Alabama as offensive coordinator, there's no telling what jobs might open up for him.

But the next day, Mike McGee, the athletic director at Cincinnati, called him and asked him to interview to be the head coach. Brown took the job.

"I did not call Coach Bryant over the Cincinnati thing," Brown said. A few weeks later, Bryant died.

Brown opened his tenure at Cincinnati by knocking off defending national champion Penn State 14-3. It was a win that cemented his status as an up-and-comer even as the Bearcats went 4-6-1, and a loss that Joe Paterno referred to in his 1989 autobiography as "Cincinnati???!!!"

But Brown and his wife, Brenda, felt out of place in Cincinnati. It was too far north. His first night there, he ordered tea with dinner, and the waitress brought it to him hot.

"I meant iced tea," Brown said.

"You're not from around here, are you?" the waitress replied.

So Brown went to Rice in 1984. The Owls at that time were milk drinkers in the Wild West that was the Southwest Conference. Of the nine teams in that league, eight went on NCAA probation, right up to SMU getting the death penalty.

Brown won four games in two seasons.

He left Rice for Vanderbilt, because Mama called in the personage of Commodores athletic director Roy Kramer, who implored him to return to his alma mater. Brown had been offensive coordinator at Vanderbilt in 1982, when the Commodores won eight games. He considered Kramer a mentor, and he and Brenda could go home. He ignored the voice in both their heads telling them the timing was wrong.

"I guess I was 33 years old at Cincinnati as the head coach," Brown said. "To be young and hot, and all of a sudden, you go [through] seven years of really hard jobs, and then get fired at your alma mater. ... I thought that was the stretch where the decision-making was not very smart by me. And I thought the one that really got me was the Vanderbilt one."

After Brown's fourth season, Kramer left to become SEC commissioner. After his fifth season, with a record of 10-45, Brown was fired. He was 40 years old, and his record was 32-77-1. He had become a cold young coach.

"Life's life. It's the mistakes we make and what we do after. That's life. That's the way I've always looked at it. We all make mistakes, especially when we're young. I jumped into four head jobs from 28 to 35, still a very young guy.

"I jumped too much. I tell young coaches all the time, don't try to do something too quick. Just let everything take care of itself, and work."

Coaches understood that Brown knew the game. Jackie Sherrill quickly hired him as offensive coordinator at Mississippi State, and he stayed there for two seasons before moving to Oklahoma. Athletic directors started sniffing around again. He took the Louisiana-Monroe job, and got on the plane to seal the deal. He got as far as Dallas. But this time, when his gut told him to change his mind, he didn't keep going. He went back to Oklahoma.

And then UAB called and asked him to take the football program into I-A. Everything he thought he knew about being at the bottom of the football food chain had to be revised.

"I mean, we're dressing in shifts in an intramural locker room," Brown said. "... We had a sinkhole in the practice field. We had to put cones in the sinkhole and work around it."

Brown has spent the back half of his career building (UAB) or rebuilding (Tennessee Tech) programs. His indefatigable, pony-in-there-somewhere philosophy has helped him weather playing with one program tied behind his back.

"I think the reason he's been able to stay [a head coach] is he's always moved the ball," Mack Brown said. "He's always scored points. People like points. He's always gone within the rules. He's never had a violation. Never been turned into the NCAA. Never been investigated. And he's a good guy. He reaches out to people. He has a lot of pride. He loves football."


THEY HAVE SERVED as each other's confidantes for as long as they have been in coaching, though -- or maybe because -- they never worked together. They hated everything about the three times they coached against each other, and if you must know, Mack won all three.

Their paths nearly crossed one other time, after Oklahoma fired Gary Gibbs at the end of the 1994 season. Mack, then at North Carolina, was a leading candidate for the Oklahoma job. If he hadn't had a brother on the staff, Mack just might have coached the Red River Rivalry from the other side.

"I actually didn't take it," he said, "and one of the reasons was I thought Watson still had a chance to get it. So if I had taken the job, he would have been the offensive coordinator with me. But he was still in the running, so I pulled my name out, because I still had a good job. If he had a chance to get the Oklahoma job, then I didn't want to be in his way."

Mack added a postscript.

"And that's how close we were," he said. And still are.

Both brothers say there was never any awkwardness, never any jealousy.

Mack would say to Watson, "I wish you could taste this sometimes yourself."

But Watson could not have been happier to cede the headaches and bright lights that come with coaching Texas to his brother. He returned to Cookeville, where he got to be with their mother, Catherine, an inveterate football fan, until she died in January 2010. He is spending time now with his youngest brother, Mel, who lives in the area.

Watson has begun to bring Tennessee Tech football into the 21st century, There's the new training center, a slightly smaller version of an FBS facility. The dowager Tucker Stadium has been dressed up as best she can, and the university is about to embark on a campaign for a $60 million renovation.

Watson recently signed a five-year contract extension. He will help see the stadium project to fruition, and try to win another Ohio Valley Conference championship. That's right: another one. In 2011, for the first time in his lengthy career, Watson Brown finished first in the league.

"That was a side of Coach Brown that I had never seen before," sixth-year senior safety Marty Jones said. "He was the guy who was dancing in the locker room, 61 years old. He was the guy jumping around. ... It was something I had never seen. He was so happy and so into it."

When Brown loses his next game, it won't be the first national coaching record he set. Last year, Watson and Mack surpassed the Dooleys, Vince and Bill, to become the brothers with the most victories in major college football. The Browns, together again, are at 372 victories and counting.

Northern Iowa awaits, another ranked team on the road, another windmill to tilt for Coach Quixote. He doesn't think of all of them as losses.

Of his tenure at UAB, he said, "We lose at Tennessee by seven. We lose at Oklahoma by seven. We lose at Georgia by three. ... I think there were a lot of wins in that time when there was an 'L' by my name. Coaches don't like hearing that. We all want to say you either win or you lose. But some of the places I've been, I don't know that that was true."

When Bryant, his mentor, caught and surpassed Stagg in 1981 for the most victories in major college football, he became the biggest story in American sports. Brown has caught the other side of Stagg's ledger in near anonymity.

"I've been very lucky that I've never worked a day in my life. It's always been fun," Brown said. "If I sat around and looked back and said, 'What would have happened to me if I had been at Oklahoma? What would have happened to me if I had been at Alabama?' Which I might have been if I had gone a different route to the two times I turned Alabama down. But that has never stayed in my mind very long. That's what I did! That's what I decided, and you go on."

The question is posed as to what Bryant might have thought of Brown's career choices after Bryant died.

"I think I know," Brown said, a grin creasing his countenance. He repeated himself, ever the coach, for emphasis. "I think I know."