When Chris Watts took over as head football coach at Liberty High ahead of the 2002 season, the program had just lost 22 seniors to graduation. The new coach took his team to a camp at Virginia Tech that summer, where he delivered a message.
“Picture it like this, guys,” Watts told them. “Imagine a 2,000-pound ball. To get that thing moving, it’s gonna take a lot of work. But once you get it rolling and keep it rolling, it’s easy.”
“So that was our motto for the first several years: keep the ball rolling,” Watts said this week, sitting inside a classroom at a school he’s saying goodbye to after a long, storied high school career.
He kept things rolling at the Bedford institution for 21 years. Now Watts will become safeties coach at North Carolina-based Davidson College, a position he begins Friday.
Liberty announced his departure late last week, but the job at Davidson was not yet official and did not become so until Friday. With the Wildcats, Watts will serve under head coach Scott Abell, who led the Minutemen for five seasons, from 1997 through 2001, before leaving for Amherst and eventually to the college ranks. Watts was also an assistant under Abell at LHS prior to becoming the school’s head coach.
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“I had a similar opportunity a few years back and the time just wasn’t right,” the 58-year-old Watts explained. “I had things I still wanted to do here, and my family and all of that, so I passed it up. When [the job] came around this time, I’m not getting any younger. College positions are very hard to come by, so I knew that if this was something I wanted to pursue, I needed to not pass it up. “
By 2002, the Minutemen had successfully turned the corner, putting to bed a horrid two seasons in which they lost 18 of 20 games in the late 1990s. Under Abell in 2000, they won 10 games, then repeated that feat the following year. Now the new coach in his late 30s had simple goals. Just have a winning season first. Then another on top of it. Hopefully, winning seasons would one day turn into winning championships.
In other words, keep the ball rolling.
“And I don’t know how much I believed that [motto] in my head, but they did, “Watts recalled.” They bought in. “
Watts started tinkering with a new offense that fall. Through wrestling (a sport he coached for 15 years), he met a football coach in Kentucky who had rattled off 10 straight 10-win seasons with a high-powered offense. Watts studied it, took pieces and incorporated it into his own version of the Maryland I, or Stack I. Tough to defend and nearly impossible for most high schools to prepare for, the Maryland I called for the quarterback, fullback and tailback to line up in a row to receive the snap. It’s a deceptive guessing game of an offense that chews up yards.
On a Sunday in the fall of 2002, Watts gathered his coaching staff.
“The thing about this offense is if the kids understand it, no matter what kind of talent we’ve got, we can get first downs and win football games,” he told them.
At first, things didn’t go well. Then Liberty started seriously moving the football. By the time the Minutemen reached the playoffs that year, “the kids believed in it.”
“When the quarterback and the running backs figured out what was going on, they all wanted the football because they knew they’d get yards and score,” Watts said.
The result was a surging team that put up 51 points in its first playoff game, 41 the next, then won 37-8 the following week. Then, on Dec. 14 in the state championship at Williams Stadium, Liberty blasted New Kent 41-6. Three LHS players rushed for 100-plus yards. And the team also boasted three 1,000-yard rushers on the season.
Watts had won a state title in his first year at the helm. The Maryland I became Liberty’s identity and was instrumental in carrying on achievements that began under Abell: the program posted at least 10 victories for six straight seasons, from 2000 through 2005.
“He ran so many varieties of it,” said Heritage coach Brad Bradley, who coached against Watts the last 10 years in the Seminole District and who also won a state title in 2002 at William Campbell. “Liberty High was at its best when Chris Watts had a good quarterback and big fullbacks. When he had those guys, they were tough to beat. Nobody wanted to have to defend that triple I. I always hated preparing for it because I knew I had to simulate it in practice. And it’s almost impossible to simulate that. “
But football success – especially at the high school level – is not only difficult to maintain, it often ebbs and flows with little warning. At Liberty, the wins once roared in like a powerful tide. Now they only trickle occasionally, surrounded by defeat.
The coach, originally from Huntington, West Virginia, has been busy lately: he’s in talks with Davidson coaches; traveling to North Carolina and looking for homes there; tying up loose ends at the high school, where he coached and taught (subjects like history, government, geography, earth science, anatomy and, finally, PE and health) for 32 years. His high school coaching career spans 35 years and includes a short span he left LHS for a school in Ohio.
One thing he’s not doing these days is reminiscing.
“I try not to make it wax nostalgic, as they say,” Watts said, “just because it would make [leaving] harder. People are kind of doing that for me by calling, texting or talking when we run into each other around town. So if I got caught up in all that, it would be more difficult. I’m much better when things just happen than if I sit down and reflect. “
The last six seasons – with the exception of 2018, when Liberty advanced to a regional title game – have been rough, the losses piling up like a stack of discarded mail. The defeats certainly bother him – he remembers details about them all – but Watts is at peace with them, too.
“I wouldn’t change a minute,” he said. “God has blessed me with all the time and people and success and even failures. I’ve learned the failures in life teach you more than the successes by far.”
Since 2015, Liberty has gone a disappointing 18-51, crippled by low turnout numbers and injuries.
“One bad year and all of a sudden the switch flipped,” Watts said. “All of the sudden I’m looking at things like, ‘What happened?’ Then you’re trying to build back. … It’s always been up and down, up and down. It’s been a battle to get back. “
Liberty High served more than 1,000 students as of early last decade. Now enrollment has slipped to around 700. It is one of the smallest schools, population-wise, among institutions in the Virginia High School League’s Class 3 division of athletic competition. Yet it routinely goes up against larger schools in the Seminole.
The last few years, the football program began attracting athletes who wanted to play football but didn’t have much experience. Equally challenging has been convincing other athletes to play multiple sports instead of concentrating on just one.
“When we had a couple bad years, then it got harder to convince some of those borderline kids that it’s worth putting in all that time and effort,” Watts said. “And they didn’t care about the successes we’ve had. You’d talk about the glory days and [six] 10-win seasons and all that, that didn’t mean anything to them. They only remember last year. “
That’s not to say the Minutemen haven’t been giving their all. Watts coached through the losses, moving out of the Maryland I and opening up the offense out of necessity last season, because injuries called for players to be placed in positions they were unfamiliar with. And some athletes have shown fierce dedication to the program. Last year, Tanner Stanley missed one play the entire season, serving as quarterback, punter, punt returner, safety and on kickoff return team.
“He’s the perfect example to me of Liberty football players the last few years,” Watts said, and by that he meant tough, hard-nosed individuals.
“In my opinion, Chris Watts is One of the best coaches around, “Bradley said of his friend and longtime opponent.” Look at what he’s done with what he’s had. … And he’s just one of the nicest persons. I don’t know if I’ve ever come across another guy in this business that’s a good a guy as he is. He’s been there for Liberty, and he’s done it for the right reasons. He’s always had their best interest at heart. “
It’s time to move on now. Coaching at the collegiate level has always been one of Watts’ long-term goals, and he’s hoping for a fresh start, a kind of second career.
“I’ve got years until I retire, obviously, but I can’t just see myself sitting down and playing cards with old guys everyday or hanging out at Hardees or something. I want to keep coaching. … People always ask me , ‘What are you gonna do when you grow up?’ So maybe this is what I’m gonna do. “
He leaves with a 122-101 record at Liberty. LHS has five district titles, two region championships and one state title in his tenure on a coaching staff. But Watts’ legacy transcends numbers.
“I hope the players and coaches and administrators knew that I had the best interests of the school and the kids at heart,” he said. “It wasn’t about me. It was about trying to build better men through the game of football.”