Zach Watson has only been in Greenwood a short time, but already this place and its people are growing on him, and why not? The Bulldogs’ new offensive coordinator is a perfect fit.
In an interview last week, Watson talked about his career path and his family, both of which are nothing short of remarkable. It’s obvious the 38-year-old coach has a deep passion for both.
Watson and his wife Kelsey, an RN and former school nurse, have two little girls, Adler and Palmer, ages seven and five, and a two-month-old son named Mack. “We’re excited to have him here,” said his father, who was hired at Greenwood not long before his son was born.
But the family ties don’t end there. Five years ago, the Watsons made the decision to open their hearts and home to a pair of African American brothers in Morrilton, Tory and Colby Criswell, then ages 15 and 13, respectively.
They are 20 and 18 now, and Colby just received a full-ride athletic scholarship to the University of North Carolina to play quarterback for the Tar Heels and Head Coach Mack Brown. Older brother Tory still resides and works in Morrilton.
Colby played quarterback at Morrilton for Coach Watson, the team’s offensive coordinator and QBs coach for most of the last decade under Head Coach Cody McNabb. During that time, the Devil Dogs became one of the top teams in Class 5A, including winning a state title in 2013.
The Criswell brothers were never officially adopted by the Watsons, but became family, nonetheless. “They needed a place to go and reached out to us,” explained Watson. “The boys had a tough situation, and my wife and I decided it would be best for them. At that time our daughters were [ages] one and three.
“We thought it was a chance for us to help them, but once we got them, we realized how much of a blessing it was for us,” he continued. “They’ve taught us stuff and helped us along the way. It was a tremendous blessing for our family. It’s been great. Originally, we thought it was going to be part-time, but it became long-term, and we were okay with that.”
The new GHS assistant coach also acknowledged the support of his wife as a major factor in adding two teenage boys to their young family. Not every young mother would be so welcoming.
“It speaks to the way she is,” he said of Kelsey. “She’s a coach’s wife, and that’s tough anyway, but she’s been awesome. She’s such a tremendous help, and I’m very blessed to have her.”
Ironically, the Criswell brothers have an older half-brother, Dre Greenlaw, a linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers, who also played four years at Arkansas. He was a product of the foster care system himself before being adopted by a white couple, Brian and Nanci Early of Fayetteville.
Asked about the source of his personal morals and values, Coach Watson said, “It goes back to the way I was raised, to treat everybody fairly and to do right by everybody and just be a good person.
“A lot of that goes back to my parents, and some of it goes back to John Ciesla, who was my high school football coach,” said Watson, revealing an interesting connection to the Greenwood School District. Ciesla, formerly a coach at Hector High School, is now the Superintendent of Schools in Greenwood.
Hector is located about 20 minutes north of Russellville, and was the boyhood home of Watson when Ciesla was first an assistant coach then later head coach for the Wildcats. Watson played defensive back, receiver, and quarterback during his athletic career that included college ball at Arkansas Tech University in Russellville.
“My mom and dad will not miss a game here at Greenwood or on the road,” said Watson of his parents. “They still live in Hector.” The elder Watson was also a coach and set a good example for his son to follow.
“He’s one of them, definitely,” said the son when asked about his coaching mentors. “[But] he always did a good job of being more of a dad than a coach. I think there is a fine line.
“[But] we’re opposites. He’s more of a calm guy and I’m more of a fiery guy,” added Watson. “He always told me, ‘There’s a right and a wrong and be a man of your word. Do what’s right and do it all the time.’ He taught me how to work hard, but also [about] making time for family.”
Watson’s coaching resume also includes another interesting GHS link to the past. “Coach Brad Bolding was the first coach I worked with,” he explained. Bolding was an assistant coach for Ronnie Peacock in the late 1990s when the Bulldogs came to prominence, winning their first state title in 2000.
Bolding later served as head coach at North Little Rock High School from 2007-15 and is currently head coach at Little Rock Parkview, which now plays in the 6A West, the same conference as Greenwood.
Watson also worked with another highly successful coach, Billy Dawson, who won multiple state titles at Nashville prior to winning one at Russellville (2016), defeating Greenwood in the finals, before moving on to Fayetteville High School.
“I played for [Coach] Dawson,” said Watson. “He was my offensive coordinator at Arkansas Tech, then I went with him to Nashville. I’ve worked with Coach McNabb (Morrilton) for the last nine or ten years. Those guys are great high school coaches.”
Outlining his coaching timeline, Watson said, “I started with Coach Bolding at Mayflower. [Then] he got the job at North Little Rock and became special teams coordinator and QBs coach there. I went to Nashville with Coach Dawson and was [his] QBs coach and OC, [but] was only there for a year. Coach McNabb [then] called me and it was an easy transition [to Morrilton] and got [my family] closer to home.”
Trained as a math teacher, Watson did double duty at Morrilton as a football coach and as Dean of Students, but will head up the internship program at Greenwood. “Internship is a work-based program,” he explained, “and I’m really excited. It’s an opportunity to teach kids some life lessons.”
Asked about the recruiting process that brought him to the Bulldogs, Watson said, “I’ve known Coach Young for nine or ten years. I got acquainted with him through Mr. Ciesla, and [we] met at a golf tournament one time and hit it off. [So] we kept in contact and developed a relationship.
“When the [position] came open, I congratulated him on getting the [head coaching] job and he kind of reached out to me right then. He probably recruited my wife more than he did me, because we didn’t know a lot about [this] area,” he explained.
“We’re really glad we made this decision, because since we’ve been here the kids and the people we’ve met are unbelievable people. [The process] happened [quickly]. It was the right fit. It’s been great for our family so far.”
The father of three young children was also quick to cite the quality of the school system as a big factor in their decision to come to Greenwood. “The [school] system in this city is phenomenal. It was the right fit for our daughters, growing up in one of the top educational cities in Arkansas,” he said.
Asked about his perception of Greenwood football before accepting the job, the new GHS assistant coach said, “When I was in high school, Coach Peacock was here, and it all kind of started with him, and then Coach Jones.
“All the tradition and the [great] quarterbacks they’ve had,” he continued. “I want to work with good quarterbacks, and I think we’ve got some good ones coming up. I want to be a part of that tradition.
“It goes back to Mr. Ciesla, Coach Young, and Coach Weaver, and seeing how things are done here, it’s just a special place,” added Watson. Jeff Weaver is the former GHS assistant who is now the head coach at Russellville.
Watson said that other players and coaches around the state hold the Bulldogs’ program in high esteem. “It’s such a great traditional program, and they [do] it the right way. They don’t beat people 70-0. They get that mercy rule and get the clock going and then play everybody.
“It’s a fascination,” added Watson. “What are they (Greenwood) doing that we could do to make our program look like their program? What’s the secret? Eventually I want to be a head football coach, and Coach Young knows that’s a goal of mine. I wanted to see what is the secret sauce. This gives me a great idea of what [the Bulldogs] are doing.”
Asked about his best trait as a coach, Watson said, “I think I’m able to adapt. I’m able to get on a kid and still keep a relationship with [him]. I don’t want him to just be the best football player, but the best citizen, the best brother, the best son, and maybe eventually the best dad.
“It’s about building relationships with kids,” he continued. ”It’s about coaching kids hard but coaching [them] the right way and being able to adapt, because you can’t coach each kid the same way for them to reach their max potential.”
The enthusiastic new Bulldogs’ coach added that his top priority was, “Teaching kids to do the right thing and be respectful. [I want to] mold them and make sure they’re doing the right thing. What’s great [in Greenwood] is that kids [here] work extremely hard. They take the little [things] and make them extremely important.”
Since coaches and players were allowed to resume contact on June 1st, Coach Watson has been meeting with all four of his quarterback candidates each Wednesday for individualized instruction, on their own time.
“[That’s] their off day and they’ve been good enough to come and work hard for me for 30 minutes. It gives me that one-on-one time to figure out their personalities, where they’re deficient and what they’re really good at, and try to figure out who’s going to be our guy for next season.
Entering his 12th year as an offensive coordinator, Watson said the transition from Morrilton to Greenwood has gone smoothly so far. “I think our systems marry up very well. Basically, the difference was terminology. I played QB, receiver, and defensive back in high school and college, so I can see the back end of things.
“I’ve also had success in coaching quarterbacks. I know the [blocking] techniques and schemes up front, so I can help our guys understand what’s going on up there too. I also know the quarterback run game. We’ve got some kids that can run in the younger grades, so maybe we can add some QB run game,” he said.
Asked what he looked for in a high school quarterback, Watson was quick to answer, “Number one is leadership. The other guys must believe in him. They’ve [also] got to be accurate [passers]. It’s got to be high percentage,” also noting that Greenwood is known for its high-percentage passing attack.
“They’ve [also] got to be able to throw off-platform,” he said of the ideal quarterback. “The defenses have adapted to what we do, so they’ve got to be able to get out of the pocket and throw accurately on the run.”
Asked to briefly assess the potential 2020 QBs at Greenwood, Watson said, “They’re all a little different, but all are extremely hard workers. Storm (Sherrey) and L.D. (Richmond) are guys that can move and are very athletic. Joe (Trusty) and Hunter (Houston) are strong kids with big arms.
“They are [all] hard workers and very coachable kids, which makes my job a lot easier, and all four of them want to be the guy. I believe all four can start somewhere else and help this team win. It’s a little different. I’ve been used to working with one or two [quarterbacks], and now I’ve got four, so it makes my job fun. I’m enjoying it.”
Asked if Richmond had a leg up on the job, being the only senior among the four, Watson said, “At this point it’s a four-horse race. We didn’t get a spring to evaluate those guys, and that probably would have sorted some things out. Right now, not being able to go with the defense or throw 7-on-7 has put us behind, but it’s put the whole state behind. When things open up, I think that pecking order will start working itself out.
“Coach Young said recently, ‘If everybody had to play every quarterback on their team in one game, we’d feel pretty good about our chances because we’ve got four guys that are pretty even right now.’
“They all run and move around pretty [well], but as far as top-end speed and side-to-side movement, probably Storm and L.D. have that. Joe and Hunter have such [strong] bodies, and they’re not slow. They can run and will be hard to get on the ground,” surmised Watson. “I want every one of them to think [he’s] going to be the guy.”
Finally, asked to share one final thought about himself and his family, Coach Watson said, “We’re hard-working people that care about our community. Our kids are here and we’re going to give back to the community. We’re so blessed and glad to be here. [So many] people have reached out to us. It just speaks [well of] this community.”