By his own admission, Lahainaluna High School co-head football coach Robert “Bobby” Watson is a visual learner and self-taught educator in the subject of X’s and O’s.
Opposing coaches who have experienced the wrath of the Lunas’ defense would be hard-pressed to believe that assessment. For all of the coaching skills and talents Watson has accumulated over a span of three decades, his ability to make defensive adjustments during a game or at halftime are often both shrewd and savvy.
All of it is especially noteworthy during Thanksgiving week, when the state ramps up for semifinal action of the Division II state football tournament at Aloha Stadium.
A win on Friday would be Lahainaluna’s fourth straight D-II championship.
Watson’s mastery for slowing down offenses is an acquired skill, developed from reading books and watching videos, said the veteran coach, who is weeks away from concluding his 30th season on the Lahainaluna sidelines.
“I’ve had to learn on the fly, and I’m a visual learner, so if I had to learn it that way, that’s the way I’m going to teach it,” said Watson, who’s responsibility as co-head coach has always been on defense. “Along the way I’ve picked up a lot of odds and ends, things here and there, from other coaches and other schools.”
Sharing coaching duty with Watson this year is longtime offensive line coach Dean Rickard. Now in his expanded role as co-head coach, Rickard serves as offensive coordinator, the role held by Garret Tihada for the previous 11 years.
As a genuine student of the game, Watson knows the importance of communication and organization. Every summer he and his staff attend the annual football coaches clinic in Las Vegas.
Over the years, Watson has seized the offseason opportunity for professional development, and the results have been positive, something Watson has a penchant for, while quietly climbing the ranks among Hawaii’s winningest active prep football coaches.
Like teaching, coaching goes far beyond the X’s and O’s. Coaches teach the skills, technique and strategy within the narrow confines of the sport.
Meanwhile, important life lessons can be taught through mastering hardship, handling and rebounding from failures and setbacks, trusting your teammates, sacrificing individual needs for the benefit of the group, emotionally dealing with winning and losing, good sportsmanship, fair play, honesty and integrity.
In the end, winning or losing football games take a back seat to quality of life on Maui. Seeing former Lahainaluna players in the 96761 community fills Watson’s heart with pride.
“The lessons they learned through football, that helps them become responsible adults. That is more important than the final score. And I think it’s the biggest goal for us to achieve as a team.”
Watson currently ranks third among Hawaii’s all-time winningest high school football coaches at 212-108-6. Only Saint Louis School’s Cal Lee and ‘Iolani’s Wendell Look have more wins.
In addition, Watson’s 30 years at Lahainaluna makes him the state’s most senior head coach among all of Hawaii’s current active high school head coaches.
“The size and the speed in today’s game has changed the most. Now we have to hold back from hitting.”
When it comes to the X’s and O’s, defense is fairly the same, but offensive alignments have changed dramatically.
“Now you have four basic plays with 40 different formations. So you’re not learning the plays, you’re learning the formations and alignments. You’re running the same basic plays over and over, but you’re using different formations. Same blocking scheme, you’re running through the same hole.”
Technology has made its way to the prep game now as offensive coaches can access the play they just ran two seconds after the play ended.
“After every play our coaches are looking at their iPads to see what formation the opposing team is in.”
What hasn’t changed is the team’s overall philosophy, focusing on playing hard, playing clean and playing with honor.
There is nothing worse than a player on the field behaving in an undisciplined fashion, said Watson, who will not hesitate to call out an assistant coach if the problem is not addressed immediately.
“No trash talking or being undisciplined on the field. Whether you’re winning or losing, it is unacceptable.”
Watson prefers to close out a game with integrity and dignity. There should be no excessive celebrating or high fives.
“Our philosophy is to learn the game of football, not just play the game, and everyone needs to have an understanding of what they are doing.”