Casey Thiele remembers August of 1982 well. He was just beginning his freshman year at Midland Lutheran College (now Midland University) and the head football coach was a bit intimidating.
“I remember going to some of the older guys and asking what the secret was for playing for Don Watchorn because at that time I thought he was a scary human being,” said Thiele, who was a defensive tackle and later would serve as an assistant coach and head coach for the Warriors. “His personality was powerful and he scared the hell out of me.”
The veterans told the Logan View High School graduate to play hard all the time. If he did that, everything would be fine.
“They said if you are hurting and bleeding, but still playing hard, that guy will love you for the rest of your life,” Thiele said. “You won’t have a bigger or better friend.”
Watchorn, 91, who guided the Warriors to a 116-81-3 record from 1971-91 died on Friday in Fremont. A graduate of Ponca High School, he served on the USS Windham Bay in the Pacific during World War II.
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After his military service, he began a distinguished coaching career that included stops at Ponca High School, Schuyler Central, Omaha University/UNO before joining the Warriors. At Midland, he also served as athletic director. He was preceded in death by his wife, Joan, in 2011. His survivors include his daughter, Carolee Cronin.
The funeral for Watchorn is scheduled for 10 a.m. Tuesday at First Lutheran Church in Fremont.
“I never met a man more loyal than Don was,” said former Midland men’s basketball coach Rich McGill. “For him there was Joan and Carolee and then eventually his grandkids came along. But right behind them in his life was anything that had to do with Midland. He really did bleed the orange and black.”
McGill said Watchorn believed every student-athlete should get an opportunity.
“He was such an advocate in that he believed wholeheartedly that kids deserved a chance to get an education and prove themselves on the athletic field or arena,” he said. “He was just as loyal as loyal could be. You always knew where you stood with Coach.”
Jerry Rinne, president and CEO of the Fremont Family YMCA, was a defensive back for Watchorn from 1983-87. He later served as an assistant coach.
“He had great values and was a true gentleman,” Rinne said. “He had an amazing knowledge of football.”
Rinne echoed Thiele’s thoughts that Watchorn could be an imposing figure.
“He had that gruff voice and that bulldog look,” he said. “He was intimidating and you were definitely going to listen to him, but once you got to know him and he got to know you, it was amazing the perspective of football and life that he could bring together.”
Former Fremont High School football coach Kevin Meyer, now the head coach at Beatrice, grew up watching Watchorn’s teams. In 1978, he joined the Warriors as a defensive back and became a three-year starter.
The Warriors went 1-8 in 1978, but their fortunes changed the following year.
“We had a lot of injuries and things just weren’t good (in 1978),” he said. “The coaches got after us that winter and spring. We went undefeated in the regular season of 1979 and just had a really good year. We had a close group of guys and Coach Watchorn did a good job of getting us ready to go and turning things around.”
The 1979 season was one of nine conference championships the Warriors won under Watchorn’s tutelage.
Meyer said Watchorn influenced him to get into the education and coaching profession.
“Without a doubt,” he said. “He was a great man. He was definitely old school, but he had the respect of his players. He believed in preparation and hard work. He was a good, good football coach, but obviously a better person.”
Thiele, who is now the athletic director and dean of students at Pensacola (Florida) High School, also said Watchorn made a big impact in his life.
Thiele was attending a graduation party of ex-teammate Bob Denton in 1989. Don and Joan Watchorn were also there. At the time, Thiele was operating Nebraska Medical Mart in Fremont.
“Coach comes up to me and says, ‘Casey, quit screwing around trying to make a million dollars in business and get into coaching,’” Thiele recalled. “He told me with my personality I needed to be a coach. That kind of shook me that I needed to make a change. I was having success with the business, but he kind of called me out and knew what I should be doing with my life.”
Thiele was part of a talented Midland defense in 1985 that won the Nebraska Intercollegiate Athletic Conference championship. That team included Denton, defensive tackle John Davis and defensive back Sam Guinyard.
“We started 2-2 on the season and were down 17-0 to Hastings in the first quarter,” Thiele said. “We kept fighting that night and came back to win the game. We never lost another one that season.”
Watchorn was known for his wishbone offense that featured several talented backs through the years, including Ray Koonce, Brant Anderson and Gerald Mason. McGill said Watchorn also knew the intricacies of defense.
“I think some people just think of him as a football coach of the wishbone, but he knew the 4-3 defense inside and out,” he said. “He had a brilliant football mind. He was a competitor to no end, but a competitor in the right way. Don didn’t believe in shortcuts.”
The impact that Watchorn made in lives was evident at the Midland homecoming weekend last month. The 1987 football team, that had qualified for the NAIA playoffs, was inducted into the school’s athletic hall of fame. Watchorn was unable to attend the ceremony, but several players from that team visited him at Shalimar Gardens.
“Those guys came in from all over the country,” McGill said. “They thought it was pretty neat to get to see Don. Some of them hadn’t seen him for 30 years. He had a good day that day.”
The relationships with former players was important to Watchorn. Thiele said his ex-coach was supportive of him when he guided the Warriors in 2007-11.
“He could’ve made me uncomfortable, looking over my shoulder and telling me to do this or that,” Thiele said. “We’d get together sometimes and talk and we’d talk about everything but football.”
Rinne said he would also see his collegiate coach sometimes.
“After he retired from football, we would talk about different things,” he said. “He was impressed with how the Y had grown over time and always told me how proud he was of me. That always made my day.”
When McGill retired from coaching in 2010, he told his players first and then he stopped on his way home to tell the Watchorns before the news was publicized.
“Other than my dad, I don’t know if another man has influenced me as much as Coach Watchorn,” McGilll said. “And I’m a basketball guy. I’m not even a football guy.”
Meyer said education professionals can have a big influence in lives. That is evident from the legacy that Watchorn leaves.
“I always tell my assistants that you never know how much you will impact a student or player,” he said. “Coach Watchorn impacted a ton of players. He left his imprints and that was certainly beneficial for me. He’ll be missed and there will never be another Coach Watchorn.”