It was 1948, three years after World War II had ended, and the Williams College football program was in a funk.
Two wins in 1946 had been followed by the only winless season in school history. It was time for a change. To jumpstart the program, Williams dipped into the high school ranks for the first time to hire its next head coach.
An act of desperation? Hardly. Despite having spent the majority of his career coaching high school football, Len Watters not only turned the Williams program around, he became one of the greatest football coaches in school history.
During his 15 years at Williams, Watters compiled a 68-47-4 record between 1948 and 1962, which at the time was the second best record in school history behind Charlie Caldwell (he was later passed by Bob Odell and Dick Farley). His squads captured seven Little Three titles despite a 7-8 overall mark against Amherst. They also tied a national record by holding their opponents without a touchdown during a seven game stretch in 1961 and 1962. Five of his assistants at Williams would go on to become head coaches elsewhere, including legendary Amherst mentor Jim Ostendarp.
Watters installed the split T formation at Williams, instituted double practice sessions, and even held spring practice, which had never been done before.
But most importantly, Watters put the fun back in a program that needed it.
"He brought an enthusiasm to the team, which I think excited us," said Pete DeLisser, a quarterback who captained the Ephs in 1950, and served under Watters as the Ephs backfield coach between 1957 and 1962. "The coach before hadn't won a lot of games. He came into an environment that needed something like that."
Although he had never been a college football coach, Watters arrived at Williams with a deep knowledge of the game.
Born in Dubuque, Iowa in 1898, Watters moved to South Bend, Indiana when he was 10, and was a three sport lettermen in high school. He attended Springfield College, and captained the football team in 1921 after leaving school briefly to serve in the Navy during World War I.
In 1922, he began a dual career coaching high school football in Oneida, N.Y., and playing pro football for the Buffalo All-Americans, where his roommate was former Ephs' All-American Benny Boynton. A
serious chest injury ended Watters' pro football career in 1924, but he continued to play both pro baseball and basketball for several more years.
In 1929, Watters went to White Plains High School outside of New York City, where he spent 16 years. His teams compiled a 114-27 mark, posted nine undefeated seasons, and won 10 Westchester County titles. One of his former players, Dick Nolan, went on to coach the San Francisco 49ers.
On New Year's Day 1931, Watters' players at White Plains represented the New York metropolitan area in what is now the Orange Bowl.
During World War II, Watters rejoined the Navy, this time to serve as a commander in charge of recruiting more than 1,000 football coaches. The service is also where Watters proved that he could coach with the big boys. In 1944, Watters guided the Bunker Hill Naval Air Station team in Indiana, which had seven All-Americans, to a 9-1 record, and the second best ranking among service teams in the country. Colleges began arriving in White Plains to court Watters. He turned down several offers before taking the Williams job.
At Williams, it took a little while for Watters' system to catch on. The Ephs finished 3-5 during his inaugural season in 1948, and lost both Little Three contests for the second straight year. But they finished 6-2 during his second year, winning the Little Three for the first time since 1941, and then went 7-1 in 1950. The Ephs only setback that season was a 66-0 season opening loss to a powerful Princeton squad that would finish undefeated and ranked sixth in the nation. It was the Ephs last official game against an Ivy League opponent.
Watters managed to keep that pounding in perspective.
"I can remember getting on the bus and we were all wondering what he was going to say," said Pete DeLisser, the Ephs' captain that year. "He said we had a lot of practice running back kickoffs. We all laughed like hell."
It wasn't the last time that Watters would use humor to defuse a tough situation.
In the 1951 season opener, Williams held a Lehigh team that had lost one game in two years to 98 yards rushing, but lost 20-6 when the Engineers converted two recovered fumbles into touchdowns.
"We outplayed them, we outfought them, and we out fumbled them," he said.
The Ephs really hit their stride under Watters between 1956 and 1958 when they won 18 of 24 games, including a 6-0-1 mark in 1957, the team's first unbeaten season since 1917. One of the stars of those teams, running back Harlow "Chip" Ide, averaged 8.1 yards per carry as a senior in 1958, received All-New England honors, and played in the 1959 All-America Bowl, the first Eph to play in a college all star game.
The Lambert Trophy, which is symbolic of Eastern college football supremacy, was made available to a small college champion for the first time in 1957. The Ephs finished second to undefeated Lehigh, while Watters became the first Williams coach to be named New England Coach of the Year by the New England Football Writers Association.
The Ephs also contended for the Lambert Trophy in 1958 when they finished 6-1, but placed second to the University of Buffalo.
Watters' final two teams at Williams finished their seasons with classic battles against Amherst. In 1961, the 6-2 Ephs knocked off an undefeated Amherst team 12-0 to win the Little Three and knock their archrivals out of Lambert Trophy consideration. In 1962, Amherst spoiled Watters' final game as Williams' head coach, beating another 6-2 Ephs' squad, 7-0. Amherst scored the game's only touchdown with 1:25 left to play.
It was a tough end to a distinguished career.