Bob Waters and Western Carolina football were synonymous during the 20 football seasons from 1969 through 1988. The evolution and success of the school's athletic programs, especially its football program, during that period can be attributed largely to his talents and personality.
He grew up in the small farming town of Sylvania in south Georgia and, despite physical frailties, earned 11 athletic letters in three sports. During the spring of his senior year at Screven County High School, he traveled to South Georgia College for a tryout and suffered a broken leg the first day and was not offered a scholarship.
He landed on his feet five months later at Stetson University in Deland, Fla., as a freshman quarterback and defensive back. Waters must have wondered if someone was trying to tell him something when Stetson officials decided to drop the school's football program at the end of that season.
Not to be discouraged, in his efforts to play football, Waters took his talents to Presbyterian College in Clinton, S.C., where he spent the next three years as a quarterback, defensive back and an outstanding student. He led Presbyterian to the 1960 Tangerine Bowl and was named the game's most outstanding player despite his team's loss.
His performance in the Tangerine Bowl gave cause for the NFL's San Francisco 49ers and AFL's San Diego Chargers to draft Waters in 1960. He signed with the 49ers, bought a Corvette, grabbed headlines in his first season when he threw three touchdown passes in an upset of the Baltimore Colts, and soon thereafter, met and married Sherine Gidney. He overcame numerous injuries in his five-year NFL career -- four as quarterback and one as a defensive back.
The injuries mounted and Waters opted for a career change in 1965 as he hung up his cleats and enrolled in graduate school with a coaching career in mind. His alma mater offered the opportunity and he returned as an assistant coach at Presbyterian in 1966. After two seasons, he left Clinton to return to the west coast as the wide receivers coach at Stanford University for the 1968 season.
Western Carolina officials gambled and hired Waters, whose coaching experience was limited to those three seasons as an assistant, but it turned out to be one of the best decisions made in the University's history.
He served notice of things to come by leading his first team -- the 1969 Catamounts -- to a 9-1 record with an exciting pass oriented offense. A national ranking followed at the end of the 1972 season and in 1974, when WCU advanced to its first NCAA playoff appearance. His 1983 team will go down as one of the school's best, reaching the NCAA I-AA championship game. In 20 seasons at the helm of the football program, he guided the Catamounts to 116 victories, produced 13 All-Americans, 54 first-team All-Southern Conference selections and brought the University more positive publicity than could ever be measured in monetary terms. Prior to his arrival, WCU had posted only five winning football records in 20 seasons, while 13 of Waters' 20 teams turned in winning ledgers.
In 15 years (1971-86) as athletics director, Waters led the growth and played a key part in the school's membership in the Southern Conference. He cultivated and rallied support for a new football stadium, which became a reality in 1974, and an impressive basketball arena as part of a multipurpose Ramsey Center, which was completed in 1986.
His coaching and administrative successes as well as his courage in his fight against amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or more commonly known as Lou Gehrig's Disease) were recognized throughout the country as his story was chronicled by every major print and electronic media outlet in the nation. Waters has additionally been inducted into the South Carolina Athletic Hall of Fame, the Florida Citrus Bowl Hall of Fame and the Western Carolina Athletic Hall of Fame.
He was forced to step down as head football coach in March of 1989 and died less than three months later (May 29, 1989) at the age of 50.