Hugh Watson feels like he has two homes, but one pulled rank over the other.
The native Tennessean, who guided North Idaho College men’s basketball to its highest placing ever at the 1997 NJCAA Tournament, resigned on Thursday to become the head coach at Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tenn.
Watson told his players he was leaving at a team meeting Thursday afternoon, capping a whirlwind week. Watson was speaking at an NBC camp in Alaska last week when he received a call from Lincoln Memorial officials. He interviewed Monday and accepted the job Wednesday.
Watson’s son, Ty, and daughter, Leigh Ann, live in Tennessee. Watson coached at Hiwassee College (Madisonville, Tenn.) from 1984-1990 and Columbia (Tenn.) Central High for three seasons before arriving at NIC. Prior to Columbia High, Watson assisted at Idaho, where he earned a 1992-93 Big Sky Conference championship ring.
After interviewing Monday, Watson stayed at his daughter’s house.
“I’ll tell you what really decided it,” said Watson, who was at NIC for eight seasons. “Those twin girls of hers came out at about 6 in the morning and they got on the couch and they were just playing with me. And, of course, my in-laws are there. My mother is 84. I loved this town, this community and this state, but sometimes you have to do what your heart is telling you to do.”
Watson, 63, has a bachelor’s degree from Lee University (Cleveland, Tenn.) and a master’s degree from Tennessee Tech. At Lincoln Memorial, he’ll be less than a two-hour drive from his relatives.
Watson arrived at NIC in 1996 and immediately guided the team to Scenic West Athletic Conference and Region 18 Tournament championships, the latter at NIC’s Christianson Gym. The Cardinals advanced to the Final Four at the NJCAA Tournament in Hutchinson, Kan., losing to eventual national champion San Jacinto 112-103 in the semifinals. NIC finished fourth, setting a school record with 30 wins.
The Cardinals advanced to the Region 18 Tournament every year under Watson, but never duplicated his first-year success. NIC was 17-14 last season, losing in the first round of the Region 18 Tournament.
“Hugh did an excellent job of keeping the program at the level that had been established during (former coach) Rolly Williams’ era,” NIC athletic director Al Williams said. “We hate to see him go because he’s established in the community, he brings in good recruits and the kids are graduating. I know he was really looking forward to the season.”
The late timing of Watson’s departure might impact the potential pool of replacements, but the A.D. is confident NIC can find a quality coach. Several interesting names might surface, but Watson and several NIC players are pushing assistant coach Jared Phay for the position. Al Williams, too, has coaching experience in high school and college.
“I have to give it some thought, sit down with Dr. Michael Burke (NIC president) and figure out the best way to proceed,” Williams said. “I haven’t had enough time to think about it yet.”
Said Watson: “Jared has paid his dues, been at a Division I and a couple other JCs, he’s been loyal and he’s recruited most of these kids.”
Watson will replace Jeff Tungate at Lincoln Memorial, an NCAA Division II school that won six games last season. Tungate resigned recently to become an assistant at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich.
“It sucks, but we understand family comes into it,” Cardinal sophomore Don Deshazer said. “We’ve got a new team and we have a tight bond with Coach Phay and hopefully he’ll get the job.”
School has started at NIC and Watson’s recruits are on campus. Following Watson’s announcement to the team, the players had pick-up games at Christianson Gym.
“It’s kind of tough for the new guys; they don’t know anyone here,” said Deshazer, between games. “Nobody knows what’s going to happen.”
Watson expects to leave for Tennessee in a couple weeks. His wife, Anna Sue, is a Tennessee native with a degree from Tennessee Wesleyan. She owns Anna Leigh’s clothing store in The CdA Resort Plaza.
“It was tough telling the kids because I think we’re going to have a good ball club,” Watson said. “I was pretty sad when I left. I hope they’ll understand.”
•Steve Ward, a sophomore wing, apparently tore the ACL in his right knee earlier this week. Ward, a Post Falls High graduate, missed last season recovering from a torn ACL in his left knee.
•NIC wrestling will have several new assistant coaches this season. Kevin Roberts accepted an assistant’s job at national power Minnesota and Pete Reardon is the new head coach at Kentlake High in Kent., Wash.
Jeremy Zender, who was the head coach at Central Washington before the program was eliminated, is expected to join NIC’s staff. Former NIC wrestlers Travis Liermann and Justin Pluid are expected to fill out coach Pat Whitcomb’s staff.
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