Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Bob Watson was a leader in a big way

      (Third in a series)
     We knew him as "Big Bo" in the mid-1960s at Louisiana Tech University. For more than 40 years, he has been Mr. Watson in El Dorado, Ark.
Bob Watson, Louisiana Tech, mid-1960s
(photo provided by La. Tech sports information office)
     As in, for most of that time, Robert Watson, superintendent of schools.
     You had to notice Bob Watson at 6-foot-10 -- whether it was on a basketball court or in everyday life. As he did for Louisiana Tech's basketball program or in El Dorado schools, he was a pacesetter.
     His basketball career didn't develop as he and many others at Tech had hoped -- well, not after his spectacular first game -- but he was in school for an education. And he achieved much in his career in education.
     In the mid-1970s, he and wife Charlotte moved to her hometown, El Dorado -- the one-time oil-boom city of about 18,500 people in south Arkansas  near the Louisiana border and about an hour north of Louisiana Tech. Mr. Watson, just as on the basketball court, was a big man there.
     He was superintendent of schools for 29 years, retiring in 2014 after a 40-year school administrative career, and he's still serving the city -- as interim administrator at First Baptist Church.
        At Louisiana Tech, he brought size to the basketball program when he arrived early in 1964 as a transfer from his home-state West Virginia University. When he became eligible to play, he became the tallest player in Tech history.
     He set a trend, opening a nine-year span of "big man" Tech basketball.
     Richard Peek (6-11) came to the program a few months later as a transfer from the University of Florida. Charlie Bishop (7 feet) was a freshman on Tech's 1966-67 conference championship team, joining the older guys for a "Triple Towers" front line. 
     Mike Green (6-10) came along three years later, teamed with Bishop for one year, and eventually rewrote the Tech record book.
     Watson wound up as a backup -- playing time in a we're-far-ahead or too-far-behind role. But he brought a spirit, an energy and a personality that was much appreciated by his teammates and the fans.
     As noted in a previous blog, Watson's entry into games his final season was greatly anticipated by the fans at Tech home games. They knew the action would pick up.
     "Bob Watson was a really likable human being -- funny, with a big, booming voice," recalled Jim Pruett, a starting guard during that time and now a retired college professor living in Germantown, Tenn. "I remember him being pretty emotional/vocal, and very good-natured. He could get upset and make some noise!"
     There is a Shreveport connection to Watson coming to Louisiana Tech.
     Bob had been a fine player -- his height helped -- at Logan, W.Va., a tiny place in the southeast part of that state near the Kentucky line. Going into the state university and a basketball program that was then (and still is) a national name, he realized he wasn't a fit and looked to transfer.
     His roommate as a freshman was 6-foot-8 Bob Benfield, who had been a two-year star on Coach Scotty Robertson's powerful teams at Shreveport's Byrd High School.
     Robertson had moved on to coach at Louisiana Tech, and so Benfield called Robertson, who then contacted Watson and recruited him to Tech.
     (Benfield was a preacher's son and chose West Virginia because his father had been transferred from Shreveport to a church in Charleston, W.Va. Benfield went on to play regularly for the Mountaineers and was a 1967 NBA draft pick.)
Bob Watson, Don Landry: The occasion was Coach
 Scotty Robertson's funeral in Ruston, Aug. 21, 2011
(photo provided by A.A. "Bud" Dean)
     Watson's arrival began a transformation for Robertson and assistant coach Don Landry.
     "Neither of us had coached players that big," recalled Landry, 77, who lives in Baton Rouge after a long career in coaching and athletic administration. "We studied film, we read, we talked to other coaches, on how to use one or two big post players."
     That included, for Landry quite memorable, lengthy sessions with UCLA coaching legend John Wooden -- who was about to coach 7-foot-1 superstar Lew Alcindor -- and then-Kansas State coach Tex Winter, who had created and written a book on the triple-post offense.
     After one year as an LSU assistant to Dale Brown, Winter carried that offense -- the famed "triangle" -- to the NBA as an assistant (to Phil Jackson) with the champion Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers.
     Soon after Watson joined Tech, so did Peek. First, as transfers, they could only practice.
     "We had one of the nation's smallest teams," said Landry about the 1964-65 Bulldogs, whose biggest starter was 6-4 senior Jerry Hood, a three-time all-conference player -- a terrific shooter from 15 feet in who knew how to use the backboards and brutally strong inside (his teammates actually feared his elbows). But leaping ability? That wasn't Hood.
     Watson earned enough classroom credits in summer school and Tech's 1964 fall semester to become eligible to play in January 1965. Once he joined the lineup, the veteran, savvy Hood continued as the focus of the offense, all around the lane area. He averaged 23.4 points a game that season.
     But Watson's first game ...
     If he had stopped after that one, he would have been a legend. Everyone I contacted remembered and mentioned his debut.
     It was against Northwestern State -- Tech's longtime archrival in athletics -- at then-new Prather Coliseum in Natchitoches, and Watson totally dominated with about 20 points and 15 rebounds -- we think -- in a Tech victory.
     "I don't remember [the numbers] exactly," Watson said last week. "I remember tipping in a lot of shots. I know I didn't shoot any from outside."             
     "He had the best first game of anyone I ever played with," Pruett said. " ... Everyone thought 'stardom.'' I know I did.
     "After that, as I recall, he played himself out of the lineup. I don't recall him ever complaining about his scarce playing time. Just always showed up and did his best as a backup -- and definitely made some positive contributions."
     Watson, who could be effective with short old-time hook shots inside, was a regular for the last nine games of the 1964-65 season, but before the next season (his junior year), mononucleosis kept him out for a long time, and he never regained the edge he'd had.
     Peek became the team's top center for the next two seasons.
     Watson, like many of us, was not aware of Peek's death (two years ago) and was saddened to hear of it, asking for the details. 
         "He were good friends then, he was such a delightful person," Watson said. "... We butted heads a lot in practice. I really got to appreciate him."
     Watson quickly built friendships -- especially with a young woman from El Dorado, Charlotte Causey -- and became a popular teammate, and the source of much laughter.
     Jon Pat Stephenson remembers going with team manager Tom Burkhart to the newly married Watsons' apartment off the Tech campus each Thursday, where Charlotte prepared a meal and together they watched the then-hit series The Man from UNCLE."
     Burkhart was his roommate in Watson's first months at Tech and remembers, after Bob became eligible to play and had his big debut, them going to the Dixie movie theater in downtown Ruston and "everyone started applauding" when they walked in. "Bob liked that, and he thanked them."
     Here is what other teammates said:
     "I really liked Bob," said Sydney Boone, Benfield's Byrd teammate who was on the Tech team when Watson arrived but soon dropped off and became one of the best intramural players at Tech (for Kappa Alpha fraternity). "He always had a smile and a happy 'hello, Syd, how are you doing?' and 'miss you on the court' type greeting when we saw each other on campus." 
     Tommy Gregory, a 6-7 forward who took much of Watson's would-be playing time: "His first game against  Northwestern was gangbusters. ... He never had another game like it.  Bob was thin physically and not as coordinated as he would liked to have been.  His shooting ability was about like mine, not very notable.
     "He was and is the nicest guy."
     Terry Ewing: "Bob was as nice a guy as you would ever want to see. ... He was a great teammate."
     After graduating from Tech with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Education, Watson stayed in school and earned a masters' degree in Speech, and with delight, watched the 1967-68 Bulldogs led by old teammates Malcolm Smith, Gregory, Pruett and big Charlie.
     He then went home -- to Logan, W.Va. -- to teach and coach. After five years, he and Charlotte (they married in 1965 after his sophomore year at Tech) returned to the Deep South.
     Having added an Administrator's Certification at University of Arkansas-Little Rock, he went from assistant principal at El Dorado High to junior high principal, then high school principal -- and finally superintendent ... for three decades.
     "I had the opportunity to improve a lot of things," he said of that tenure. "I dealt with finances, and we focused on getting test scores up and creating opportunities for our kids. Had to close some schools and consolidate some, but it was about making progress."
     The crowning achievement came near the end of his career when a new El Dorado High School was built and opened, replacing the old school that had stood since 1963.
     In a 2014 television interview on the day he was honored with a reception just before his retirement, he said, "The biggest accomplishment would probably be the building of the facility that we're in. It was significant in terms of the state said we needed to look at our high school."
     The $50 million facility "looks like a small college campus," Bob said. "It is 317,000 square feet and can handle 1,600 kids."
     And he did all he did without the use of a cellphone or personal e-mail. address. "I had a very good administrative assistant," he said, laughing. "I was with the kids and the staff; that's what was important to me."
     Charlotte and Bob had three children: Dr. Robert Watson II, a primary-care physician in El Dorado; Nancy Watson, a counselor at El Dorado High School; and the late Hartford Watson, who had just earned a doctorate in physical therapy and married when he was killed in an auto accident six years ago.
     All three Watson kids attended Tech, as did Charlotte's father -- Hartford Causey, who played football and baseball there in the 1930s.
     The Watsons have three grandchildren.
     The sons weren't quite as tall as their dad -- Robert II is "only" 6-foot-7, Hartford was 6-5. They did play high school basketball.
     "Big Bo" has no regrets about his time at Tech and basketball.
     "I felt blessed to play ball there," he said last week. "I'll be candid with you -- I didn't worry about playing time. I just wanted to be part of the team, with a bunch of great guys. ...
     "Practice was something. You had Peek and Bishop, and that was a lot of size, a lot of talent. It was a real struggle a lot of days in practice.
     "But to be part of that team was a blessing. I have nothing but fond memories of my years at Louisiana Tech."
     (Next: Richard Peek, man of many seasons)

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