Watson ‘lucky’ to have coached between two legends at Indiana

Watson ‘lucky’ to have coached between two legends at Indiana

Catching up with … Lou Watson

By Lynn Houser, Herald-Times Sports Writer

November 27, 2006

Indiana’s “Cardiac Kids” were hard on coach Lou Watson’s heart during the many tight games they played during their run to the 1967 Big Ten title. Playfully checking Watson’s heart from left are Butch Joyner, Vern Payne and Bill DeHeer. H-T file photo
From the Nov. 27, 2006 Bloomington Herald-Times

It’s hard enough following one legend, but to be sandwiched between two icons … Well, that is Lou Watson’s niche in Indiana basketball history.

It was Watson who succeeded the legendary Branch McCracken in 1966, and it was Watson who was followed in 1971 by Bob Knight.

Watson doesn’t feel cheated in the least by his place on IU’s coaching ladder. The way he looks at it, he was the bridge between the two eras.

“I was fairly lucky,” he said from his winter home in Florida last week. “I was taking over for a guy who won two national championships. My first year we didn’t have one player who had started a Big Ten game, but we won the Big Ten my second year.”

That was the 1966-67 “Cardiac Kids,” a Hoosier team known for its many heart-stopping finishes. Thanks to Butch Joyner, Vern Payne, Bill DeHeer, Jack Johnson and Irv Inninger, the Hoosiers tied Michigan State for the title with a 10-4 record.

Although Watson would not coach another Big Ten champion, he did have the pleasure of coaching George McGinnis for his one and only collegiate season, 1970-71. Watson coached against some great ones – Rick Mount, Austin Carr, Calvin Murphy – but McGinnis was in a class by himself.

“McGinnis is by far the most mature kid I ever coached,” Watson said. “He was a man. He was built. John Pont (the IU football coach at the time) used to say, ‘Dang, what a football player he would make.’ He was by far the best all-around player I ever had.”

Watson had some other good ones on that ’70-71 club – Joby Wright, Steve Downing and John Ritter. The Hoosiers were in the thick of the Big Ten race until a player boycott scuttled the team.

“A boycott in football carried over to my team,” Watson said.

Watson stepped down after that year and watched Knight take the holdovers, sprinkle in some newcomers like Quinn Buckner, Steve Green and John Laskowski, and win a league championship his second year at IU. Watson noted the irony in that.

“I won the Big Ten my second year, Knight won it in his second year and Mike Davis won it in his second year. Maybe Kelvin Sampson will win it his second year.”

Watson played his high school ball at Jeffersonville from 1944 to ’47 and was headed for Tennessee until McCracken talked him into coming to Indiana. Watson can still recall the conversation.

“Branch said to me, ‘Lou, what do you want to do after high school?’ I told him I wanted to coach. He said, ‘Do you want to coach in Tennessee or Indiana?’ I thought, ‘My God, I want to coach in Indiana.’ So I came to IU.”

Watson prospered under McCracken, making the 1950 All-American team. He stayed on as a basketball and baseball assistant at Indiana before going into the high schools ranks as the head basketball coach at Huntington. He returned for a second stint under McCracken and assumed the head coaching duties when McCracken’s health forced him to retire at the end of the 1964-65 campaign.

“I loved Branch,” Watson said. “We got along great. He knew how to handle people.”

Watson got along just as well with his successor.

“I played a lot of golf with Knight, fished with him, hunted with him. A lot of people thought I was crazy for hunting with him.”

Watson, now 83, spends his summer months in Bloomington and still keeps an eye on the basketball program. The game has changed in some ways and has remained steady in others, he says.

“You can’t change the fundamentals, but today it’s more of the shot-clock and the 3-point play. You can be 11, 12 points behind and hit three 3-pointers and be right back in the game. Back when I played, 12 points was hard to come back from.”