November 17, 2019
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Kings of the Court

Rodney Watson, Matt Ruffing, Walter McCarty, and Rick Stein

If anyone disproves the common adage “Those who can’t do, teach,” it is the four head coaches for the men’s and women’s basketball programs at the University of Evansville and the University of Southern Indiana. In fact, the coaches do everything in the name of team building for their players and the community.

Walter McCarty

There is a lot about Walter McCarty that is unexpected. The famed NBA player and coach from Evansville has released three music albums — “Moment for Love” in 2003, “Emotionally” in 2011, and “Unbreakable” in 2012 — ranging in styles from R&B to smooth jazz. And after a long professional career beginning in 1996 playing for the New York Knicks, Boston Celtics, Phoenix Suns, and Los Angeles Clippers then assistant coaching for the University of Louisville men’s basketball team, Indiana Pacers, and Boston Celtics, McCarty made the surprising move back home to take the helm of the University of Evansville men’s basketball program.

As head coach for Purple Aces men’s basketball, replacing former coach Marty Simmons and his 11-year run, McCarty is focused on community within his team and within the city that has supported his career since his time at the University of Kentucky and his days at Harrison High School, playing basketball with fellow legend Calbert Cheaney, now the assistant for the Erie BayHawks in Erie, Pennsylvania.

“I understand how much the program means to the city and the community,” says McCarty. “There are a lot of great things happening here in Evansville, and we’re all very proud of our city. I’m happy to be able to have a part in that, to be able to be a part of that change.”

While McCarty is not anxious about playing any certain team and is looking forward to every game of the season, the city has waited with bated breath to see how his coaching will impact not just the program but the city as well. The coach’s goal for his inaugural season is to unite the team and instill in the players the importance of taking care of business every single day from working hard to improving in each practice to staying on top of classwork.

“On the court, our goal is to really be connected and play the right way — play to a certain standard our city and this region can be very proud of,” says McCarty. “I think our guys have put in a lot of hard work, and they’re eager to learn and hungry to win games.”

Only time will tell how the Aces perform this season, but McCarty’s grit and passion already have sparked a renewed energy into the program. At the end of the day, he says talent is nothing more than being a good person and caring about the wellbeing of others.

“Being able to inspire people to change lives and being able to help certain communities and people who are underserved — those things that I’ve been able to do and be involved with I think are the really precious moments,” says McCarty. 

FACTS AND STATS:

•  McCarty stands at a height of 6 feet 10 inches.

•  During his time at the University of Kentucky, he was part of the team that won the NCAA championship in 1996.

•  McCarty played the role of Mance in the 1998 film “He Got Game,” starring Denzel Washington and written and directed by Spike Lee.

•  During his time at Harrison High School, McCarty sang the national anthem before a game as a recruit in front of then UK coach Rick Pitino.

Rodney Watson

Life isn’t all practices and games when you’re a university men’s basketball head coach.

“It’s a 12-month profession and it never stops,” says University of Southern Indiana men’s basketball head coach Rodney Watson.

From an early age, the 37-year veteran coach knew he wanted a career in a field that wouldn’t really seem like work to him. Growing up on a farm in Paris, Illinois, and working in a factory as he took classes at Eastern Illinois University, he knew it had to be a career in something that he could really enjoy. Though he only played ball in high school, coaching has provided him with the types of challenges he hoped to find in a profession.

“We know the 17 guys on our team personally,” says Watson. “We know their families. We have a very strong understanding of where they come from. You really take on a parental role when you coach, especially at the college level.”

Watson played ball during his high school years before attending Eastern Illinois University, Charleston, Illinois. His first coaching stint was two years at Coulterville High School in southern Illinois in 1982; he then moved to Madison High School in East St. Louis for another two-year run. Watson’s first college coaching experience came at the University of Nebraska-Omaha in 1986 before he began a long stretch with the Southern Illinois University Salukis in Carbondale, Illinois.

After 21 seasons with SIU as an associate head coach and assistant coach to the men’s basketball program, coming to USI came down to not only having an opportunity to head up a program, but also to be a part of a university showing growth. A part of that growth Watson and USI women’s head basketball coach Rick Stein have had input in is the new Physical Activities Center and arena set to open on campus soon.

“It’s been interesting and rewarding to be a part of this project. That doesn’t happen in many coaches’ careers — to be a part of something that is going to be state-of-the-art, something that not only is a huge part of this campus, but this community as well,” says Watson.

Ten seasons have come and gone under the leadership of Coach Watson (he is the ninth head coach to lead the Screaming Eagles). In the 2017-18 season, the team notched a second-straight 20-win campaign, placed third in the Great Lakes Valley Conference East Division, and went to the league tournament. But challenges aren’t always about wins and losses, free throw shots, or conference appearances, says Watson.

“The challenge is meeting the next challenge you don’t expect,” he says. “The most difficult circumstance we’ve ever been involved with is in the loss of Jeron Lewis.”

Lewis, who played center for USI, passed away from a head injury he suffered during a game against Kentucky Wesleyan College in 2010.

“When you’re in the eighth grade and think you want to coach college basketball, it never enters your mind that a situation like that would ever come up,” says Watson. “The challenge of coaching isn’t one particular thing.”

The wins and achievements are rewarding, he says, but he finds the successes of his players off the court just as fulfilling for him as grabbing a win.

“As I grow older, when you see someone like Bobo Drummond (USI guard from 2014-2017) walk off the stage with a degree and he has the opportunity to truly change his life, and also generations in front of him — that’s the part I didn’t expect long ago when I wanted to coach,” he says.

FACTS AND STATS:

•  Under Watson’s coaching, the USI men’s team has reached a 115-47 Great Lakes Valley Conference record during his ten seasons with the team.

•  Watson was named GLVC Coach of the Year in 2010 after the team earned a ninth-place finish in the national poll during his first season at USI.

•  Watson is the third USI men’s basketball head coach to win more than 150 games while coaching the team.

Matt Ruffing

Matt Ruffing is looking for a rebound. After a season last year fraught with injury and illness, the head coach of women’s basketball at the University of Evansville is searching for a fresh start.

After nine games during her senior season last year, Aces guard Brooke Bishop came under concussion protocol in December. In January, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Bishop, however, was determined to keep playing and has returned to the Aces for another go at her senior season. For Ruffing, the experience reminded him of why he loves coaching and his desire growing up to be a teacher.

“Being in the appointments with doctors and seeing what she was going through to seeing her have the chance to be back with her teammates and play the game she loves to play has been a really neat experience for me,” he says. “It kind of gives you a bigger picture look at the equation. Sometimes as coaches we can get so focused on things and lose sight of what is really important.”

Coaching was the best of both worlds for Ruffing, combining his love for basketball with his passion for teaching and helping younger generations of athletes grow and develop.

“The effect you can have on someone’s life and their future is something that inspires me to do what I do,” says Ruffing. “The game itself has given a lot to me, and it’s nice to be able to give that back to someone else and hope to create a positive experience for them.”

The Ohio native came to UE in 2011 from the University of Akron, and served as an assistant coach until 2016, when then-head coach Oties Epps resigned with two games remaining in the season. Later that same year, Ruffing entered a long-term contract as head coach of the program after leading the team to a 5-6 mark through the first 11 games of the season as interim head coach.

His focus now is to continue strengthening the team and recruit players who are passionate not just about the sport but also enthusiastic about UE’s program and Evansville.

“The way we recruit and try to sell is we want the best fit for everybody,” says Ruffing. “With seven newcomers [this season,] you have some ups and downs. I would characterize it as a rollercoaster. I think our players are starting to understand our expectations and the culture we’re trying to set, and things have looked pretty good.”

Ruffing’s hope for the team can be seen in the growth of Evansville since the coach first came to town — the same year the Ford Center opened Downtown. The goal is to mimic the progress that has taken place over the last eight years throughout the city and instill the same renewed energy into the team.

“I think it is a great time not only for UE with the new president and Coach McCarty coming in, but I also think it kind of mirrors what has been happening with the city,” says Ruffing. “I think everything is moving in the right direction. It’s a good time to be in Evansville.”

FACTS AND STATS:

•  This year, the UE women’s basketball team had seven new recruits, replacing more than half of its roster, in Ruffing’s first real recruiting class as head coach.

•  One of Ruffing’s career highlights was UE’s win against Drake in the 2015 Missouri Valley Conference, advancing the team to the semifinals.

•  Ruffing’s first year in Evansville was the year the Ford Center opened, and he says the growth of the city since then has been exciting to witness.

Rick Stein

The thought of never stepping on a court again was unsettling to Rick Stein. The Crete, Illinois, native had grown up in sports and playing basketball had brought him to the University of Southern Indiana, where he was studying business management and playing as a guard/forward for the men’s basketball team.

“I was recruited here and when I visited the campus right after I was done with junior college (at Parkland College in Champagne, Illinois), I just fell in love with it,” says Stein. “Obviously it’s changed a lot since then, but even at that time the beauty of the campus, the community itself, and the people here really sold me.”

And as graduation neared for him in 1992, the idea of leaving basketball behind was one he wasn’t ready to accept.

“I really started to get to a point where I couldn’t see myself away from the court — being away from basketball, away from a team, and what that meant to me,” says Stein. “I don’t know if it scared me, it might have. But as I was finishing up my degree, the thought of coaching really started to come about.”

That was how Stein reached out to the women’s basketball head coach at the time, Chancellor Dugan. The coach brought Stein on as a student assistant during the 1991-92 season. He was promoted to head assistant coach in 1994.

“I asked if I could help, and she really took me under her wing,” says Stein. “It was a great experience to start and a real different experience to be on the other side of it. Once I got into it, I just loved it. I couldn’t imagine being a part of anything else.”

Thirty years later, Coach Stein still calls the campus of USI his home. Entering his 20th season as head coach for the women’s team, he and his staff have a record of more than 300 wins. In the 2017-18 season, the women’s team secured a trip to the NCAA II Tournament for the second season in a row. Stein also was awarded Great Lakes Valley Conference Coach of the Year honors for the third time in his career.

“I don’t want [anyone] to think I’m downplaying, but that is 100-percent a team award,” he says. “When your team has success, that means you have student athletes and a staff full of coaches who have worked their tails off, and it’s paid off. The success we have has a lot to do with their hard work.”

On the heels of a successful 2017-18 season, it is easy to assume another run at a national championship is the goal for Stein and his team this year. Which is true, the coach says. But after 20 seasons, coaching has become far more than just wins and games. The team has nine returning players, which excites Stein and the coaching staff, as well as promising new players. He also has a tough schedule lined out for the team, but firmly believes the players are ready for it.

“One of my goals is to really get the most out of each and every young woman on our team. What I want to do is make sure they are reaching their potential,” he says. “And that’s coaching. Xs and Os are a very small part of the coaching scenario.”

“What I would hope is that, in every way, the players are prepared to do whatever they want to do in whatever field they want when they leave here,” adds Stein. “And that they look back at their time here and say, ‘You know what, my time with USI women’s basketball was the greatest time of my life, and it has helped me with the rest of my life.’”

FACTS AND STATS:

•  In his second season at USI, Stein marked the biggest season-to-season turnaround in school history with a 28-4 record.

•  Stein has been a part of more than 77.1 percent of USI women’s basketball’s 646 all-time wins.

•  Under his direction, the Lady Screaming Eagles have made one NCAA II Elite Eight appearance, six NCAA II tournament trips, notched one GLVC championship, and two GLVC tournament championships.

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