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Sunday, February 5, 2023

On the Rebound

In early May 2009, a huge storm moved north from the Gulf of Mexico, knocking out power in southern Illinois and leaving Rodney Watson in a no-contact zone for days. Around the same time, the University of Southern Indiana men’s basketball program began a tumultuous summer when the then-University of Southern Indiana men’s basketball coach, Rick Herdes, resigned in the wake of alleged NCAA rule violations.

“The day the job came open, we lived through an inland hurricane,” says Watson. “I had never lived without electricity before.” Watson was an assistant men’s basketball coach at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Ill., 90 minutes from the River City and a rival of University of Evansville basketball. Without power, Watson learned of USI’s woes from his boss, Evansville native and SIU coach Chris Lowery, who told him: “I just got a call from Evansville, and they’re interested in you.”

The feeling was mutual for Watson, but he had to wait for the power to return to replenish his drained cell phone in order to call Jon Mark Hall, USI’s athletic director. “I got the answering machine and didn’t expect a call back because that’s the way it’s been for about 20 years,” Watson says. “Make those calls and no call back.”

In the wake of the storm, Watson’s family loaded into their mini-van searching for gasoline in the southern Illinois countryside when he received a call from Hall. Two weeks later, Watson was at a press conference in Evansville when Hall introduced him as the man who would lead USI through its current difficult circumstances, and as the basketball season launches this November, his efforts mark the beginning of the Watson era.

Watson wasn’t put off by the potential of sanctions from the Great Lakes Valley Conference or the NCAA. “In those situations, I looked at this job, and I had to ask, ‘Where is the ceiling?’” Watson says. “I didn’t know a whole lot about what had gone on. I knew it had an enormously high ceiling.”

When Watson was hired, public knowledge about USI’s violations were (and still are) unclear, but it was the university that reported five infractions to the NCAA, including their academic indiscretions and violations regarding transportation for student-athletes under Herdes and his staff. Then, school officials imposed a punishment: They vacated last season’s wins and repaid money earned by reaching the NCAA Division II Regional tournament.

For Watson, the job had many upsides. “I know this program competes on a national level. The more I got involved, started checking things out, I found that the scholarships are outstanding, the room and board are outstanding, the facilities are outstanding, the school is so strong,” he says. “These jobs are so difficult to come by. Even though there’s a glitch, the reward far outweighs the risk.”

Those rewards also include a history of success: This is a program that’s won 432 games since 1992, been to the NCAA Division II tournament 20 times, and won a Division II national championship once in 1995.

But, the “glitch,” as Watson calls it, is a challenge no other USI coach has faced. A week before basketball practice started in October, the 49-year-old from Paris, Ill., learned the Great Lakes Valley Conference banned USI from postseason tournament play for the 2009-10 academic year. He broke the news to his team in an emotional meeting, but Hall was impressed with how the new coach handled that difficult assignment.

“He told them there will be tougher times than this in your life,” Hall says. “He just has such a positive attitude, and he thinks of the young men first, how it is going to affect them. It would be easy for him to be moping around Evansville, moping around campus, and he’s not. He’s a perfect leader for this kind of unfortunate situation. He’s looking at it as, ‘How do we make the best of this and move forward?’”[pagebreak]

Watson has followed that path throughout his career, one that started at Coulterville (Ill.) High School and then Madison (Ill.) High School with regional and sectional titles before becoming an assistant at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, a Division II program.

He joined SIU under Coach Rich Herrin. From this position, he worked with (current University of Illinois men’s basketball coach) Bruce Weber, (current Purdue University men’s basketball coach) Matt Painter, and Lowery. Watson received ringing endorsements from all three of those coaches, which left an impression with Hall. “The thing that stuck out to me was that a lot of times, almost every time, when there’s a coaching change, the guys coming in don’t keep any of the former staff,” Hall says. “But he stayed with all three, and you’re talking about some of the most respected individuals in the profession. That meant a lot to me. He showed a lot of commitment to the program, and he was somebody I thought we could rally around.”

Watson thought his career as an assistant coach would be his destiny. It wasn’t one he minded. “I was OK with that,” Watson says. “I think about how many coaches, especially at the high school level, deserved to be in the situation I was in more than I did.”

To excel at the new position, he leans on the varied tasks of his assistant coaching position at SIU, a small but extremely successful Division I program, but his new position requires some adjustments. “I never had kept a calendar in my life until I got here,” Watson says. “If I don’t keep a calendar now, you’d be knocking on my door, and I’d be doing something else. Literally, I look at my watch, and it’s noon on Friday. The funny thing is, I thought I was busy when I was an assistant coach.”

His wife, Carol, who still works at Marion Junior High School in Illinois as a guidance counselor, has eased the stress of his increased workload. In just more than a year, she’ll retire with full benefits, but the Watsons couldn’t pass on the opportunity with USI. Before he accepted the job, she knew Watson, who now lives in student housing on campus during the week, would work long hours on the court. The compromise is simple: “She said, ‘You can go to work early and stay as late as you want. Just get home one or two nights a week,’” Watson says.

He travels the 86 miles from Evansville to southern Illinois. When he’s home for the weekend, he devotes his full time to his family, including his youngest children, twin seventh-graders Olivia and Blake. He visits his oldest daughter, Ashley, at the SIU campus, where she performs with the Saluki Shakers dance team, and helps his son Zach, a high school junior, with basketball. “My kids see way more of me than they did the last 13 years,” Watson says. When he’s not spending time with family or focused on basketball, he follows the Chicago Cubs or works in the yard. “I talk to myself when the mower is running,” Watson says. “I can yell at the referees when I’m mowing the lawn, and nobody gets their feelings hurt.”

He’d have more time for his hobbies, too, but as the new coach, he’s out in the community, rebuilding the USI tradition and earning local support from USI alumni and fans. “I have found our community to be extremely gracious, open, and honest about their feelings,” Watson says. “Those three things strike me every time I go somewhere. The loyalty to individuals, to the community, and to our campus is quite impressive.”

So too is the attitude that this lifelong assistant coach has brought to what will be, for at least one season, a difficult situation, but he’s embraced it full speed since that weekend in early May when winds of change blew into his career. After the interviews with USI, he received a call back later that month just as he was headed out to a St. Louis Cardinals baseball game in Missouri with friends. “I was on the phone. They were waiting for me. I told them, ‘I can’t go,’” Watson says. And then they knew. “I’ll trade Cardinal tickets for this job any day.”

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