Column: Watson remembered for turning around athletics

Mark Schmidt in 2012 after the Bonnies beat Xavier to win the A-10 Championship
Mark Schmidt in 2012 after the Bonnies beat Xavier to win the A-10 Championship

[Image courtesy of gobonnies.com]

By Joseph Pinter, @JPinter93

Local media who have been around long enough can remember 2006. The men’s basketball team had just gotten blown out by an Atlantic 10 opponent late in the season, and the Reilly Center was quite empty.

Coach Anthony Solomon lashed out at the media members, yelling about the lack of student and community support his team had.

Had I been in the room, I would have asked one simple question: Why would anyone support this team?

Three years earlier the Bonnies were the laughingstock of national media; a basketball program completely undone by the university’s own president. A president overriding NCAA academic standards to admit an athlete? How ridiculous does that sound?

The scandal has been ranked in the top ten in many lists of the worst NCAA scandals of all time. Bleacher Report even ranks it as the seventh-worst ever.

It brought down the program and left a disaster for Solomon to try and clean up. Well, he succeeded about as well as Bill Buckner in the infamous 1986 World Series. The team went 24-88 until a new athletic director was finally hired in 2006.

Enter Steve Watson.

Watson’s father, mother and brother all taught at Bonaventure, and he had grown up in nearby Franklinville, New York. He was a standout basketball player at Archbishop Walsh High School in Olean before playing at the collegiate level at Rutgers and Bowling Green. He played professionally overseas for a few years before entering administration.

He worked in the athletic departments at Dayton and Georgia before being named associate AD at Eastern Michigan.

He knew Bonaventure, knew the area and knew what athletics needed.

He was also what Bonaventure needed.

He hired Mark Schmidt as men’s basketball coach. Four years later, the jokes were gone and the Bonnies were Atlantic 10 Champions. Bonnies fans took over Bridgestone Arena in Nashville for the second round of the NCAA Tournament and the Orlando Magic selected Bonaventure forward Andrew Nicholson in the first round of the 2012 NBA Draft.

That same year, the women’s basketball team made it to the NCAA Sweet Sixteen.

Basketball fever had returned to Allegany in full force.

The truth is, Bonaventure has been lucky to hold onto Watson this long. Nearly everything Watson has done here has been a huge success, including the recent turf fields project for the soccer, lacrosse and softball teams.

Mid-major schools often have trouble keeping people as successful as Watson. We’ve been fortunate to have him as long as we did.

In 30 days or so, Watson will begin his new job as AD at Loyola-Chicago, a Division I school competing in the Missouri Valley Conference. Until then he’ll continue leading Bonaventure’s athletics.

Once settled in Chicago, Watson will take a hard look at the university’s athletics department. You can bet he’ll again consider hiring a new men’s basketball coach — Porter Moser has gone 32-61 in his three seasons at the helm.

Bonaventure would have liked to have Watson running its athletic department for many years, but that’s the reality with mid-major schools. It’s hard to hold onto your best administrators and coaches. They often leave for more money and deeper assets.

Here’s to hoping Watson has as much luck at Loyola-Chicago as he did here.

After all, he’s a western New Yorker at heart. He may be leaving, but he’s still one of us.

We will be forever thankful for his part in restoring the men’s basketball program and setting up Bonaventure’s other sports for future success.

Gone are the days of basketball scandals (hopefully), and the lack of fan support for the program.

Local media members can now fondly look back on that March 2012 afternoon in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Schmidt cut down the nets while fans screamed, “We’re going dancing!” Guard Michael Davenport picked up president Sr. Margaret Carney and spun her around in celebration. Schmidt answered postgame questions about the program’s renaissance, not about its failures.

The memories of 2003-2007 will eventually fade away, but these ones won’t.

We have Watson to thank for that.

pinterjo11@bonaventure.edu

 

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