Lou Watson had a heck of an Indiana deal. He got to coach between two basketball Hall of Famers in Branch McCracken and Bob Knight, winning a Big Ten championship along the way.
He was a stud basketball and baseball player before that. He was a part of some of the greatest teams in IU history.
And, he was a really nice guy.
Perhas that didn’t translate into being a dominant basketball head coach, but that doesn’t diminish what he meant to IU as a whole.
Waton passed away last Friday in Fairfax, Va. He was 84.
“Lou Watson was a true Hall of Fame Hoosier in every sense of the word,” athletic director Fred Glass said in a release. His association to the university and the athletic program spanned over five decades, first as a standout baseball and basketball player in the late 1940s and early 1950s, second as a coach for the men’s basketball program from the 1950s until the early 1970s, and finally as an administrator for the (athletic) program until 1987. It was great to see him back in 2009 as an honorary coach. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family.”
As a player, Watson won four letters in basketball and two in baseball. He played on a regular season Big Ten title winning baseball team. That was back in 1949, which was before Sembower Field was built. The Hoosiers then played baseball at Jordan Field, which is now a parking lot next to the Memorial Union.
They went 18-5 in what was Ernie Andres’ debut season as head coach. They also made the NCAA tourney that season, losing to Western Michigan. Watson, the right fielder, hit .333.
In basketball, he was team MVP honors in 1949 and ’50. As a senior he earned Big Ten and All-American honors. When he graduated he was IU’s all-time leading scorer, although he never actually led the team in scoring. What he could do was lead, and became team captain in 1950.
His best season came as a senior, when he averaged 12.2 points. He wasn’t much of a shooter (31.4 percent from the field, 55.3 percent from the line), but offense wasn’t what it is today.
Nobody scored much in those days and Watson finished with 757 points, which now ranks 65th in school history. Two years later Don Schlundt arrived in Bloomington and the 6-10 center could score. He finished with 2,192 points, good for third at IU behind Calbert Cheaney (2,613) and Steve Alford (2,438), but by then it was already a different era.
Now that kind of college career would have given Watson a shot at playing professional. Then he stayed at IU and moved into basketball coaching. He coached the Hoosier freshman in 1951, ’52, ’56 and ’57. He moved to a varsity assistant under McCracken.
When McCracken retired in 1965, Watson took over. His debut season didn’t go well. IU was 8-16 overall and 4-10 in the Big Ten. The next year the Hoosiers shared the Big Ten title with a 10-4 record and were 18-8 overall.
They were known as the Cardiac Kids because of their ability to win close games. They beat Notre Dame 94-91, Ohio State 81-80, DePaul 72-70, Minnesota 82-81, Northwestern 81-79 and Michigan 98-96.
They went 1-1 in the NCAA tourney, losing to Virginia Tech and beating Tennessee.
Life got more difficult after that. Indiana went 10-14, 9-15 and 7-17 the next three seasons. Watson basically missed the 1969-70 season because of back surgery. His assistant coach, Jerry Oliver, took over that year.
With George McGinnis and Steve Downing IU roared back for a 17-7 record, 9-5 in the Big Ten. But the Hoosiers lost three of their last four games to blow a chance at a conference title.
That ended Watson's coaching experience. He finished with a 62-60 record. He became an administrator and Knight arrived for his record-breaking run.
Watson was inducted into the IU athletic Hall of Fame in 1989. In 2009 coach Tom Crean reached out to him, as he has so many outstanding players from Indiana’s past. Watson was an honorary captain later that season.
“Lou Watson was a part of so many of the historic moments of Indiana basketball and accomplished so many great things during his Hall of Fame career,” Crean said in a university release.
“My first meeting with him came at his home in Ellettsville and it was a great afternoon.
“It was a tremendous honor to have him visit our Elite Camp in 2009 with so many of the other former greats in attendance that afternoon. To see him return later that year with his family toserve as an honorary captain, and to hear that ovation he received when he was introduced, I know it made his heart proud. Those are moments I will never forget, and his picture receiving the game ball with his grandsons has been displayed proudly in our locker room since that day.”