“I’ve been coaching for a long time, and I’ve had to change in this profession, because kids change and generations are different. But my core values haven’t changed.”
500 and Counting
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By CHERRY CRAYTON
Wanda Watkins, who has been the head coach of the Campbell University women’s basketball team since 1981, didn’t know she was nearing 500 career wins until someone asked her about it just before the start of the 2013-14 season.
She didn’t think much of it. But then she got asked about it again, and then again and again.
By the time the season started on Nov. 9 with an 82-56 win over Erskine — her 499th career victory — Watkins had settled on an answer that she’d come to repeat to all who asked her about approaching No. 500: “I hope it comes quickly, so we can get it out of the way and the players aren’t thinking about it.”
Only three games into the 2013-14 season — Watkins’ 33rd at the helm — it came. On Nov. 16, the Lady Camels defeated Western Carolina 73-60 in Gore Arena to give Watkins her 500th career win. “This is not a Wanda Watkins moment,” Watkins said after the game. “This is definitely a group moment. This is a Campbell women's basketball moment.”
As Watkins stood near center court surrounded by her players, her coaching staff and several university administrators, the Athletics Department celebrated the moment by unveiling a banner marking the milestone. “Wanda Watkins stands for what this school is all about,” Campbell President Jerry Wallace said. “We are so proud of her and grateful for her good life and her wonderful coaching ability.”
With the win, Watkins became the 27th active coach in NCAA Division I to reach 500 wins. “She’ll never take credit for any of them,” said Mary Weiss, associate head coach of the Campbell women’s basketball team who played for Watkins from 1983 to 1985 and who has been on her staff for 27 years. “But, of course, she deserves credit.”
In the following as-told-to narrative, Watkins shares how she ended up as a basketball coach and whom she credits for the more than 500 times she has coached Lady Camels teams to victory.
THE WANDA WATKINS FILE
Title: Women’s basketball head coach, Campbell University
Hometown: Clayton, N.C.
- Bachelor of Science in physical education, Campbell (1979)
- Master of Education with emphasis in physical education, Campbell (1981)
- Add-on certification in counseling, Campbell (1988)
- South Johnston High School (1971-75)
- Campbell University (1975-79)
- Graduate assistant, Campbell (1979-80)
- Assistant coach, Campbell (1980-81)
- Head coach, Campbell (1981-present)
- Overall record: 517-413 (.556)
CONFERENCE WIN/LOSS RECORDS
- Big South (1986-94, 2011-present) / 115-47 (.710)
- Atlantic Sun (1994-2011) / 157-161 (.494)
- Regular season titles: 1989 (Big South), 1991 (Big South), 2001 (Atlantic Sun)
- Tournament titles: 1989 (Big South), 2000 (Atlantic Sun)
- NCAA appearance: 2000
- 27th winningest active coach in the NCAA
- 22 winning seasons
- 95 percent graduation rate of players
- 10 appearances in conference tournament championship games
- 49 players who have won all-conference honors
- 157 wins in the Atlantic Sun conference, the most of any coach
- 4 Coach of the Year district or conference honors
- Big South Conference Captain for the Women's Basketball Coaches (2013-14)
Basketball was in my making. My parents played in high school, and they loved the game and saw the value of sports and the discipline people acquire through them. When I was a kid, we had the best basketball goal and the best lights for the outdoor court at our home. Everybody in the neighborhood would come to our house to play. I played against anybody, even grown men.
We also had a building off our house where we kept our lawn mower, a freezer and other stuff. One day, there was a tremendous fire that broke out in the building and destroyed everything. I remember sitting at the window, looking at the destruction, crying. My mother tried to comfort me and asked me what was wrong. I looked her in the eyes and told her I was so upset because my basketball burned up. Even as a youngster, basketball was heavy on my mind. It was my first love.
We had seventh- and eighth-grade basketball back then. We actually played six-man basketball when I was in the seventh grade, and then the state of North Carolina changed it, and we played five-man basketball in the eighth grade. That’s one of the best things the state has done for girls.
I went on to attend South Johnston High School the first year that the school opened. It didn’t even have a gym, and I wasn’t old enough to drive. So my mom drove 15 miles four times a day to take me to practice. My parents supported me, and I couldn’t have done it without them.
We had some success at South Johnston and won a state title. Some colleges were interested in me. North Carolina State was one. This was before Kay Yow was coaching there. Robert “Peanut” Doak was the coach then, and he offered me a full scholarship. All I had to do was pay for my room key. They had a recreation degree, but they didn’t have a physical education degree.
Even then I knew I wanted to coach; I thought it would be a great way to give back to something that has been so good to me. I knew I could get that physical education degree at Campbell, though they just offered a partial scholarship. And I liked the atmosphere here. I thought the personalized attention would be good, and I was a small-town kind of girl. Coming here is a decision I’ve never regretted.
Playing then in college was an entirely different world than now. The support wasn’t nearly as good. There weren’t pep bands. Maybe we had cheerleaders; I don’t remember. But it was a good opportunity, and I learned a lot about life, like that a lot of things in life are relationship-oriented, and you can’t get anywhere by yourself. The long bus rides and the relationships I developed with teammates — that’s what I remember. It made me want to coach even more.
I asked my mentor and college coach, Betty Jo Clary, if I could be a graduate assistant after I finished my undergraduate degree. She had already hired her graduate assistant that year. I got the GA spot the next year. Then, in 1981, Coach Clary decided to go back to teaching full time. I was very young, but I went to talk to Wendell Carr, the athletics director. I told him that this might sound crazy, but I wondered if he would consider me for the head coaching position. He said, “Absolutely, I’m behind that.” So at a very young age, Campbell took a chance on me. Wow.
I had a lot of discipline problems that first year as a coach — every kind of discipline problem you can imagine. I was the same age as some of the players and even played alongside some of them, so I guess they thought, “Oh, we’ll give her a little try here.” It was draining. I remember telling my folks, “I don’t think I can do this.” But I’ve never been one to accept defeat. It challenged me and motivated me to dig deeper.
I did a lot of reading and I talked to a lot of people about how to handle discipline. I pulled a lot from Coach Dean Smith at North Carolina. The biggest thing was I added the buddy system. Each player is paired with someone, and you’re accountable for both you and that other person. If your buddy is late to practice, you both pay the price. It teaches kids to take ownership. Once they take ownership, a lot of the discipline issues take care of themselves. The kids begin to think, “If I do this, this will have an impact on somebody else.” That’s what team sports are all about.
I also found that once people know how much you care, they will do anything for you. That goes back to my parents. They were great teachers of the game of life. They instilled in me a good work ethic and taught me the importance of finishing what I started and of being a person of my word and of good character. And they stood by me. Even when I made mistakes, I still knew they loved me and supported me. I always knew I was cared about. I want the same thing for the kids. I’ll never replace their mothers, but they are like daughters to me.
My greatest joy is to work with them and to see them grow. It’s a joyful thing to come to work every day. The hardest thing is seeing them hurting and going through painful situations and knowing there’s nothing you can do to fix it. You just have to be there and let them know, even when they do something you don’t like, that you care about them.
I’ve been coaching for a long time, and I’ve had to change in this profession because kids change and generations are different. But my core values haven’t changed. I still see that my major responsibility is to teach the game of life through basketball, and when the kids leave here, we want them ready for the real world, and we want success for them.
Success, to me, is giving everything I have to be the best I can be on a daily basis. At the end of the day, when I look at myself in the mirror and when I lie down at night and say my prayers, if I feel that I gave it my all, that’s success. That’s what I work toward every day.
Yes, if you coach long enough, the wins will come. No. 500 was going to happen eventually, and it is a nice milestone. But any kind of milestone is a group effort. So I think about the kids. Nobody wants to win more than I do, but when you look back on it, the kids are what’s special. The wins will never be more special than them. They are what keep me going.
And I think of all the coaches who’ve been here with me. Associate Head Coach Mary Weiss has been on the staff 27 years and played for two years. She has been here for a lot of those wins. Assistant Coach Janice Washington has been here for a lot of them, too. She has been on this staff going on eight years and played four years. And Assistant Coach Megan Hall has been with me for almost 10 years. They work hard behind the scenes. They are my heroes. I get a lot of the glory they deserve.
And I think of Campbell. This university hired me when I was very young. I will always be grateful they took a chance on me. It has been such a dream job. I don’t know what I would have done with my life all these years if I hadn’t coached. I feel very driven that I’m doing what God put me here to do.
6 memorable games
During more than three decades as head coach of the Campbell women’s basketball team, Wanda Watkins has led her squads in more than 900 games. She talks about the ones that still stand out.
1. Feb. 25, 1989: Campbell beats Radford 58-53 to win Big South tournament title
“We won a championship, but we went nowhere. We didn’t have automatic berths [for the NCAA tournament] then. There was something like an NIT, but we didn’t get in. So that was the end of the road. The good part of that is that we went out a winner.”
2. March 8, 1991: Late shot lifts Radford 65-64 past Campbell in Big South championship
“That was a terrible loss. We were the regular season conference champions [and went 12-0 in the league]. We lost on a last second shot at Radford. I’ll never forget that. I can get sick right now thinking about it.”
3. Jan. 5, 1998: Campbell upsets nationally-ranked Florida International 69-67 in Buies Creek
“After the game, I remember our sports information director at the time said, ‘You should probably watch ESPN tonight. We might make it.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, right.’ I came home that night, and I turned on the news and there it was. It was a huge upset. They come from Miami to downtown Buies Creek, when we still played in Carter Gym. I believe that’s our only win over a nationally-ranked team.”
4. March 11, 2000: Campbell advances to NCAAs after downing Georgia State 66-49 in A-Sun final
“That was a highlight for us. We went to the NCAA Tournament and played at Duke, where I had a former player on the staff (Shonta Tabourn). It was fun for us.”
5. March 10, 2001: Georgia State edges Campbell 64-62 in A-Sun final
“We had a last-second foul called on a rebound. They went down and made two free throws to beat us. We lose with something like 1.6 or 1.9 seconds left on the clock, and we missed the Big Dance. My heart hurt for those kids.”
6. March 8, 2013: Campbell erases 24-point deficit to defeat High Point 74-73 in OT in Big South quarterfinals
“To come from behind like that, people realized that the kids have a good mentality. We got out of the first round of that tournament and met the eventual champion, Liberty, in the semifinals. We gave Liberty a fit. They got us in the long run. But with that win over High Point, our players got a little taste of [what it's like to contend for a championship]; and I hope that’s what they get as we continue to move this program forward.”
10 things we learned from Wanda Watkins
Current and former Campbell players share a handful of the lessons they’ve learned from women’s basketball Coach Wanda Watkins during their time with the program and what they hope future players will learn.
Make relationships the top priority.
“A week doesn’t go by that [Watkins] doesn’t receive a phone call, a note, or a visit from a former player. That’s one of the rewards of coaching: the relationships we build with players. When we recruit students, we tell them that the education they receive will change their lives, but they are also going to get life lifelong friends — not only with their teammates but with their coaches.” — Associate Head Coach Mary Weiss
Enjoy the moment.
“My junior year we won the A-Sun conference tournament and went to the NCAA tournament. But my senior year, we fell to Georgia State in the conference tournament final. When we went to the NCAAs the year before, Georgia State went to the NIT. We thought that was going to happen to us, but we weren’t invited. I don’t know for how long I cried after that. It was hard to accept. That’s the reason we tell our kids, ‘Enjoy the moment, because it’s so short, and when it’s over, it’s over.’” — Assistant Coach Janice Washington, who played at Campbell from 1997-01 and who works with the guards as an assistant
Do the right thing at all costs.
“Some coaches say, ‘Win at all costs,’ but [Watkins] will lose a ball game to teach a life lesson. Last season, she sat the entire starting lineup at the beginning of the game at Liberty. It wasn’t for robbery or stealing or anything like that; it was something simple in life they didn’t do. For her, it’s not win at all costs; it is do what is right at all costs.” — Associate Head Coach Mary Weiss, who played at Campbell from 1983-85 and who has been on the coaching staff since 1986-87
“Make sure you are on time to practices, to meetings, and to classes, and that you turn in all your work on time.” — senior forward Rosalyn Presley
“I talk to the point guards a lot because we are working on leadership development, communications and all those things that it takes to be a successful point guard in this program. But I don’t talk to them about my playing days, because I don’t want them to be me. I want them to be the best they can be, and 99 percent of the time, that’s not going to be a copy of me.” — Assistant Coach Janice Washington
Hold each other accountable.
“The greatest thing we have in place in regards to our discipline is our legacy. Freshmen see what the juniors and seniors are doing. When the new players come in, they see what the other kids are doing. It becomes a team effort and a collective thing. Teammates police each other.” — Assistant Coach Janice Washington
Own up to your mistakes.
“Since I’ve been here, I’ve learned to hold my tongue. If you do something you shouldn’t do, face it, own up to it, move on and don’t do it again.” — Junior forward Kiera Gaines
Appreciate those who came before.
“We tell our current players it’s not all about them; it’s about the players who have come before and who built the program to get it where it is. Those previous teams didn’t have as much or weren’t as privileged, but we have built from those teams. At the same time, these current players are going to be the pioneers for those who come next and they need to set the example for them.” — Associate Head Coach Mary Weiss
Be mindful that someone is always watching.
“Always present and carry yourself in a professional manner because you never know who is watching. The way you carry yourself makes a difference in opportunities that may come your way.” — Tonisha Baker, who played at Campbell from 2009 to 2013 and is currently playing professional basketball overseas
Keep your standards high.
“We’ve had our times when we didn’t win. But regardless of whether the players were here during a Big South or A-Sun conference championship, or when they were finishing sixth in the conference, they had a great experience, and this program continues to turn out outstanding young ladies who graduate and do great things. That’s because we’ve set our standards high, and we’ve kept them high. — Assistant Coach Janice Washington