published Tuesday, December 10th, 2013

Hiwassee's Hugh Watson coaching at 72 despite cancer

The relationship between Hiwassee coach Hugh Watson and University of Tennessee at Chattanooga athletic director David Blackburn goes back decades.

"Hugh was my basketball coach for a year. Then he went to Hiwassee," Blackburn said. "Our families were friends, his son was our point guard, I was the quarterback, and Hugh is somebody I looked up to growing up."

Time and circumstances have taken Watson -- whose team will play at 7 tonight in McKenzie Arena against the Mocs -- full circle from his years coaching at Loudon High School to colleges in Idaho and back to East Tennessee.

It's been quite a trip -- rather fun at times, very scary at others. Doctors once told Watson he had six months to live. He's already outlasted that prediction.

"I'm from East Tennessee. I coached here [at Hiwassee], then left in '90 to go to the University of Idaho," Watson said. "I came back because of my grandchildren, twin granddaughters who play for Lenior City."

That's the short version and only part of the story for Watson, who is in his first year back at the school in Madisonville. It was a junior college when he played and previously coached there; now it's a four-year program.

Watson grew up on a dairy farm in Sweetwater, played basketball for Hiwassee and graduated in 1962 before continuing his four-year degree at Lee University, then earning a master's at Tennessee Tech. He coached the Loudon girls' team right after college, later took over the boys' team and stayed there for 17 years.

He took over the Hiwassee men's basketball team in 1984 and guided the Tigers to three state championships and two NJCAA national tournaments.

Watson left the Appalachian foothills for grasslands west of the Rockies to serve as an assistant coach at Idaho. He left there to become head coach at North Idaho, a junior college where he was the 1997 coach of the year in the Scenic West Athletic Conference.

Last year he learned he had multiple myeloma, which is cancer of the plasma cells in blood.

"A year ago, my doctor gave me six months to live," Watson said. '"But if you take stem cells and they accept you at Vanderbilt, you might get a year and a half."

The now 72-year-old Watson spent 45 days in the Nashville hospital.

"I was crawling, then I was in a wheelchair, then a walker and now I'm coaching again," Watson said. "I'm 72, I have non-curable cancer, but my name kept coming up for this job. So I took it."

Watson will return for a six-month checkup next Tuesday.

"I'm here, and I'm going to make the best of it," he said. "I'm hanging in there, still screaming and hollering. I'm here and I'll make the most of it. Hiwassee is a special place to me. I played here; my wife played here; my son went to school here.

"It's been a circle."

Blackburn said Watson initiated discussion about bringing his team to McKenzie Arena. Blackburn passed that request to UTC coach Will Wade, who saw value in the Tigers coming to McKenzie because the Mocs needed a home game and he wanted to reward non-Division I teams in the greater Chattanooga area.

"When we put together the schedule, we wanted games that had a compelling storyline behind them," Wade said. "We didn't just want to grab people. It's easy for [Hiwassee] to get here, and there are plenty of connections, including David and Coach Watson."

But Blackburn, who texted Watson as recently as Monday, will not be in attendance tonight. The athletic director is at the National Football Foundation Hall of Fame in New York.

"I'd rather see David," Watson said, "than see that basketball team pressing us all over the floor."

Returning to Hiwassee and coaching again is already a victory.

Contact David Uchiyama at duchiyama@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6484. Follow him at twitter.com/UchiyamaCTFP.

about David Uchiyama...

David Uchiyama is a sports writer at the Chattanooga Times Free Press who began his tenure here in May 2001. His primary beats are UTC athletics — specifically men’s basketball and athletic department administration — and golf, which includes coverage from the PGA Tour to youth events. He also covers other high school sports, outdoor adventures, and contributes to other sections of the newspaper when necessary. David grew up in Salinas, Calif., and began working ...

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