THE FRONT ROW with Mark Nelke March 28, 2013 - Coeur d'Alene Press: Sports

THE FRONT ROW with Mark Nelke March 28, 2013

Ex-NIC coach still battling, still smiling

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Posted: Thursday, March 28, 2013 12:00 am

It was a surprise to Hugh Watson when the former North Idaho College men's basketball coach when he the diagnosis he received from doctors nearly two years ago included the "C" word.

After all, he was otherwise healthy, with a good, strong heart.

"You talk about a shock," Watson recalled.

This was in August 2011. Doctors at the Lincoln Memorial University Hospital in Harrogate, Tenn., diagnosed him with multiple myeloma, a cancer of the bones, he said. At the time Watson was told that, if he had been diagnosed with it a year earlier, he would have had six months to live.

One year later, advances in medicine had made his outlook more promising.

His new life expectancy - a year and a half. And that's if he survives the chemo.

SO, IMAGINE how stunned his friends back in North Idaho were recently to receive the latest update on his condition - which included the "C" word of another sort.

Hugh Watson was getting back into coaching.

"I was shocked - absolutely shocked," said Jared Phay, the current NIC men's basketball coach, who was Watson's assistant for two seasons before taking over as head coach when Watson left for another job just prior to the 2004-05 season. "I was just happy to hear that he got to go hunting this year ... so knowing where he was headed and how tough things were ... the thought of him even coaching again wasn't something I thought was possible."

After recently getting a clean bill of health from doctors - well, as clean a bill as you can get for having cancer - Watson, 72, accepted the job as head men's basketball coach at Hiwassee College in Madisonville, Tenn. Watson formerly played and coached at Hiwassee, and in 2008 was inducted into the school's athletic hall of fame.

"I'm feeling good, I'm walking a mile a day," Watson said the other day, in a telephone interview from the alumni house at Hiwassee. "Of course all my hair come out, and I moved from a wheelchair to a walker to a cane, and now I'm walking great, feeling good. It's like a new lease on life. And all my hair's come back, but it's come back curly."

WATSON WAS retired from coaching at Lincoln Memorial University and helping take care of his father-in-law in nearby Kingsport. He was helping a neighbor of his father-in-law with some yardwork when he began to develop shortness of breath, and was "sweating like crazy," he said.

He was rushed to the hospital, where he remembers seeing five doctors over him, and "the lady doctor said 'I'll tell you what we're looking for, we're looking for cancer.'"

The cancer was in his arms and legs. The tumors, he said, grow on your bones and go through your bones. He's been undergoing chemotherapy treatments off and on since.

At Kingsport, Watson was given the nickname "Baby" because of his age, and they tried to get him accepted to the Vanderbilt University Medical Center, which generally doesn't take cancer patients over age 65. But because he was in great shape otherwise, he was accepted, and doctors gave him the nickname "TLC" for "Tender Loving Care."

Watson spent 45 days at Vanderbilt. They took his blood out, cleansed it, put it back, and he had treatments every day.

ABOUT THREE weeks ago, Watson went back to meet with the doctor at Vanderbilt.

"He said, 'I don't have your blood tests back, but you're a big healthy looking thing,'" Watson said. "He said, 'Get out of the chair and go enjoy life. I'm taking you off chemo.'

"I've still got it (cancer), but I've knocked it down from 90 percent to 3 percent," Watson said. "So I've beat it for two years now."

A couple of weeks ago, Dr. Robin Tricoli, president at Hiwassee College, called Watson and said she wanted him to be the school's men's basketball coach.

"I said I'm 72 years old and I've got cancer and she said, 'Yeah, I know all that.' She said 'your name keeps surfacing,' and here I am."

Hawassee was a junior college when Watson played and coached there previously. Now, it's a four-year Methodist school in the National Christian College Athletic Association, with intentions of someday joining the NCAA.

The other day, Watson visited 41 business in Madisonville, trying to attract financial support for the team.

The Tennessee native was an assistant coach at Idaho before coaching NIC's men from 1996-2004. The last time the Cardinal men qualified for nationals was in 1997, when Watson led NIC to a fourth-place finish. In 2004, Watson returned to his home state to coach at Lincoln Memorial.

Since he's been gone from North Idaho, he's kept in touch with several friends and supporters up here. A few years ago, he was invited back under the guise of helping the NIC men's basketball team raise some money - but it turned into a belated going-away party for Watson, who had to leave for his new job so quickly in '04 that many were unable to say goodbye at the time.

"We loved Coeur d'Alene," Watson said. "If it hadn't been for the grandchildren (in Tennessee) ... we loved it up there. We'd love to get back up there."

Hugh and Anna Sue recently celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary.

He still undergoes chemo treatments, though in smaller doses. Watching other cancer patients at Vanderbilt continue to fight for their lives helped him keep trying.

"When you hear the 'C' word, it's tough, because I've been healthy all my life," Watson said. "But the Lord's looked after us and taken care of us. I don't give it (cancer) much thought, now that I'm back working again."

BEFORE COACHING with him, Phay got to know Watson when he was boys basketball coach at Falls Christian Academy, and worked Watson's basketball camps at NIC.

"I think the biggest thing that I've learned from him is how well he treats people," said Phay, who just completed his ninth season as NIC coach. "I always noticed, when he was at NIC, it didn't matter if you were a custodian or you were the president ... he treated you like you were the most important person on campus."

Phay said he talked to Watson a couple of weeks ago when Watson decided to get back into coaching, and he could tell the excitement in his voice over the phone.

"He's never acted his age, and we're all happy for him," Phay said. "He's a legend wherever he's coached, and that (Hiwassee) is his most legendary place, so it's neat how it all worked out."

Mark Nelke is sports editor of The Press. He can be reached at 664-8176, Ext. 2019, or via email at Follow him on Twitter at CdAPressSports.

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