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Watts was a hoops legend

A whole generation of sports fans has forgotten or never knew what Stan Watts once meant to college basketball and to the Utah sports scene, and that's a shame.

During Watts' 23 years as head basketball coach at BYU (1949 to 1972), the Cougars routinely filled the house. They built a new arena and filled that one, too. They played a fun brand of basketball, averaging nearly 100 points a game. They stocked their rosters with Utah kids. And they won national championships.No one realized it would never get better than this.

It was the best days of the college game, it turned out. There were no agents, no "director of basketball operations," no lengthy film sessions, no three-point line, no shot clocks, no video technicians, no agents, no shoe deals, no six-figure coaches' salaries, no three-referee teams, no 10 p.m. ESPN games, no ESPN, no dunks.

That was only 30 years ago, and the game has changed remarkably in the short time since then.

Watts was among the best coaches in the game in his day. He was to BYU and college basketball what LaVell Edwards would become to BYU and college football in his era. Watts built the Marriott Center, the biggest on-campus arena in the country, then BYU wondered if 22,000 seats was enough. Before that, the Cougars played in the old Smith Fieldhouse, where the seats were filled by 5:30 p.m. for a 7 p.m. game.

"The fieldhouse capacity was officially 12,500, but by tip-off we'd sneak another 2,000 people in there and hope the fire marshal didn't notice," says Watts' old assistant, Pete Witbeck. "We had 'em hangin' from the rafters."

They came because the Cougars were a perennial western power and because Watts' style of basketball was fun and fast. The fans used to boo if the team didn't have 50 points by halftime or 100 at the end of the night. Today's coaches preach plodding, hands-on, half-court defensive games; Watts was their polar opposite. "The best defense in basketball is two points," he loved to say, and, besides, he believed that high-scoring basketball is what fans enjoy. No one coached transition basketball like Watts did. His teams were so entertaining that sometimes even the opposition was mesmerized. Once, near the end of another 100-point BYU outing, a rival coach turned to his bench and tried to send several reserves into the game. They balked.

"Coach, we'd just as soon sit here and enjoy this style of basketball," they said. "If you don't mind, we'd rather not go in."

For the record, Watts, who was inducted into the national Basketball Hall of Fame in 1986, had a 372-254 career record. He won eight conference championships and two National Invitation Tournament titles (1951, 1966) at a time when the NIT -- not the NCAA tournament -- was the premier tournament in the country. The '66 team, with Dick Nemelka, Jeff Condon and Steve Kramer, still ranks as one of the best ever to come out of the state. The list of players who played for Watts reads like a Who's Who in BYU sports: Kresimir Cosic, Doug Howard, Nemelka, Congdon, Jim Eakins, Paul Ruffner, Tom Steinke, John Fairchild.

Watts' teams might have made an even bigger mark on the national scene if the NCAA tournament had adopted today's 64-team format. In Watts' day, a team had to survive a regional playoff to qualify for the NCAA tournament, and that pitted BYU against John Wooden's unparalleled UCLA teams.

Watt's basketball teams carried BYU athletics until the school produced good teams in the other sports, and even then Watts had a hand in that. After retiring as a coach, he served as athletic director for four years. One of his first moves was to hire an unknown assistant named LaVell Edwards as the head football coach. Others insisted he conduct an outside search for the position, but he said, "No, we've got our man right here."

When he retired as athletic director in 1976, the headline and subhead in the Deseret News read: "Stan Watts a Super Human/A man among men, his name is a household word nationally in the athletic world."

Such hyperbole is understandable when you listen to one newspaper writer recall that "Stan Watts was bigger than life in Provo. Not just because he was a great coach, but because he was a nice man. A true gentleman." Bobby Knight could learn some things from a man who didn't swear or raise his voice to make a point. If a player needed a reprimand, his philosophy was to sleep on it and then discuss the matter with the player in private.

Watts died Thursday night at the age of 88, quietly marking the end of an era. No one thought Watts would last this long. One night at basketball practice in 1971, he complained about back pain. He wound up undergoing emergency surgery to remove a tumor in his colon. The surgery alone should have killed him -- it lasted 14 hours. The word was he wouldn't last 30 days. He lasted almost 30 years. His health declined rapidly after his wife, Emily, died seven weeks ago.

"We lost a great man, a legend," said Witbeck.

Witbeck, Watts' loyal assistant to the end, continued to visit the coach nearly every day, stopping by the house on the way to his BYU office. He was with the coach and his family when Watts passed away.

"The best compliment I can pay him is he was a man of God," says Witbeck. "He lived with high principles, and you felt good in his presence."