Mentor of the match
Coach Watson calls 24 seasons a career
A serendipitous series of events in his life landed Jim Watson at Tufts University in 1981. Hired as a Spanish professor, he soon turned his other great passion—tennis—into a position as head coach of the Jumbo men’s and women’s teams. Twenty-four years later, he retired this year as one of the nation’s most successful teachers of the game.
“It’s been a great ride,” Watson said of a coaching career that included 370 victories with both teams. “You can’t predict what’s going to happen to you in life, but coming to Tufts and being here with so many great people for a quarter-century has been a wonderful experience.”
Watson, who will continue to teach Spanish at the university, earned the 200th victory of his career with the Tufts men’s team against Division I Boston University on April 20. In anticipation of his retirement this year, he stepped down as the women’s tennis coach in 2004, after compiling a 169-101 record.
Four-time Coach of the Year
Watson’s 1994 men’s team was the first at Tufts to earn an NCAA Tournament berth after the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) lifted its ban against teams participating in national tournaments. In 1996, he was featured in Sports Illustrated’s “Faces in the Crowd” after earning his 100th victory with the women’s team.
“Under Jim’s direction, Tufts tennis has been among the very best programs in New England for more than 20 years running,” Athletics Director Bill Gehling said. “He’s an outstanding tennis player in his own right, a great teacher on and off the court and a very passionate person. In addition to their outstanding achievements, his teams always represented Tufts with the highest standard of sportsmanship. We salute and appreciate his achievements and all that he did for our tennis players and our department during the past 24 years.”
From one America to another
Despite no athletic background in his family, Watson was a quick study, playing soccer, baseball and basketball as a youth. However, by the time he entered San Francisco’s prestigious Lowell High School, it was tennis that would captivate him, and he won two city singles championships at the #1 position.
“Running around never bothered me, but soccer bored me, and basketball was five on five,” he said. “In tennis, everything falls on you. Maybe it’s selfish of me, but I liked that aspect of the game.”
A lack of adequate financial assistance forced Watson to transfer after two years. UCLA offered him a full ride, but he would have to sit out a year after transferring. He discovered Pan American University in Texas, 15 miles from the Mexican border, where all of his needs were taken care of. The university also had a strong Spanish language program. The team won the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) national championship in 1961, and Watson was a First Team All-American.
“It was a culture shock,” Watson said. “I never wanted to leave California, and suddenly I was in an agricultural region 15 miles from Mexico. However, my interest in Spanish was rekindled there, and we had a very good team with several international players.”
Watson followed his intellectual curiosity in Spanish to the University of Missouri, where he earned a master’s and Ph.D. He took his first tennis coaching position at Missouri while finishing his Ph.D.
Watson was again recruited by a number of major universities to begin his professional career. He chose Drake University in Des Moines, where he taught Spanish and was also hired as the tennis coach. With summers off, Watson hit his peak as a player on the national circuit, playing against world-class players, including Stan Smith and Bob Lutz, three-time Wimbledon finalists. He also defeated 1968 Australian Open champion Bill Bowery, who once beat Rod Laver, who generally is regarded as the best player in the history of tennis. From his 20s into his 50s, Watson was frequently nationally and regionally ranked in his age group.
Phone calls and fate
Another phone call from a friend would lead Watson away from academia again. Butch Buchholz, who will be inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in July for his pioneering work as an administrator in the sport, offered Watson a position as a tennis pro for the plush Rock Resorts, a luxury resort hotel company established in 1956 by Laurance Rockefeller. Watson was to replace the legendary Nick Bollettieri, who left to start his now-famous tennis academy in Brandenton, Fla.
Yet another random call, this time from Boston real estate mogul Jerry Rappaport Jr., provided Watson with another offer he could not refuse. The developer of Charles River Park, a large urban renewal project that helped bring life and energy back to a Boston that was far from the world-class city it is today, Rappaport wanted Watson to be the pro at the new Charles River Park Tennis Club.
“I was flattered,” Watson said. “He flew us to Boston and we had lunch. He made an unbelievable offer.” The hours were long and spread throughout the day, leaving him time late in the morning that he looked to fill. He contacted some of the local universities to see if they had any openings in their Spanish departments. Tufts had an opportunity that fit his schedule perfectly, and he joined the Department of Romance Languages in 1979. Burned out with tennis, he resigned from the club and became the coordinator of Spanish at Tufts.
Practice makes a coach
He took over well-established programs and was also thrust into the role of coaching squash, a sport with which he was unfamiliar. However, he inherited a very fine men’s squash team that he was able to keep in the national top 10 during his brief tenure. Watson coached squash until 1987. During that period, the women’s team was ranked in the top 10 regularly.
He took the tennis teams to an even higher level almost immediately. His third women’s team in 1983 won the first of four consecutive New England Championships. They added another in 1989. The men’s team won NESCAC titles in 1984, 1986 and 1989.
Several individuals and doubles pairs qualified for NCAA Tournament play under his guidance. After NESCAC lifted its ban on NCAA team competition, Watson guided 10 of his men’s and women’s teams into the national team tournament.
“I’m proud that we were always regarded as one of the top teams in the region year in and year out,” Watson said.
In addition to his passions for tennis and Spanish, which were both filled at Tufts, his appreciation for the arts—particularly music—were satisfied by the proximity to Boston. The combination of everything made Tufts the perfect fit. “I had the best of both worlds at Tufts,” he said. “The energy of Boston was very comfortable to me. I think Boston and San Francisco are two of the best cities in the world. I had other offers while at Tufts, but hardly ever had a consideration of moving.”
While retirement from coaching will free up more time to enjoy his other interests along with his wife, Mimi, Watson leaves behind a legacy that has firmly established Tufts University on the national tennis map.
Paul Sweeney is Tufts’ sports information director. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.