After 15 years as the head coach at Detroit, Perry Watson resigned Wednesday. Already out since January 7 with an undisclosed illness, Watson made his absence permanent this week. A quiet resignation does not seem fitting considering the many years of success he had for the Titans.
With a 258-185 record and 3 conference championships, Watson leaves with plenty of accolades. He presided over terrific college players like Jermaine Jackson, Rashad Phillips, and Willie Green. Watson had a school-record four consecutive 20-win seasons from 1998-2001, including 25 in '98 and '99. Those two seasons also produced NCAA Tournament upsets of St. John's and UCLA. He followed that up with NIT appearances in '01 and '02.
Before his time at Detroit, Watson led Detroit Southwestern to over 300 wins and assisted Steve Fisher for the Fab Five years at Michigan. Obviously, that record speaks for itself in terms of successes and achievements. He's been a landmark in the Detroit basketball scene for the last quarter century. However, he is not without controversy.
For years at Detroit Southwestern, Watson was accused of recruiting, a practice that is illegal at public high schools. Nothing was ever proven, so we can't be sure if Watson did or did not. It just strikes me as surprising that one Detroit Public School League school could dominate an entire decade. Before the many closings, there were many more schools in the league than now, giving Watson more competition. Yet, for years, his teams were at or near the top. When he left the high school ranks to join Steve Fisher's staff at U of M in 1991, the whispers should have faded. After all, how often does an assistant coach get noticed? And, for awhile, they did. But, when Ed Martin's name and was brought up in the late 1990s, Watson's name surfaced right alongside. Watson was alleged to have known Martin throughout his time at Southwestern. Was it not a coincidence that Watson was hired at U of M the same year that his player Jalen Rose was beginning his freshman year? Something just seemed amiss about the way that was handled. Think about it. A longtime Detroit high school coach is hired as an assistant for Michigan. Coming in with that recruiting class are the city's two biggest young stars in Rose and Chris Webber. Granted, Michigan was only two years removed from a National Title and was bringing in much better players back then. But, I find it hard to imagine no rules being broken with Watson's hire and the subsequent involvement of Martin.
During Watson's time at U of D, there was little talk of recruiting violations. But really, there isn't quite the eye on Horizon League recruiting that there is in the Big 10. For his first 10 years, Watson continued his run of success. Postseason appearances, conference titles, coach of the year awards, NCAA tourney upsets, NBA players, everything a small low-major school could hope for, Watson accomplished.
Something happened though after 2002. Following his fourth postseason appearance with the Titans, Watson and Detroit fell from the top of the Mid-Continent Conference (now known as the Horizon League). 2002 was the Titans' first season under 20 wins in four years and Watson's dominance at Detroit was beginning to wane. From 2003-2007, Watson managed just a 48-74 record. Why the drastic fall-off? Detroit was a major power in its conference for almost a decade. It produced NBA players like Jermaine Jackson and Willie Green. For a low-major to have two NBA players is quite a feat. But, no one has come close recently. One case, in particular, is Brandon Cotton. One of the top players in the city, Cotton signed with Michigan St. originally, but transferred after getting hurt and receiving little playing time upon his return. At U of D, Cotton was a consistent 18-per-game scorer for three years, but he was mysteriously kicked off the team this fall. Nothing has ever been confirmed on the situation, from either Cotton or Watson. His leading scorer gone, Watson left the team in Jan. on his own mysterious leave of absence.
This strange season has epitomized what has happened to the program recently. As other teams like Butler, the Wisconsin schools, and new conference member Valparaiso have leapfrogged Detroit, the Titans have fallen on hard times. Detroit has always depended on bringing local guys who may have fallen below the MAC and Big 10 radar. However, recently it's been their inability to bring in players from outside the city that has hampered their growth. College basketball has expanded greatly even since 1993 when Watson began at Detroit. The Titans are operating as a low-major in a mid-major league. Butler and Valparaiso bring in recruits from other states and countries, supplementing their local guys. Watson used to be one of the best recruiters in the area because of his connections and roots in the city. But, the last four years have not been kind to his reputation. The players have stopped coming to the program, and it's been ugly for the basketball team.