To Melvin Watkins it’s just another conference game.
Sure, he will see some familiar faces and receive a few more phone calls than normal, but when he arrives at College Station, Texas, this evening he will have one thing on his mind.
“This is not a social visit,” Watkins said. “We’re going down on business to get a win.”
Watkins, 50, resigned as Texas A&M’s coach at the end of last season, ending six seasons with the program. He left with a 60-111 record.
Three months later Watkins was named as Quin Snyder’s associate head coach, replacing Tony Harvey.
The Tigers (10-11, 2-6 Big 12 Conference) play the Aggies at 6 p.m. Saturday in Reed Arena.
“Obviously, I recruited the kids and know the kids, and that’s one thing,” Watkins said. “But when you step between those lines, I know what they’re going to try to do to us, and we better be ready to try to do it to them.”
Last year, the Aggies lost their final 17 games and finished the year at 7-21 and 0-16 in the Big 12.
During his tenure, Texas A&M never finished above .500 and never advanced past the first round of the Big 12 Conference tournament.
Texas A&M’s most recent winning season was in 1993-1994, and the school last made the NCAA tournament in 1987.
“I felt good about the direction we were going with the program, but it was tough when you’re not winning as much as you would like, I’ll be the first to tell you that,” Watkins said. “But there were a lot of good days better than bad days. It was just at a point where it was probably the best thing.”
When Watkins left he said he was confident that he built a foundation for the future of the program.
Billy Gillispie replaced Watkins as Texas A&M’s coach and made an immediate impact.
The Aggies (14-5, 3-5) started the season 11-0, their best start in 83 years.
“It’s not surprising me, I knew there was some good young players there, and Billy has come in and done a good job with them and they’re playing well,” Watkins said.
It was not the first time a Gillispie-coached team has seen such a drastic reversal of fortunes.
Gillispie engineered one of the best single-season turnarounds in college basketball history. After finishing 6-24 the previous season, UTEP went 24-8, won a share of the Western Athletic Conference championship and advanced to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 12 years.
Before his two-season stint with the Miners, Gillispie coached with Bill Self at Tulsa (1997-2000) and Illinois (2000-2002).
“I’ve said all along I didn’t think they could hire anybody that would fit A&M better than Billy would,” said Self, who now coaches Kansas.
Gillispie admits that it hasn’t been easy, especially in the Big 12.
“I don’t think people can understand how hard it is to win a single game in conference because of the players, because of the coaches, because of the home court advantages,” Gillispie said. “It’s difficult to win games.”
Gillispie said the home-court advantage is probably the biggest factor that separates the top teams in the Big 12 from the ones at the bottom.
“To survive in this league you have to have home court advantage, and that’s one thing that’s been lacking here,” he said. “But you have to win games to do that.
“I’ve been so happy about how (the fans at Reed Arena have) done. They’re not only showing up in record numbers, they’re participating when they get here.”
On Jan. 12, 12,811 fans watched Texas A&M beat Texas in Reed Arena. The crowd was the largest in the history of the school.
The Aggies are 13-1 at home this season, the lone loss coming against Oklahoma.
“They play well, the crowds are there now, and maybe basketball is what it should be now,” Watkins said.