BY WAYNE PHILLIPS
SPORTS EDITOR EMERITUS
It's been almost four decades since an auburn-haired guard from Mohawk was displaying her skills on the basketball hardwood at West Greene High School.
After completing the circle of a career that has taken her from being a standout for the Lady Buffs, to a successful playing stint at East Tennessee State University, to high school coaching jobs in Georgia, to collegiate coaching in North Carolina and Alabama, Annette Culbertson Watts is now back to what she calls, simply enough, "home."
She couldn't be happier.
In early June Greeneville High School announced that Watts would be the new coach for the Lady Devils basketball team as well as a member of the school's math department. The return to Greene County is something she has been yearning for a long time.
"It's been 23 years since I left Greene County," Watts said as she goes through the summer toils of readying her new team for the rigors of an upcoming season. "But regardless of where I've been in coaching, I've always thought of Greene County as home. I'm just really happy to be back."
Ironically she will be back in the same gymnasium, Hal Henard, where she began her coaching career in 1985 as an assistant to Coach Jack Blair.
"I guess the oddest thing is I'm now coaching kids of players that Coach Blair and I had then," she laughs.
When she struck out on her own to take a head coaching job in 1990, little did she know that the career on which she was about to embark would take her to so many places and in contact with so many people.
That first head coaching job was in the town of Gainesville, Ga., where she took over Johnson High School and made an immediate impact. During a five year span, she won 125 games while losing only 51, and her team made a trip to Greeneville to compete in the Ladies' Classic, where the hustle and competitiveness of the squad depicted their coaches' demeanor.
During her playing days at East Tennessee State University, Watts was coached by Susan Yow, a sister to the legendary Kay Yow, and that helped land her her first collegiate gig in 1997, an
assistant's job under Kay Yow at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.
The Wolfpack made the NCAA Final 4 while Watts was in Raleigh, and coaching under Yow was a thrill, Watts said.
"Such a class person," Watts said when describing Kay Yow. "She truly wanted her kids to be good people, to play hard but most importantly be good people. She taught me so much.
"I recall before we played in the semifinals at the Final 4, she had the team in the locker room, and she said 'OK, we've all got butterflies, and that's OK, but let's make sure those butterflies all fly in formation.'"
In 1999 she went back to the high school ranks, taking over the reins at Jackson County High in Jefferson, Ga., where the team went 38-20 through two seasons. Her big break came in 2001 when Davidson came calling, and she was named the head coach of the Lady Wildcats.
At Davidson Watts became that university's winningest coach in school history, garnering a 144-121 overall record through 2010, 102-68 in the Southern Conference, and she was named the conference Coach of the Year in 2005.
"We had a hard time recruiting the really great athletes, but we were able to land some blue collar workers who helped make us successful," she recalls.
She left Davidson in 2010 to take over at Jacksonville State in Alabama. She was disappointed that she was unable to turn the basketball program's won-loss record around.
"I had a harder time there motivating the kids," she said. "We had good athletes. What I was proud of was that we did turn the program around academic-wise. We made great strides in that area."
While she has many fond memories of her days in college coaching, she won't miss the recruiting part of the job.
"Recruiting is the toughest part," she said. "Plus building relationships with the players. In college a lot of players think they already know it all. Some think they are too cool for school. My energy level really fits the high school game better, and that's why I'm having so much fun this summer, working with our girls here and watching them try to grasp what I'm trying to teach."
After being named head coach of the Lady Devils on June 4, Watts jumped right into summer work. They've been weight-lifting, running and basically getting into shape for the season. Watts has been spending time with her mother in Mohawk while husband Mike stayed behind in Alabama to try to sell their home.
Mike Watts is a Chuckey native who has spent most of his life involved in racing, but has sold his race shop and has finally left the business.
"Mike and I never had children, so we look at these kids at Greeneville High as our own," she said. "I'm really excited about this opportunity."
Watts said she has been impressed with the quality of the GHS returnees. There are only two seniors, Madison Shipley and Selena Leon, and both those girls have developed into leaders.
"Lesley (Murray, last year's coach) did a great job last year with a very young team," she said. "I came in as coach rather late, so we didn't go to summer camp. We've been working hard here. The team has got to buy in to defense more. They've got to understand that defense is important."
She's not familiar at all with the Blue Ridge Conference, the league of which GHS is a part. But she figures she will find out soon enough.
"I understand Grainger is very good," she said. "And I know enough about Greene County to realize that the county teams always play good basketball."
Colleagues of Watts have wondered about her leaving college coaching to return to the high school ranks, or "go back" to high school, as some might say.
"I don't look at it as 'going back' to high school," she said. "I've gone the full circle in my career, and now I'm where I want to be.