There was a time when Aaron Watson wanted to make a living with basketball.
Born and raised in Cedar Lake, Ind., he followed a childhood dream that comes with growing up in Hoosier country, as well as a being a short drive from Chicago.
“Being from Indiana, I think every kid there grows up hoping to be the next Larry Bird, and they’re going to play basketball at Indiana University and that’s the dream,” Watson said.
“I was 5-foot-8 and couldn’t shoot,” Watson said. “I probably wouldn’t have had a really bright future in that sport.”
Watson, now a first-year assistant to distance coach James Snyder, found his eventual calling in a sport he had originally used as a supplement for basketball.
“I started running in seventh grade just to get in shape for basketball,” Watson said. “I’d say around eighth, ninth and 10th grade, I started to think that maybe basketball wasn’t where I wanted to be long term and that [track] was something I’d enjoy more.”
Watson stuck with his tandem of basketball and track all through high school and moved on to Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Mich., where, after running with the team for two years, he fulfilled a dream that started when Watson was in grade school.
“I knew I wanted to coach long term by third grade,” Watson said. “Now, I don’t know why third grade, but I guess something clicked that year.”
While he originally hoped to coach his first love, basketball, Watson wound up coaching track as a volunteer assistant in his junior year at Grand Valley State under Jerry Baltes. He held that position for three years until a newly appointed distance coach at Temple with ties to Grand Valley State called.
“Coach Watson and I had met initially at our [U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association] meeting last year, and a good friend of mine in the sport had worked with Watson at Grand Valley State,” Snyder said. “I wanted someone who was going to come in and hit the ground running.”
Watson and Snyder have worked as a two-man operation in recent months, collaborating in making the team’s training schedules, running with the team during practices and recruiting duties.
“I feel like we really mesh well,” Snyder said. “We joke about that now too, that we balance each other out really well. That’s important to me. I wanted him to come in here and actually have a voice. I didn’t want someone who’s like the blind assistant who just says ‘Yes, sir’ and ‘No, sir.’ I was very open with [Watson] about that and told him I wanted him to come in here and have a say.”
Watson’s three years of coaching experience while one year removed from earning his undergraduate degree at Grand Valley State made him top candidate from the get-go in Snyder’s late-summer search for an assistant.
“He’s already an experienced coach,” Snyder said. “He was at Grand Valley for two years and three years as a coach. It’s not like I’m bringing in someone who’s fresh and green out of college. He had spent a lot of time getting a lot of powerful experience at Grand Valley State.”
“I’d be lying to you if I told you I interviewed people half as good as he was,” Snyder added. “He jumped off the page. I was afraid I wasn’t going to get him because he was that qualified.”
His first few weeks at Temple have reminded Watson why coaching was always meant for him.
“I love the idea of helping someone prepare for the real world, whatever that means when people say it,” Watson said. “Just helping kids get ready for what’s next in life and doing it through running. Helping them strive to do something special like this before they go onto that real world.”
After experiencing the winter and spring track seasons without a distance coach a year ago, sophomore Will Maltin said the addition of two distance coaches, let alone one, is reflective of the distance program’s initiative to take an upward climb for the long term moving forward.
“[Watson] is just another addition to a ton of things that have been added to program, whether it’s been new gear, coaches or a new philosophy,” Maltin said. “We have two or three new places that we’re running at now. From what I can see, not just from Watson, but from a lot of other things too, the cross country program is taking a big step. We’ve had a lot of recruits visit this year, a lot more than last year, and a ton’s changing. We have a lot of big things going on, and it’s really exciting.”
Andrew Parent can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @daParent93.