When Bobby Watson became head basketball coach at the University of Evansville last March, he promised to stay "as long as you will have me."
The charismatic young coach, who was awarded a Bronze Star and five Purple Hearts in 18 months of combat duty in Vietnam, was aboard the charter DC-3 that crashed shortly after takeoff from Dress Regional Airport Tuesday night, killing Watson, 14 members of the Evansville basketball team and 14 other persons.
In Watson's nine months here, he became a favorite of Evansville Fans and the university community.
Many of the Aces' supporters saw Watson as the savior of a program they felt had leveled off. He was the man the fans hoped would put Evansville on the Division I map, just as his predecessor, Arad McCutchan did on the small-college scale winning five national championships.
The Evansville job was Watson's first as a college head coach.He tackied it enthusiastically.
"I've never seen a man work so hard or more so fast" Bob Hudson. Evansville's longtime business manager said during Watson's first week on the job, Hudson, himself a tireless worker, also died in the crash.
Watson and his staff went to work immediately, scouring the country for players who could help the program. They signed eight freshman who Watson believed would provide a sound nucleus for eventual success.
The 34-year-old Watson knew it would take time for his young Aces to become consistent winners. The team had won only one of its first four games this year but Watson wasn't discouraged.
"The idea each year is to make your program stronger than the year before," he said. "That way within four years, you should have it rolling in the right direction."
Watson, a star player on VMI's Southern Conference champions in 1964, came to Evansville from Oral Roberts University, where he had served as an assistant under Jerry Hale.
Upon hearing of Watson's death, Hale, now in the oil-drilling business in Tulsa, said he felt as though he had lost a son.
"It's such an awful thing to happen," he said. "He was such an inspiration to everyone around him. He worked so hard to get a head job and now this happens. I'm just sick. I can't talk anymore."
"This is the greatest tragedy in the history of Evansville," mayor Russell Lloyd said today.
Gov. Otis Bowen ordered all flags on state government buildings lowered to half staff.
Assistant Coach Bernie Simpson was to have been on the flight that was bound for Nashville, Tenn. The Aces were to play a game tonight with Middle Tennessee in Murfreesboro. However, Simpson stayed behind to scout a high school game in Henderson, Ky.
"Bobby and I talked it over and decided I could scout the high school game and then drive to Tennessee and join the team on Wednesday," Simpson said.
Watson was the only coach aboard. Assistant coaches Stafford Stephenson and Mark Sandy were on out-of-state scouting trips.
During the McCutchan years, Evansville teams would usually fly into town on the day of the game. McCutchan didn't like sitting around hotel lobbies. But Watson liked them to fly a day early so the players could rest and practice on the host's court.
Many coaches trim expenses by carrying a 12-man travel squad instead of 14, but Watson figured if a player was good enough to make the club, he was good enough to travel with it.
Al Dauble, an Evansville florist and longtime university booster, often accompanied the Aces on road trips, but not this time.
"With Christmas and all. I just didn't have time to go," Dauble said, "And Bobby kidded me about it."
"I saw him just afternoon on Tuesday and he said, 'So you're not gonna go, huh? Well, then, take good care of my wife for me . . . and send her some roses. Tomorrow (Wednesday) is our anniversary.'"
Evansville officials don't know yet what will become of the basketball program.
"We're all stunned," said athletic director Jim Byers. "With funerals and other arrangements, we just haven't been able to sit down and decide exactly what we're going to do."
The university will have to rebuild nearby from scratch. Evansville does not have a freshman or junior varsity team.
The town of Eldorado, Ill., about 50 miles west of Evansville, is reportedly considering naming the high school gymnasium after two of the dead players: senior walk-on Kevin Kingstone, who played on Eldorado's first undefeated team, and freshman Mike Duff, who holds most of the high school's scoring and rebounding records.
Duff was considered to be the most promising of the freshmen Aces.
Buyers said the status of the 22 remaining games is in doubt.
"We'll have to decide something soon, hopefully in a day or two," he said. "My own thinking is that we'll try to put some sort of team on the floor by the end of the year."
"I know the type of man Bobby was," Byers said. "I don't think he would want us to chuck it all."