Earl Richard “Dick” Watts Jr., who guided the UMBC men’s lacrosse program to 178 victories in 23 seasons and the NCAA Division II national championship in 1980, the school’s final year before making the leap to Division I, died Monday of heart disease at his home in Naples, Florida. He was 92.
Mr. Watts was more than just a lacrosse coach. Kevin Gibbons-O’Neill, who was an attackman for the Retrievers from 1982 to 1985, called Mr. Watts “a father figure.” Marcie Watts said her husband took great pride in making an impact with his players and preparing them for life after college, but also lived by the rule “family first.”
“A lot of his players said that as tough as he was on the field, when he got home — and the players came to our house a lot — they saw what a family man he was,” she said. “Family was No. 1 for him.”
At a time when people of color and women did not receive many opportunities, Mr. Watts hired Ronnie Smith, an African American midfielder who played for the Retrievers, to be an assistant coach of his for 12 years at UMBC.
Mr. Watts also chaired and served on several committees at the local and national levels. He was a member of an NCAA committee that passed Title IX, federal legislation that mandated for equal opportunities in education and sports for women and girls.
For his efforts, Mr. Watts was inducted into six Halls of Fame — including those of the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame, the Intercollegiate Men’s Lacrosse Coaches Association and UMBC — and even had one at Stevenson University named after him.
“He did a lot for the game in Baltimore,” said Mr. Gibbons-O’Neill, the current assistant athletic director for events and facilities at his alma mater. “He did a lot for the women’s game. He hired an African American in the early 1980s. I don’t know too many people in America that are in six different Halls of Fame and have one named after them. … People recognize how important he was to lacrosse here in Baltimore.”
Mr. Watts was the youngest of two children born in Baltimore to the former Mildred Provance and Earl Richard Watts Sr., an accountant. Raised in the Hamilton neighborhood, Mr. Watts played baseball, but found his athletic calling as a halfback and linebacker in football at Poly, where he graduated in 1948.
Mr. Watts was bitten by the coaching bug when he was recruited to start a recreation league baseball team. Fearing that he would oversleep and miss Saturday morning games, he agreed to tie a string around his toe and hang it out the window for his players to yank and wake him. In 1947, that squad won league and state championships.
Mr. Watts continued his football career at Johns Hopkins, where the lacrosse coaching staff recruited him to pick up a long pole and line up as a defenseman.
“It was noticed that he was a pretty aggressive player, and they thought lacrosse might be right up his alley,” Mrs. Watts said.
After graduating in 1956 with a bachelor’s in political science, Mr. Watts was hired by Friends School to teach science and serve as the head coach of the wrestling program and an assistant coach for the football and boys lacrosse teams from 1958 to 1962. In June 1960, Mr. Watts married the former Jill Boone, and the pair raised two sons.
For one year, Mr. Watts dabbled in the insurance business, but returned to education in 1964, choosing to work at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, as the head coach of the men’s lacrosse and wrestling programs and an assistant coach for the football team.
After Mrs. Watts died in September 1966, Mr. Watts finished the academic year and returned to Baltimore to work at UMBC as its first athletic director and then its third men’s lacrosse head coach in 1971. During his tenure there, Mr. Watts helped the university grow to 17 sports and open a 4,000-seat Fieldhouse in 1973 and a 4,500-seat stadium in 1976.
“When he arrived at UMBC, there were a few buildings and a bunch of cornfields,” his son David Watts said. “He built that athletic program from nothing.”
Mr. Gibbons-O’Neill said Mr. Watts liked to affectionately call his players “Bunk” or “Bunky.” He said one of Mr. Watts' crowning achievements was guiding a 1-10 UMBC squad to a 15-14 overtime upset of national powerhouse Maryland in the school’s first win against the Terps.
“He always believed in us more than we believed in ourselves,” Mr. Gibbons-O’Neill said, adding that Mr. Watts unveiled a zone defense that stymied Maryland long enough for the Retrievers to collect the victory. “There’s a lot of guys out there who, he made them a little different and looked at them differently and made them the leaders that they are.”
After leaving the university after the 1993 season, Mr. Watts joined Stevenson as its director of physical education. He was a member of the hiring committee that recommended the university hire former Loyola Maryland faceoff specialist Paul Cantabene to coach the men’s lacrosse program.
“He always cared about the coaches and how they were doing,” said Cantabene, who led the Mustangs to the Division III national title in 2013. “So he would come in and go, ‘Coach, how are you doing? What grade would you give yourself for that game?’ He was always trying to help us improve in what we were doing. So I always appreciated that.”
The former Mary Charlotte Russell met Mr. Watts in May 1968 through a mutual friend and the couple married in February 1970 in Baltimore. Despite a 20-year difference, Mrs. Watts said her husband’s charm was undeniable.
“I paid no attention to him at first because he was much older. I can still see him in his Perry Como sweater,” she said with a laugh. “But then one day, everything just sort of clicked. He was a widower with two boys, and I always say that Rick and Dave were my wedding presents.”
Mrs. Watts said her husband founded DRD Pool Management, a company in Hunt Valley that he turned over to his family, and faithfully attended the Church of the Good Shepherd in Ruxton for 60 years where he was a member of the vestry and a head usher for more than 20 years. He also enjoyed mowing the lawn and working outdoors around their home and loved dogs and cats, especially Max, a Bernese Mountain Dog, Gertie, a St. Bernard, and Peanut, a tabby cat.
“His idea of a great day was to sit in front of the fire with a dog on each side and a cup of hot chocolate,” Mrs. Watts said.
A funeral and celebration of life for Mr. Watts are still being planned.
In addition to his wife and son, Mr. Watts is survived by five more children, Bonnie Hale of Baltimore, Charmaine Flora of Baltimore, Earl Richard Watts III of Baltimore, Allen Watts of Baltimore, and Page Watts Rogers of Ocean City; 10 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.