The University of Arkansas Athletics Department is recognizing current Razorback administrators and coaches as part of a series celebrating Black History Month on ArkansasRazorbacks.com. Throughout the month of February, individuals will be featured on the web site for their contributions to the University of Arkansas, the Razorback program and society. This marks the fifth year Razorback Athletics has celebrated Black History Month with a special features series on ArkansasRazorbacks.com. This year’s list includes Razorback administrators Eric A. Wood, Bryon Hatch, Marcus Sedberry and Marvin Caston along with coaches Melvin Watkins (men’s basketball), Tari Cummings (women’s basketball), Chris Johnson (women’s track and field) and Randy Shannon (football).
When Melvin Watkins was a young boy, growing up in Reidsville, N.C., he recalls a time when he was prohibited from entering an ice cream shop because the color of his skin wasn’t the same ivory hue as the owner.
As a child Watkins was naturally confused.
“I was a little kid, and I didn’t understand that,” Watkins said. “I saw other kids going in there and getting ice cream and why couldn’t I?”
Fortunately, Watkins had a strong family who took the time to sit him down and explain the situation and let him know that he didn’t have to live his whole life restricted from half the world, that he could be and do whatever he wanted to.
“From that experience it motivated me to say that I wanted more out of this,” he said. “I wanted an education. I wanted to do some things with my life. Some of those things stung me at the time, but I think my family positioned it in such a way that it motivated me to go out and do things beyond what some thought my capacity was.”
Growing up with a tight-knit family with strong values was essential in Watkins’ path to success. His family was very involved in sports, and his dad was a Little League coach and Watkins was on the team.
“I would play with a lot of older guys, and he would sneak me in,” he said. “It really helped me out as I began to truly get into sports.”
After some time he became drawn to basketball. He got better and better and before he knew it he had many scholarship offers, and it was time to make a tough decision.
He remembers staring at a box full of letters from colleges and sifting through them. One letter in particular caught his eye — UNC Charlotte. He picked up the phone and placed the call and asked if he could join the team much to the surprise of the coaching staff.
It seemed meant to be for the young Watkins, who never would have imagined what would come during his time in the Queen City. He helped lead Charlotte to an NIT Championship and a Final Four appearance that put the school on the map.
After the end of his playing career he felt his work wasn’t over with basketball. He felt a calling to coaching. Influenced by some great coaches in his life, he decided to give it a try.
“All of those coaches I had a chance to play for and be around, really influenced the way I look at the game and coach the game,” he said.
His first coaching stint came at his Alma matter, Charlotte. He was an assistant and associate coach for 19 years and eventually was named the head coach.
“That was a special moment when you look up at a university and your jersey is hanging in the rafters and to be able to coach there,” he said.
Watkins’ career path led him to coaching stints at Texas A&M, Missouri and of course, Arkansas.
“Now we’ve moved over to the University of Arkansas and boy do we have some big dreams and big goals here,” he said with a smile. “We know that this program has the tradition and has won a National Championship and has been No. 1 in the country. Here our challenge is just to get this program back to where we know it’s already been.”
The dream of cutting down the nets after the National Championship is something he holds as a professional goal, but Watkins also occupies his free time with many personal projects.
While at Charlotte Watkins and his family were heavily involved in the community.
“I was so ingrained with that community,” he said.
To Watkins, giving back to the community that supports you is just part of the job really. He has assisted with projects such as Habitat for Humanity and was even the co-chair of the Battered Women’s Shelter.
“As athletes sometimes we get put up on a pedestal and I think it’s always time to reach back and see what other folks you can help,” he said.
He draws his sense of community from his family. Growing up, the Watkins’ home was always filled to the brim with neighborhood children.
“The neighborhood would gravitate to our household and at any given time you have other people to feed at the table and looking for food,” he said. “From that I think my parents set the stage for me and wanting to give back and help people, and from that I think it evolved.”
Like many things from his upbringing, Watkins uses the giving mind set his family ingrained in him while coaching student-athletes.
“We always feel that being a coach you will have an opportunity to touch young men’s lives and I take that opportunity very seriously and every time a young man comes into your office it’s going to be more than just basketball,” he said.
While out recruiting at a high school basketball game recently, four former student-athletes heard Watkins was in town and came out to see him. All grew up to be successful individuals in their respective professions and hold Watkins as one of the people who made an impact in their life.
“That means you probably did something right when you talked to them about being successful,” he said.
Just like his parents advised and mentored him as a child Watkins has taken the same responsibility with the young men he coaches. He teaches them about what’s really important in life and what can happen when you set your mind to it.
“They need more than just basketball,” he said. “They are college students and you surely want to get them exposed to the idea that to make this a better society and a better community you have to reach out.”