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Bucky Gleason: For Loyola-Chicago AD, journey to Final Four is rooted in Southern Tier

All you need to know about Steve Watson was what moved him to tears Monday on the telephone. The athletic director at the University of Loyola-Chicago was in the midst of talking about the Ramblers' glorious run to the Final Four when he began reflecting on Frank Martin.

Martin was the girls' basketball and volleyball coach at Allegany-Limestone and a communal treasure to be sure. Last Wednesday, five days after Martin guided the Gators into the state semifinals, he suffered a fatal heart attack at age 59.

Watson and his family were devastated. Martin had coached Watson's daughters when Watson served as St. Bonaventure's AD. Abby and Allison Watson still adhere to his mantra: Early is on time, on time is late and late is unacceptable.

In his administrative role, Watson made personnel decisions using Martin as a standard. If a candidate displayed qualities shared by the beloved coach, Watson knew he had a keeper.

"It was character first, leadership, people who have the same kind of values, especially at a place like St. Bonaventure or Loyola," Watson said. "It's not just about winning and losing. It's much more than that. We want people leading our programs who teach them more than X's and O's. Frank was definitely one of those people."

Last week, Watson was aboard an emotional roller coaster that comes with a life in sports while trying to separate the two. Loyola was flying high after beating Miami and Tennessee in Dallas. He and his wife broke the news to their kids about Martin's death on Wednesday while Loyola prepared for the Sweet 16.

Loyola was headed for Atlanta and the matchup against Nevada while Watson was sending Allison on a flight back to Western New York to attend services for Martin. The following day, the Ramblers' prayers from Sister Jean, their resident 98-year-old hoops-loving nun, were answered when they advanced to the Elite Eight.

"Wednesday was not a great day," Watson said. "We found out about Frank. I'm getting emotional now. … We had to tell my daughter. ... And it was tough. It felt like 20 minutes later, we were jumping up and down and running around the court (in Atlanta). It was crazy. It was a crazy, crazy, crazy 24 hours."

Events of the real world have a way of snapping sports into perspective. Watson, a Franklinville native who played ball for his father at Archbishop Walsh High before graduating in 1986, has enjoyed his finest hour as an athletic director while never forgetting about the people back home.

Success this year couldn't find a better guy. You rarely, if ever, hear anything negative about Watson, who is taller than nearly everybody but carries himself like he's bigger than nobody.

Watson, 49, was widely respected for his work during his seven years at Bona. He was the guy who took a chance on a little-known coach named Mark Schmidt, who turned around the basketball program and eventually led the Bonnies to three straight 20-win seasons and two appearances in the NCAA Tournament.

Nobody would have blamed him after he arrived at Loyola in early 2015 if he replaced Porter Moser, who had a 71-91 record over his first five seasons. Watson retained his basketball coach after finishing 18-14 last season. This year, he watched Moser take the Ramblers into the Final Four with a 32-5 record.

It’s easy to cheer for a team like Loyola, especially if you're from Western New York. The Ramblers were an 11-seed that needed to win its conference championship to secure an invitation into the Big Dance. They quickly morphed into a Cinderella team by playing flawless, team-oriented basketball.

Buffalo hoop fans have a dilemma Saturday. Loyola is playing a Michigan team coached by John Beilein, who grew up in Lockport and coached at Erie Community College and Canisius College on his way to the big time. Beilein recruited Watson's older brother in the 1980s when he was coaching at LeMoyne.

Watson for years teased his mother, who thought his name was John B. Line when he visited their home.

"He's an unbelievably genuine, nice guy," Watson said. "He's just a special dude. If I had to pick three coaches that I wouldn't want to play in the tournament, it would be Mark Schmidt, (Miami coach) Jim Larranaga and John Beilein. And we get two of them in one tournament."

Loyola is a terrific story, one that gives mid-majors like St. Bonaventure and Buffalo hope upon making the tournament. Sister Jean is a hoot. The rest of the nation is learning what the Windy City has known for years while she paraded her NCAA brackets to local television stations: She knows her hoops.

"She's as sharp as a tack, and she knows the game," Watson said. "When she talks to the guys on the team, she knows the stats and the personnel. She might not know the name of the best 3-point shooter on the team, but she knows his number. She'll tell these guys, in her prayer, 'Watch No. 4. He's their best shooter. You can't leave him alone.' You don't typically get that from a 98-year-old nun. She has an absolute magnetic personality. You put her on a national stage, and people just flock to her."

Actually, people are flocking to the entire program.

Watson admitted getting behind on his email. He's been a little busy making plans for the Final Four and addressing various requests that come with the job. The university welcomed the basketball team from Atlanta with a full arena of students and fans who have been along for the ride. Chicago has climbed aboard with their darling little team, as you can imagine, along with much of the country.

Of course, Watson has been in touch with friends from home. He knew all about Buffalo having a terrific year in basketball and the success of Big 4 teams, not to mention a few local high school teams and Allegany-Limestone's run in girls' basketball. He even knew about an AAU tournament that was held at Daemen College over the weekend.

No wonder why Watson had so much respect for Frank Martin. Both understood where sports fit in the real world, that were designed to be fun and not life and death. Winning is the goal, and every victory should be appreciated, but you savor the relationships you develop along the way and never forget the people who helped make it possible.

"I've heard from a lot of people," Watson said. "It's so cool to hear from so many Bonaventure people and people from Olean and Franklinville, to know there are people back home pulling for us. It's not just because it's a great story, but there's a strong Western New York connection. It means a lot. It really does."

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