The Matriarch

Stories about the legendary Wanda Watkins, from those who know her best

Campbell University honored legendary former player and head coach Wanda Watkins as part of the first Wanda Watkins Day on Nov. 18, just weeks after she announced her retirement from Campbell Athletics effective in May. The University dedicated the playing surface at the John W. Pope Jr. Convocation Center/Gilbert Craig Gore Arena in her honor. Photo by Zach Berly

Wanda Watkins became Campbell’s first scholarship female athlete in the late 1970s and was team captain of not only the basketball team, but the softball team as well. She was named Campbell’s Outstanding Female Athlete after the 1978-79 season. She became a graduate assistant after graduation, and in 1981 when Coach Betty Jo Clary stepped down, Watkins had a crazy idea.

She asked Athletic Director Wendell Carr if he would consider a recent grad in her early 20s with no coaching experience to take over the team. Even crazier, Carr said yes.

Over the next 35 years, Watkins would become the one constant of Fighting Camels athletics. As a coach, she posted 549 wins, 10 appearances in conference championship games and the program’s first trip to the NCAA Tournament. Watkins was inducted into the Campbell Athletics Hall of Fame in 2017 and the Big South Hall of Fame in 2019.

Her coaching philosophy: “I found that once people know how much you care, they will do anything for you. That goes back to my parents. They were great teachers of the game of life. And they stood by me. Even when I made mistakes, I still knew they loved me and supported me. I want the same thing for the kids. I’ll never replace their mothers, but they are like daughters to me.”

The following are just a few of the many stories about Watkins’ approach to coaching and mentoring her athletes:

Wanda Watkins Time

Denise Shipman

Every person who walked through her program knew the cardinal rule: You better be on the bus 10 minutes before departure time.

“On time” is late, at least when it comes to Wanda Watkins Time.

Denise (Ford) Shipman finished her career with 1,243 points and won 73 percent of her games at Campbell — a career that earned her a 2011 induction into the Campbell Athletics Hall of Fame.

She was a star. But on Feb. 10, 1988, Shipman was treated like everyone else.

The Camels loaded up, and the legendary coach checked her watch, noticed her best player was missing and instructed the bus driver to head 90 miles east for Wilmington. Distraught and feeling sorry for herself, Shipman called Wendell Carr, director of athletics at the time.

Carr suggested Shipman find a way to Wilmington, by whatever means available. Luckily for her, longtime director of Campbell University Service Enterprises Todd Scarborough had extra room in the back of his photography van, which was also heading to the coast that day.

To her surprise, Watkins welcomed Shipman when she arrived by van, just not as a starter. Instead, Shipman was shown the bench, where she sat the entire first half. It was an important lesson not just for her, but for her teammates as well — no one person is larger than the team.

“I look back and totally understand the message,” Shipman said. “Wanda taught us perseverance. We care for you, but you must learn the hard way.”

Everlasting Bonds

Tonya Colwell

Tonya Colwell walked the walk as a player for the Camels and talked the talk sitting alongside Watkins for over a decade as an assistant coach.

“Wanda has been with me from Day 1, and I’m not sure what my life would be without her,” said Colwell, who saw the program amass 299 wins, six 20-win seasons and an NCAA Tournament appearance during her time with Watkins. “As a school principal now, I want to be like Wanda Watkins to my community.”

Colwell recalled yearly coaching conventions tied around the Final Four where Watkins was considered a big name — not just for Campbell, but a big name in college basketball.

“Big-time coaches like Pat Summit [Tennessee] and Kay Yow [NC State] would walk up and pick Coach Watkins’ brain, which made us feel amazing,” she said.

Watkins was quick to deflect, share in the love and give others credit along the way.

The deep bonds formed under Watkins were evident every time former players reunited. Especially when they honored “the Momma of Lady Camels Basketball,” Colwell said.

From the minute Colwell stepped foot on campus as a student-athlete, she said Watkins made her feel cared for, and she invested in her growth as both a player and a person. Every year, Colwell receives a hand-written note from her coach about an update on her teaching career, a word of encouragement or a connection over a fond memory from their Buies Creek days.

That caring, supportive relationship has endured.

“I’m blessed, honored, humbled, you name it — to be involved in Wanda Watkins’ legacy.”

There For Her

Taya Bolden

Taya Bolden was the final player recruited by Wanda Watkins. She never played a single minute for the coach, yet Bolden felt connected to Watkins every moment of her six years on campus.

Before every game, she walked by Watkins — who has since transitioned into a career of broadcasting Campbell women’s basketball games for ESPN and FloSports — for a quick word.

“Wanda always wanted me to know how proud she was of me, win or lose,” Bolden said. “She kept me level headed and always knew what to say during every game.”

Bolden, the all-time leading rebounder in program history, does credit Watkins for improving her game. Just maybe not the way you’d expect.

Midway through her career, Bolden suffered chronic tooth pain, mitigating her ability to produce at the highest level. Without her knowledge, Watkins collected enough funds to help pay for the dental procedure and found her local dentist to make it all happen.

“Wanda’s hands were on everything,” said Bolden. “She was so good at so many different thing s; it was amazing to watch her be so involved with everything on campus.”

Bolden played the most games in Campbell history (152) spanning a six-year career from 2016-2022. Watkins, who won 549 games in her illustrious tenure, was there for nearly every second of Bolden’s career — and there for her through Big South championships, season-ending injuries and even a chronic toothache.

Be Like Coach

Megan Hall

Megan Hall is currently in her 19th season on the coaching staff for the Fighting Camels, first hired by Watkins back in 2005. Holding back tears while talking about her friend and mentor, Hall talked about her desire to “one day be like Coach Watkins in everything I do.”

Watkins spent countless hours teaching Hall the nuances of basketball and talking to her about God’s path and her future. When Watkins stepped aside from coaching to slide into the role of senior women’s administrator for Campbell Athletics, Hall marveled at her seamless transition.

“It’s just a wow factor for me,” she said. “How she handles, adapts and molds … she always does the right thing the best way possible.”

Watkins was not just an amazing mentor to Hall; her loyalty and sense of humor left a lasting impression.

One rainy afternoon, Hall and staff were hosting an official visit for a potential recruit. Dressed in her Sunday best, Watkins sported heels around cobblestone roads in Academic Circle heading back to the arena.

As Watkins took a shortcut through grass, her shoe instantly stuck in the mud.

Left helpless in the mud with no escape route, Watkins screamed for help. Without pause, Hall and fellow her assistant coaches broke into hysterical laughter.

Thankfully, the recruit noticed and sprinted back to help Watkins escape the mud. That human element of Coach Watkins, Hall said, brought levity throughout her illustrious career. Even legends can laugh at their missteps, however rare.


By Evan Budrovich Social Media Coordinator

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