Gonzaga women’s soccer coach Chris Watkins, a lifelong Latter-day Saint, offers instruction to a pair of Bulldog players. Watkins coached at Brigham Young University for two decades before moving to the Jesuit university in Spokane, Washington. (Photo courtesy of Chris Watkins)
Latter-day Saint college soccer coach Chris Watkins talks Zags soccer — and why he hates playing BYU (his reasons are charitable)
The Cougars’ former associate head coach spent more than two decades at the Church-sponsored school before accepting the head coaching job at Gonzaga, a private Jesuit university
By Jason Swensen
7 Mar 2023
A couple of obvious, get-them-out-of-the-way questions for Chris Watkins — the former BYU women’s soccer associate head coach who left Provo a few years ago to become head coach at conference rival Gonzaga:
First: What’s it like coaching at a Jesuit/Catholic school after spending more than two decades at the flagship university of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?
“Actually, there are a lot of similarities,” Watkins told Church Ball Magazine.
When he arrived at Gonzaga at the end of 2016, he discovered a soccer locker room filled with high-quality young women, just like the players he had coached at BYU.
“They are great kids,” he said of his Bulldogs squads. “They are different from many of the BYU players. They have different goals and, in some ways, a different life. But they are great people who live purpose-driven lives.”
Institutionally, Watkins said he and his Latter-day Saint beliefs have been embraced on the Spokane, Washington, campus since Day 1.
“Gonzaga has a super-welcoming environment, for anyone and everyone,” he said. “Besides that, the university values that I like to treat our players well — and I think that is universal across all religions.”
And the second question: What’s it like playing against BYU — and competing against players you once recruited and coached in Provo?
(Full disclosure, my daughter, Carla, was among the many BYU players that Watkins recruited/coached — and who later became his West Coast Conference opponents.)
“It was hard,” he said, remembering his first game back in Provo and awkwardly locating his seat on the South Field visitors bench. “I don’t know how else to say it: I hated the game. It was really hard. I didn’t enjoy it.”
Watkins’ sentiments about playing his former team have not changed since. He and his wife, Karen, have a tradition of joining BYU head coach Jennifer Rockwood and longtime BYU athletic trainer Carolyn Billings for dinner on the eve of the annual Bulldogs/Cougars game.
“I always enjoyed that dinner — but, otherwise, I dislike everything about the [BYU/Gonzaga] game day experience.”
Asked to elaborate, Watkins said it is difficult to identify a specific discomfort with the BYU game. “I just don’t enjoy competing against people that I really, really care for,” he said. “Even last year, BYU still had a couple players that I was involved in recruiting. These are people who I want to see smiling all the time.”
The coach’s ambivalence about the BYU/Gonzaga game was escalated by his natural competitiveness and, of course, his professional obligations to his employer and his Bulldogs players. BYU was a conference opponent — and he wanted to win every conference game badly.
“Beating BYU would feel good, certainly. But Jen (Rockwood) is one of my best friends — and I know how hard losing is for her. I just didn’t enjoy it.”
BYU moves to the Big 12 Conference for the 2023 season — marking the end of the Cougars/Bulldogs matchups, at least during Watkins’ tenure at Gonzaga.
“We will never play BYU again,” he said.
Finding a new home in Spokane
In 2016, Chris and Karen Watkins and their three sons — Drake, Ethan and Tanner — were enjoying life in Utah County. The family had settled into “our dream home” in Provo. They expected to live there for several years.
Professionally, Watkins was the associate head coach of a title-winning BYU program that had made perennial appearances in the NCAA tournament — while producing an impressive roster of All-Americans and future pro players.
In November of 2016, Watkins was in South Carolina preparing for BYU’s Sweet 16 game in the NCAA Tournament when he answered an unexpected call. On the other end of the line was Gonzaga’s associate athletic director calling to let him know that the Bulldogs were searching for a new head coach.
She invited Watkins to visit the Spokane campus following BYU’s season to look around and discuss the job.
Since becoming Gonzaga women’s soccer head coach in 2016, Chris Watkins has taken the Bulldogs to unprecedented heights in the ultra-competitive West Coast Conference. (Photo courtesy of Chris Watkins)
The Zags, of course, are a men’s basketball powerhouse — but the women’s soccer program had traditionally struggled in the ultra-competitive West Coast Conference. Watkins knew he would be facing a challenging rebuild in Spokane. But he was immediately impressed by the Gonzaga campus culture, the school administration — and the potential of the women’s soccer program.
“I was 47- or 48-years-old at the time, and I decided that if I was ever going to be a college head coach, I probably should do this now… . It was a real pivot — but ultimately, it ended up being a great thing. It was time for me to move on and have my own team.
“And Gonzaga was the right place.”
Watkins has proven to be a great hire. Since taking the job, the Bulldogs have notched winning seasons every year, highlighted by a 15-win season in 2021-22.
Watkins credits his success to “a great locker room” and players who are coachable and “eager to go to work.”
Lexi Robison Brown, in red shirt, is an assistant coach on the Gonzaga women’s soccer team. Prior to coaching, the Latter-day Saint was a star player at Utah Valley University in Orem, Utah.
He has also been supported by a strong staff at Gonzaga that includes assistant coach/fellow Latter-day Saint Lexi Robison Brown, who was a star defender at Utah Valley University before joining the coaching ranks.
Another Church member, Josh Patiño, was also on Watkins’ coaching staff for several seasons.
There’s really no off-season for a Division 1 college soccer coach. There is always another promising high school athlete to recruit. Another roster of returning players to develop. But Watkins is already itching for the 2023 season to begin this fall.
“We have tons of talent on our team… so it’s exciting,” he said. “Our recruiting is going well, and Gonzaga draws great kids every year. Our expectations are high.”