CEDAR BLUFF – One of the most iconic scenes from Star Wars: A New Hope is when Luke Skywalker watches a sun rise and a sun fade on his home planet of Tatooine.
On Thursday afternoon, I experienced my own Star Wars moment with Cedar Bluff coaching icon Joe Carpenter, albeit in the visitor bleachers at L.D. Bruce Field.
Carpenter and I, both Star Wars fans, were talking about his retirement announcement to the Cherokee County Board of Education on Wednesday while, appropriately, watching the sun set behind the press box.
Carpenter has spent the past 37 years as an educator and coach at White Plains (1983-84), Ragland (1984-92), and Cedar Bluff (1993-present).
At Cedar Bluff, Carpenter coached the Lady Tiger track and field teams to seven Class 1A state titles (2000, 2007-12). He also guided the Tiger boys basketball team to state Final Four appearances in 2011 and 2012, and the Lady Tigers to the Final Four in 2013. He’s won a combined 730 basketball games in his coaching career with 23 winning seasons.
The following is part of our conversation while the sun set (Cue The Binary Sunset theme from John Williams).
Q: I know you’ve been a staple here at Cedar Bluff for so long. How different is it going to be for you now that you’re retiring?
A: “I don’t even know how to answer that. That’s really a tough one (short pause).
“I’ll miss the coaching, particularly the practices. I’ll miss the players and the relationships I’ve built with them. I’ve got a lot of coaches who are friends. I’ll miss seeing them, even though sometimes it’s just a brief meeting before the game or text messages on the phone or maybe a brief conversation.
“I intend on keeping in touch with the friends I’ve made over the years. Even though a lot of us are rivals, we’re still cordial and friendly to each other. We don’t take it out on each other or anything like that. It’s just a game and the best team wins. It’ll be different. I’ve sit out one year before when I was at Ragland. I feel like I need to be scarce for a while, just turn the page and move on to whatever comes my way. I don’t have any plans right now. I’m just going to see what God has in store. I don’t know what that’s going to be right now.”
Q: Maybe a trip to Disney World?
A: (Laughs) “Those things are expensive on retirement pay.”
Q: I know you’ve coached so many kids and had a bunch of assistant coaches through the years. Could you talk about some of the people who have been a part of this journey you’ve had?
A: “It starts inside the school building, in kindergarten. They start teaching the kids what they need to get. When they get to high school, they’ve got to have the grades. Whether the teachers realize it or not, they have a great input on the athletic fields. The kids have to be taught. Of course they have to respond with the proper grade. Then you’ve got the support staff working tirelessly behind the scenes who get basically no credit. You can’t do anything without them. You’ve got bus drivers. It takes everybody at this school to contribute in some form. They’re on that page whether they realize it or not. You’re blessed to be around people like this has. It’s basically an all-star cast of teachers and coaches.
“Not every place is like this. I’ve been blessed to be here and stay as long as I’ve stayed. I’ve had great assistants, a great support staff, administrations. I’m going to miss somebody if I name anybody. There’s a ton of them to name over the years, but it all goes back to the players. They go forward and you watch them as they cross that stage and turn that tassel over. They go on with their lives and you watch them from afar. Sometimes you lose track of them, but for the most part, as a school, we’ve been successful in raising good mothers and daddies and them being successful.
“It’s a process. That’s the whole thing we’re here for. It’s not about wins and losses. It’s about the product of a person out there who can contribute to society and do what they what need to do to be successful in life.”
Q: I know in track and field you had a great span of years with the state championships. How big of a highlight has that been for you?
A: “When I got here in 1993, there wasn’t a girls track team. There was somewhat of a boys team. In 1996, I started the girls team. By the year 2000, with a handful of girls, we managed in the last event, the 4×4, won out two points to be state champions in 2000. Hazlewood was dominant back then. We came back in 2002 and got runner-up. They were really strong.
“We took a lull there for a while until about 2007. We were just blessed to have the right people who could do the right things in the right events. We had two or three multiple sport athletes. It didn’t matter. You could say ‘I need you to throw the javelin tomorrow.’ They’d figure it out and would be throwing school records by the time it was over with. That was special.
“I remember one time we got back one time from Troy. Caleb (Carpenter’s son) was with me, and I said ‘We don’t have to go back tomorrow.’ He said ‘What do you mean?’ I said ‘We’ve already got enough points. Nobody can mathematically catch us.’ I said ‘Don’t tell them that. They won’t do anything tomorrow.’
“We were really blessed, the boys and the girls, at that time. It may be the only time both boys and girls have won it that many consecutive years in the same classification for that many years.”
Q: Obviously in basketball, the same thing really. You had a span of a few years there where you were competing for state championships. Could you talk about that?
A: “Again, we were blessed with great groups. Each year is like a new team. You’re going to lose one or two, and you have to see who’s going to step up and replace them. We might should have gotten there the first year we went to regionals (with the boys), but we didn’t have a good game. Probably that year we stood a better chance of winning it all and didn’t make it. Then we did get down there and played really well in the first semifinal game against McIntosh. We got in the finals. It still haunts me. That final press, I probably should’ve told DeAngelo (Hardy) to go for the steal. In my mind, I think he would’ve gotten it, at least where he would’ve gotten fouled. I think he would’ve hit the free throws. That’s one of those things you replay and wished would’ve gone the other way.
“We made it back the next year. We got beat in the area and had to go to Skyline and win. The next year after that, the girls got down there. That was a special year because they had never been that route.
“Every team is special, whether you win or lose. You’ve still got special memories of parts of it. It all meshes together after long periods of time, but I can remember a good bit about all of them. I usually can recall all the kids’ numbers. I’d tell them if I see them on Facebook and it’s their birthday, I’ll tell them happy birthday and whatever number they were.”
Q: What was it that got you into coaching basketball and track and field?
A: “In high school, I played football, basketball and ran track. Back in those days, they chalked the field off and we ran around the field. I’ve actually run on dirt tracks for track meets.
“I was going to school to be a forester. I was going to go to Mississippi State, but I changed and went into education. I got an academic scholarship to JSU.
“As far as getting into it, I guess it comes by nature for our family. My grandfather was real instrumental. He was a godly man. He worked hard. My dad went on to school and he became a science teacher at Hale County. Unfortunately it didn’t pay enough back then, so he got an engineering job at Westinghouse. He invented the film coating for the flash cube and then some kind of NBA scoreboard lights. My uncle lacked a little bit from getting his doctorate. He went to college when it was Peabody. He ended up being a principal at an elementary school. He got out of it to run a sawmill. My second cousin was the superintendent of education at Pickens County. There were kind of a lot of us who were in there (education), but I don’t even remember them being teachers. That’s the weird part about it. I ended up being one. Even when I graduated, my uncle thought I got a business degree and was going to come run the sawmill. I don’t know where he got that.
“I think the light bulb came on when I was sitting at JSU. There was a theory of football and basketball test. I took it and it kind of switched on then. I had been influenced by Bear Bryant living near Tuscaloosa. I went to the dentist to get my teeth cleaned and he was in the tower right across the street. I was also influenced by CM Newton and Wimp (Sanderson). I went to Alabama games. When I was a boy scout, I ushered Alabama games. I was around those guys. They were the deal. They highly influenced me.
“When I got out of college and went applying for jobs, Ragland called. He asked me how I’d like to be the basketball coach. I said sure. I didn’t think twice about it. I had no head coaching experience. The only coaching experience I had was coaching B-team and junior high B-team and White Plains. I did some football and stuff there. I guess that was it. I went from there.
“We weren’t real successful at Ragland. We were 3-30 I think the first two years. They hadn’t had a winning season in like 11 years. I accounted for two of them. We turned it around and won the area championship. I stayed there nine years, and then I came here.”
Q: How was it that you came to Cedar Bluff?
A: “(Jeff) Bullen and Brian Johnson were both here, and they had both gone to Centre. Bobby Mintz was the head football coach. I had worked with Brian at Ragland. Brian told Bobby about me, so I got hired basically as the defensive coordinator. Mr. Dean was here then. I said I’d coach whatever. He said ‘We’ve got girls basketball.’ I said ‘That’s fine. I’ll take that.’ I had only piddled in that at Ragland for a little bit with the junior high girls. That was a huge learning curve.”
Q: Like you said, it’s not like this everywhere. Could you talk about how supportive the Cedar Bluff community has been?
A: “The Cedar Bluff community, they like winners. That’s what we tell the kids all the time. You don’t realize there’s a tradition here that precedes you and precedes me. It started with L.D. Bruce. They don’t really recognize that until you tell them ‘Hey look, you’ve got a target on your back whether you want it or not. What’s going to be your legacy?’ It’s tough sometimes when you can’t live up to that tradition, but as a community, they’re very supportive. Most of them will do anything you need. You don’t even have to ask. Our booster club is small, but it’s always done well. I wish more parents would get involved with the booster club.
“Cedar Bluff’s a unique place. It’s a special place. I’m glad I was fortunate enough to be at this place. It’s not like this everywhere. To be like this is really a special honor to be here that long and hopefully be able to contribute a little bit.”
Q: I know something else that you’re proud of is being able to see your son Caleb follow in your footsteps as a head coach at Ashville. Apparently you’ve rubbed off on him a little bit. How proud are you of that?
A: “I hope he’s successful. He doesn’t like to lose either. He used to beat me at video games all the time, and he thought that was funny. We’re both very competitive.
“I’m proud of my daughter (Ariel) too. She just became a nurse practitioner at 30 years old.
“I think for him being 33 and the head coach at Ashville, and her being a nurse practitioner, as a parent, we can’t be any prouder of our kids. Everybody’s particularly fond of their own children, but my kids are very special to me. The only regret I’ve got out of coaching is when they were younger I didn’t spend as much time with them as I would like to. I think they understand. They both love sports. Luckily they didn’t mind hanging out in gyms and at football games.”
Q: Something else I know you’re proud of is you’re a published author. That’s another part of your legacy (The Mental Game of Basketball: Playing The Game One Play At A Time). What was it like to write that?
A: “That was a unique experience. I never thought watching an Alabama softball game would lead to writing a book. In a round about way, it did.
“I saw this book “Toilets, Fishhooks, Bricks and Pride.” I read it and it was awesome. I contacted the author (Brian Cain) and he came here to talk to our coaching staff. Out of the blue, he was like ‘Hey, I’d like for you and this other guy to write this book. Write me a sample.’ I did, but I didn’t know what I was getting into. I wanted to quit a hundred times. I sat up here eight hours a day trying to do it. He had a deadline too, and he kept moving it up, but I ended up finishing it about four days early.
“The original manuscript was about 450 pages. It got cut to 250. There’s a part two out there somewhere I guess. I need to go through there and see what he cut out. I never went back to see what’s not in there.
“That was just to say I’ve done it, to check it off the (bucket) list. For someone who’s never done that before, that’s quite an experience. Thank God for spellcheck.”
Q: Now that June 1 is going to be it for you, just talk about coaching track one last time. Are you trying to enjoy the moment?
A: “The kids are fun to be around. It’ll be a little surreal I guess if we get anybody to qualify for state. I haven’t really had any time to reflect on it. You just try to savor the moments. It’s not really about the accomplishments. It’s the interaction with them.
“There comes a time when you feel like it’s time to turn the page. That time has gotten here. I’m not a spring chicken anymore either. I can’t catch up with Coach (Nick) Saban.”
Q: So, are you leaving the door open to coach again at some point?
A: “I’ve got a former assistant (Johnny Amison) who’s a coach now (at Gaston). I’ve got a son who’s a head coach now. I think I’m going to go watch them play.
“Coach Amison has already talked to me about coming down and maybe doing some mental stuff with his kids. Caleb has said ‘When you retire, you can come help me at practice.’ I don’t know if they’re spreading the mayonnaise on thick or what. I really don’t know.
“I’ve always wanted to go see Rat (Spring Garden basketball coach Ricky Austin) practice. He said I’m welcome any time now, and then Johnny said ‘You can come tell me what I’m doing wrong.'”