Ronnie Carter was at home with his wife Caroline when the call came. Within minutes he was offered a job with the Tennessee Secondary Schools Athletic Association.
They cried …but not necessarily tears of joy.
“My wife and I cried like two babies because I didn’t want to quit doing what I was doing,” Carter said. “… But I knew it was the right decision because it moved me into administration and it let me talk sports 24 hours a day — and you get paid.”
So he left behind his job as a math teacher and football/wrestling coach at Overton High School and became an assistant director with the TSSAA. Eight years after that he was promoted to the top position within the association.
Now, more than three decades after that phone call, Carter is about to move on again.
Upon completion of the annual SpringFling, the centralized and concurrent high school baseball, softball, tennis, track and field and boys soccer state championships that starts today in Murfreesboro, Carter will step aside as the TSSAA’s executive director, the post he has held since 1986. When he does, he will leave a legacy that extends beyond just the athletic fields of Tennessee to the entire United States.
Accommodating and accessible
At times, he has had to be the bad guy. Other times, he has had to be a visionary. Many times he has been asked to put aside his own personal beliefs for the good of the membership.
Always, he has been accountable, accommodating and accessible.
“We don’t have an automated phone system,” Carter said. “We want them to talk to a live person … and we want them to feel they’re being treated in a good way before they come in and start having a tough conversation.
“Most of the time our calls are dealing with a problem, whether it be an eligibility issue, a problem that occurred in a game that previous night. … You’re always going to be dealing with someone, and usually you have a little bit of a conflict going on.”
He said he can’t begin to estimate the number of difficult decisions he has had to make as executive director — but one involving Brentwood Academy does stand out.
Carter recalls that during his first month on the job, he was faced with five separate litigation cases, which he chalks up to timing rather than any concerted attempts to test the new guy. He also accepts that he rarely — if ever — made everyone happy.
“There’s probably more than one person every day who doesn’t like him,” former Shelbyville girls basketball coach Rick Insell, currently the MTSU women’s coach, said. “But I’ll bet he’s never made a decision on the spot. He always took the time to gather all of the facts because he wanted to make sure he was going to do what was best for everybody involved.
“You always knew where you stood with him, and he was always fair. You’ve got to have someone like that in that position.”
Carter understands, though, that the BA situation will be remembered above all others, not necessarily because it was more important but because it lingered and attracted national attention.
In 1997, Carter decreed that Brentwood Academy violated anti-recruiting rules due to specific language in letters sent to a group of eighth-grade students at other Nashville schools who were set to attend BA the following academic year. The penalty was based on the notion that Brentwood Academy violated the TSSAA’s policy which expressly forbids “coach-initiated contact” with students not enrolled in that particular school or not part of a feeder system.
The school appealed the two-year ban from the state football and basketball tournaments and accompanying $3,000 fine. For a decade the case made its way through the court system, and twice it ended up in the U.S. Supreme Court. The second time, it was a First Amendment (Freedom of Speech) case, and the eventually ruling was unanimously in the TSSAA’s favor.
In one of its legal filings during the process, the TSSAA asserted, in part: “the entire enterprise of interscholastic athletic competition depends on clear and enforceable rules.”
No one statement more effectively spelled out Carter’s approach to the job — he unfailingly attempted to honor the tenet laid out by the association’s first executive director, A.F. Bridges, who was known to say, “As long as you go by the book, you can’t get in trouble.”
“I’ve always said it’s one of the easiest jobs in the world,” Carter said. “That sounds crazy, but we have a book of rules, our schools have a process of making those rules and all we’re charged to do is enforce the rules.
“… If I ruled eligibility cases with my heart, I’d never rule anybody ineligible.”
Like Olympics, only smaller
The fallout from that case included the creation of Division II, which separated private schools willing to offer scholarships to athletes from public schools. That added another set of state champions in every sport and generated criticism that such titles have been cheapened as a result.
Carter is quick to admit that his personal preference would be a single state champion in every sport other than football, with no distinction based on size or classification.
At the same time, he constantly reminds himself of a survey conducted shortly before he became executive director in which the membership overwhelmingly stated that the most important thing the TSSAA does is “having a good, safe place and a great atmosphere for championship events.”
“The kids that play in championships, they get excited,” Carter said. “It doesn’t matter what it is. It doesn’t make any difference how many we have. What you see in those moments, lets you know… and you realize those championships are meaningful for those kids who are participating.”
Therefore, as the number of state titles has grown through classification changes and the addition of sports such as softball, bowling and soccer (all have been added in the last 30 years), the emphasis on staging first-class championship events has increased.
The TSSAA has upped demands on amenities available for prospective host cities. It has created a line of state championship merchandise that is available at all such events. It also has worked to create maximum opportunity for media exposure of all events.
“I am blessed to have been a part of a couple of (state championship games),” said Blackman High School football coach Philip Shadowens, who guided Smyrna to the 2006 and 2007 Class 5A football titles. “… I remember being a kid and going to Vanderbilt for the Clinic Bowl, which wasn’t even a state tournament then. Now, with what Mr. Carter and his staff have done, the kids who play in those games feel like they’re on the biggest stage in the world for that one night and it’s something they’ll remember for a lifetime.”
Similar scenes will be played out repeatedly this week.
SpringFling, which on Monday begins its fourth year in Murfreesboro after previous stints in Chattanooga and Memphis, is one of several obvious indications of growth and development of high school athletics during Carter’s tenure.
The notion for the event grew out of conversations Carter had with MTSU track coach Dean Hayes, regarding a similar approach the Ohio Valley Conference took at that time. It also played directly into Carter’s notion of top-flight championship events.
“The OVC did this years ago, and I just sort of followed it,” Carter said. “It just seemed like a neat idea. … In essence, all it is is just the Olympics toned down.”
No more tears
The buildup to this year’s SpringFling has served to distract Carter from the emotions of his dwindling days on the job.
Although he officially will be on the payroll for approximately another two months, he will clean out his office next Monday and have it ready for his replacement, Bernard Childress, a TSSAA assistant director since 1995, to assume occupancy the following day.
Despite all that has transpired during his time on the job, some things don’t change.
Once again, he is making a move not because he necessarily wants to but because he feels he has to. The only difference is that he does not know what comes next.
“I’ll still be going to games and events, just in a different capacity, Carter said. “I’ve figured out that if you go through life and every time you quit a job before you’re ready to quit, that’s the way it ought to be.
“That’s how I feel now. I feel like I could do this for another seven or eight years. I have great energy. I feel great, but I know it’s the right decision.”