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Ronnie Carter's surprising side trip to Roan Mountain

Douglas Fritz • May 30, 2020 at 8:30 PM

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first of a three-part series of stories told by Ronnie Carter, who was executive director of the TSSAA for 23 years before retiring in 2009.

Fresh into his new job with the TSSAA, Ronnie Carter had an assignment in Northeast Tennessee in 1980.

After teaching and coaching for 11 years in Nashville, Carter was on his way to making an impact on a statewide level. He was tailor-made for his position as assistant executive director, deftly mixing the ability to successfully navigate thousands of different personalities while still keeping an eagle-eye focus on making things better for student-athletes.

Carter’s task on that September day was to investigate the transfer of quarterback Jeff Padgett from Unicoi County to Elizabethton for the 1980 football season. Was it a bona fide change of address?

Carter was dispatched from Nashville to find out.

“I went to Erwin and I went to Elizabethton,” Carter said of his efforts to wrap up his work on the Padgett situation. “Then I had some time to kill. And I didn’t have a place to stay that night.”

Carter had heard about Roan Mountain State Park and wanted to visit the majestic hardwood forest one day. This seemed like a good time. Surely there was an available inn where he could spend the night.

Carter made the drive up to Roan Mountain and arrived around 3:30 p.m. He was unable to find a cabin, so he decided to head back down the mountain.

But then Carter had another idea: It might be fun to catch a few minutes of Cloudland’s football practice.

“I had coached football, and I knew who John Orr was,” Carter said. “I wanted to see his team practice. He had this great history. It was almost like Buck Van Huss.”

Carter pulled into the parking lot beside the gymnasium. He got out of his car and heard a noise that gave him a funny feeling in the pit of his stomach.

“I could hear basketballs bouncing,” Carter said.

After all, this was the first week of September, and basketball practice was not allowed under TSSAA rules.

“Literally what went through my mind was, ‘Oh, crap, I don’t want to catch somebody practicing basketball. How can this happen to me?’ ” Carter said.

“But I knew I had a job to do, and I couldn’t ignore it.”

Carter walked into the gym and saw several players on the court. He breathed a short sigh of relief when he noticed they were probably a little older than high school age.

A few people were in the stands, and Carter asked who the players were and if they were just playing pickup games.

He found out the older boys were scrimmaging against a high school team.

“I asked them where the high school team was,” Carter said. “They told me the team was down in the locker room.”

Retrospectively applying a 1986 movie to what he saw in the sequestered locker room that day, Carter said with a laugh, “It was straight out of Hoosiers, man.”

Carter entered the locker room while the coach was talking to his players.

“He was chewing on the team, and they all had on practice shirts that said, ‘Cloudland basketball,’ ” Carter recalled.

“The coach said, ‘You get out there in the second half and you get in their jocks. And we have to trap better than what we’re trapping now.’ ”

When the players left the locker room to head back to the gym, Carter let them pass without saying a word.

“I didn’t have anything on that said TSSAA,” Carter said. “The coach was picking up towels and he looked at me and said, ‘Yes sir, can I help you?’

“And I said, ‘Coach, I’m Ronnie Carter and I’m with TSSAA.’ ”

Carter said the coach looked like someone whose hand was caught in the cookie jar.

“I said, ‘Do you realize you’re in violation of the practice rule?’ The rest of it I can remember like every line of a quote.”

“He said, ‘Who turned me in?’ ”

“And I said, ‘In complete honesty, nobody turned you in. I just happened to be in the area.’ ”

“He said, ‘You just happened to be in the area? Where are your offices?’ I said, ‘Outside of Nashville.’ ”

“He said, ‘Outside of Nashville? And you just happened to be up here? In Roan Mountain?’ ”

At that point, the coach asked for leniency, but Carter said he wasn’t in a position to look the other way. The report would have to go to TSSAA Executive Director Gill Gideon.

Then the dejected coach said something that completely changed the equation.

“He said, ‘Man, I’m going to get fired, and I haven’t even taught a class yet,’ ” Carter recalled.

As it turned out, Carter County schools weren’t in session yet because of budget issues.

“Technically they were still in the summer, and practice was allowed,” Carter said. “So we ended up not having to penalize them.”

Things worked out well for everyone.

“I didn’t want to go into the gym,” said Carter, who was inducted into the TSSAA Hall of Fame in 2011. “I just wanted to watch John Orr practice football. Timing is everything in life.”

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