NEWS, NOTES &
The Bradsher Beat
Monday, July 9, 2012
By Bethany Bradsher
Carson's legacy: Faith,
friends and star athletes
Longtime East Carolina
track and field coach Bill Carson died on July 2.
Bill Carson served as
East Carolina's track and field coach from 1967-2007.
Photos: ECU Media Relations
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When Coach Bill Carson was
about to tell you a really good story, he had an electric twinkle in his
eyes. It was part joy, part mischievousness and the sure sign of a man who
had spent every day he was given doing what he loved.
The last time I saw the
venerable coach, who died in his sleep last Monday at the age of 75, was in
February. He set up a meeting to educate me about an extraordinary former
East Carolina runner named Carter Suggs, who once ran the fastest 100-yard
dash in the world but failed to make a lasting impact on the world stage
because of his injuries during his ECU career.
Suggs had just died at the age
of 56, and Carson was concerned that if he didn’t step in, the legacy of a
great athlete and a great man might be unwritten. I was glad to help pay
tribute to Carter in the April issue of The Pirates' Chest magazine.
And now, with a heavy heart, I feel compelled to try to do the same for his
There was no one like Coach
Carson. Sometimes he was a crusty curmudgeon unwilling to keep pace with the
changing demands of Division I athletics. In the old days, he has told me,
he would take the money allotted for him to take a certain number of
athletes to a meet in Chapel Hill or Raleigh and — unbeknownst to the ECU
athletic department — take a smaller group of runners to a more competitive
event in Arizona instead. He liked coaching in a time when such renegade
tactics were possible.
Other times, Carson seemed to
be on the very cutting edge of his sport, like in 2004 when, after coaching
a phenom named LaShawn Merritt at the World Junior Championships in Italy,
he convinced Merritt to come run for him at East Carolina. Merritt was only
a Pirate for part of one indoor season — he signed a professional contract
in the spring of 2005 and set the course that would lead to a 400m gold
medal at the Beijing Olympics — but he will still always belong to East
Carolina, thanks to Bill Carson.
I was privileged to witness
Carson’s devotion to his athletes and to his sport through his four decades
at East Carolina. But after he retired in 2007, I got to know a different
side of Coach Carson — his boundless love for his friends and his genuine
As I was researching a
biography of former ECU baseball coach Keith LeClair, I learned that Bill
Carson was a faithful friend to LeClair. Coach Carson was part of a group,
led by Chuck Young of Sportworks Ministries, that used to gather at the
LeClairs’ house weekly for Bible study. Before Keith got sick, he and Bill
liked to fish together in the streams of Western North Carolina.
He was generous with his
memories of Keith — both happy and sad — and even the heaviness as he
recalled Keith’s dramatic decline due to Lou Gehrig’s disease and his tragic
death at the age of 40 was infused with the hope of the Christian faith that
formed both coaches’ foundations.
After my book, Coaching
Third, came out, I was speaking at an event at a little bookstore in
Sylva, near the mountain house where Bill and Ruth Ann were spending most of
their retirement days. It was only after I had read an excerpt from the book
and taken a few questions that I realized the identity of the skinny guy
sitting near the back with a baseball cap on. But once I recognized Coach
Carson, I deferred to him, asking him to share his the first-hand memories
that far outshined anything I could offer.
Through accolades like
coaching 70 All-Americans, and 40 individual conference event champions and
qualifying athletes for the NCAA National Championships in 18 of his last 19
seasons, Carson demonstrated his deep knowledge of what it took to recruit,
retain and squeeze every ounce of effort and ability out of top runners.
Through relationships with friends like Keith LeClair, Carson proved that
those accomplishments were not ultimately his life’s top priority.
If they have access to the
London Olympics in heaven, I guess Coach Carson might take a peek at the
track and field events. But then again, he might just be too busy fishing
for trout with his friend Keith.
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07/09/2012 01:43 AM