Carpenter carried Cedar Bluff basketball, girls track and field to new heights

Former Cedar Bluff basketball coach Joe Carpenter is a published author. Here he is with the book he co-wrote with Brian Cain “The Mental Game of Basketball.” Photo by Shannon Fagan.

By Shannon Fagan, WEIS Sports Director

NOTE: This is the second of five Q&A features on the Cherokee County Hall of Fame Class of 2024 inductees. The induction ceremony will take place this Saturday at Richard Lindsey Arena beginning at 6 p.m. The ceremony is open to the public and there is no charge for admission. Today’s Hall of Fame focus features former Cedar Bluff basketball and track and field coach Joe Carpenter.

A 1978 graduate of Pickens Academy, Joe Carpenter spent 37 years as an educator and coach at White Plains (1983-84), Ragland (1984-92), and Cedar Bluff (1993-2021).

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 two Class 1A state runner-up finishes in 2011 and 2012, and the Lady Tigers to the Final Four in 2013.

Carpenter won a combined 727 basketball games in his coaching career, including seven area championships, five county championships, 23 playoff appearances and 11 regional appearances. He captured his 700th victory in the Lady Tigers’ 65-32 win over Cherokee County High School on Dec. 5, 2019.

On Sept. 15, 2023, as part of a ceremony prior to the Tigers’ football game against Gaylesville, Cedar Bluff School announced a resolution passed by the Cherokee County Commission naming the basketball court in honor of Carpenter.

Carpenter was also part of the Tigers’ success in football. He was defensive coordinator from 1993-2001. The Tigers earned nine state playoff berths in that time.

Carpenter also coached Cedar Bluff’s junior high football teams from 2002-20, with undefeated seasons in 2005, 2011, 2012 and 2014.

Carpenter retired in 2021, but is still helping his son Caleb coach basketball at Ashville.

Q: What made you decide to go into coaching?

A: “Originally I was going to be a forester out of high school. I was going to Mississippi State. I started going to junior college and I was coaching men’s softball at our church and tee ball. I just kind of made the decision on my own. I didn’t realize how many educators were prior in my family – my dad, my uncle, my cousin was a superintendent in education. I knew that and I knew my dad had taught, but I didn’t know my uncle was principal. He had coached and went over to see Red Drew. That tells you how long that was. I decided to go into coaching. I ended up at Jacksonville State. Along the way, as a boy scout, I used to go to games and be an usher. Bear Bryant was there. That was exciting to get to do the home games. Coach Wimp Sanderson came along as the basketball coach and we got to see those games along with when C.M. Newton was coaching. There wasn’t a whole lot of outside influence as far as all you got was Tuscaloosa. Those became the guys I looked up to and tried to emulate. I would say Bear Bryant and Wimp Sanderson were probably two of my biggest influences outside of my Pawpaw, who’s shoes will never be filled. He was a Christian model and idol to us. I was proud of being his grandson. He passed away when I was 18. My mother and dad helped me out with my coaching too. That’s where the discipline comes from. They made me do things the right way and made me do things I didn’t necessarily want to do. They just taught me to be diligent and do what I’m supposed to do and when I’m supposed to do it.”

Q: What was it like as a young coach getting your feet wet?

A: “I had done some coaching at White Plains then came over to Ragland. I helped with track and learned that from Randy Sparks. I’d help with junior high football over there with Tim Brown. Both of them kind of gave me responsibilities that allowed me to coach. I went to Ragland and, to quote Bear Bryant, you’ve got to have some chickens to make chicken salad. When I first got to Ragland, we hadn’t won. For the first two years we were like 5-30. The third year we turned it around. We got a lot more athletes. We were fortunate to win three county titles being a small school in that county. As far as the girls, they were runner-up the year before I took them. Coach Youngblood left and I inherited that team. We were the first 1A girls champion when we went to six classifications. They split it for 1A and 2A. We were the first champions. I was blessed to inherit that bunch of girls. There were quite a few athletes. Every gold medal they won was a new state record at that time.”

Q: What drew you to Cedar Bluff?

A: “I had told Coach Youngblood I was going to apply for the football job at Cedar Bluff. I got in the running for it but then I withdrew because my son hadn’t been born yet. Cedar Bluff seemed to keep crossing my path. I was coaching with Brian Mintz and then his brother Bobby got the job as head coach at Cedar Bluff. Brian recommended me and I got the job. Mr. Dean hired me. I was eager to coach anything. I ended up also taking girls basketball. I just say God was leading me to Cedar Bluff. That’s where I ended up. I’m glad I ended up there.”

Q: What are some of your memorable games and who are some of the memorable players you coached?

A: “I won’t mention the kid’s name but in junior high we were playing Section. We just got through with a game and got together for the after-game prayer with the other team. Before he prayed, he said ‘I don’t know if you went undefeated but we did.’ We’d just won the game, so there’s no way they went undefeated. That became the theme of one of our after-season t-shirts, ‘I don’t know if you went undefeated but we did.’

“I guess the two most memorable football teams were the ones I coached with Coach Mintz. We had at one time 13. That was when Jonathan McWhorter was playing. They were basically grown men playing at that point and they were tough. The next bunch was with Coach McDaniel, Coach Rice and Coach Amison in 1997. We went undefeated that year. We actually got beat by Parrish. We had beaten what became the runner-up in 1A, Westbrook, and the runner-up in 2A, Sand Rock. While that year was not as enjoyable coaching with the pressure of going undefeated, you look back on it now and it was a special time. They were a good group to work with.”

Q: In 1996, started the girls track and field program at Cedar Bluff and won seven state championships, finished as state runner-up twice. What are some of your memories of those track and field teams?

A: “The first team I think we had eight girls. We were down eight points going into the 4×400 relay. Phillips was in front of us. We had to have them not get any points and we would have to win, or at least get second to tie for the state championship. They didn’t get any points. We came in the last event and we get the baton at the end. The other girl was already at the goal post. She was that far in front of us, at least 60 meters in front of us. We handed it off and she takes off. By the time we get to the goal post, on the other end we’re gaining ground. We get to the 100-meter mark and the girls does a kick-up, like she’s celebrating. Our last leg just goes zooming by. That was when Coach Howard, we had started at Cedar Bluff together, Coach Howard pulled the railing up out of the stands he was so excited. We won that and essentially won the state championship. They were the same girls who went 19-10 in basketball. They were very athletic.

“We went back in 2002. One of them didn’t run, but we still managed to get runner-up. We went a span where we won six in a row. We were just blessed to have the right kids at the right time. We had to do some recruiting. I had to take a girl and say go out here and throw that discus. If it got close to anywhere near where I thought I could get her past that, I was like you’re throwing the discus. We had just a perfect storm I guess. One time we went down there and won it on Friday. We didn’t have to go back Saturday. It was mathematically impossible. That just tells you how loaded we were as far as 1A girls track. We had gifted athletes. If I needed somebody to throw the javelin, I could pick one of the girls and just say ‘I need you to throw it.’ The next thing you know they’re setting a school record. You just don’t fall into that every day. It’s a special situation for that to happen. We always promoted it being team. It wasn’t about what you did. I couldn’t tell you how many gold medals they won, but I can tell you how we did. We always looked at it as a team thing. You’re scoring points for our team. Anything else was icing on the cake.”

Q: You also had some great basketball teams through the years. What are some of your memories of them?

A: “It stings that I lost to my hometown school twice, but again, we were fortunate. We probably should’ve won it in 2011. We went back and made it in 2012. Those guys are special guys. They all bought in and came to play every night. They were going to play hard and wide open. There were never any questions about that. The girls, we started a mental thing with them. We were having great practices but we weren’t getting the results on the court. We started looking at that and dabbing in the mental side of it. We actually went to the Final Four with a losing record. We ended up with a winning record. That was tough being in an area with Spring Garden. They had beaten us three times and we beat them in the regional finals. We barely got by them, playing probably our best game ever. Once again, it’s all about getting them to be cohesive as a team. I think generally speaking those kinds just bought in. They wanted to play. They were there for the right reasons. It was a joyous time in my career looking back.”

Q: How did the book, The Mental Game of Basketball with Brian Cain, come about?

A: “I’m sitting at home watching Alabama softball. Holly Rowe comes on and she’s holding up this book, talking about how Coach (Patrick) Murphy and the team were going through this book called ‘Toilets, Fishhooks, Bricks and Pride.’ I thought what an unusual name for a book. I went and found a copy of it and read it. Then I reached out to the author, which was Brian Cain. We started collaborating back and forth talking. I got him to come to the school and do a coaches’ in-service day for us. All of our coaches got to meet with him. He went around and looked at our facilities. We’d already incorporated some things in there. About a month later he contacted me and said ‘Would you be interested in trying to write a book?’ I said I’ve never written a book in my life. He said ‘Well, you can try.’ I sat up at the school eight hours a day trying to find quotes. I borrowed stuff from Coach (John) Blackwell, Coach (Jason) Howard. I wanted to quit several times. It ended up begin 400-and-something pages. I found a manuscript and there’s probably about 200 pages left. I could probably do another one. I don’t know that I want to do another one, but that’s how we got together. It never went on the best seller list, but it was fun to do and I’m glad I had the opportunity to do it.”

Q: How does it make you feel to hear the name Joe Carpenter Court?

A: “It’s still surreal. There’s not enough adjectives to describe how it makes me feel. I do know it represents Cedar Bluff. It represents a lot of people, co-workers and particularly the players. It’s not just my name on there. It represents a lot of people who were there while I was fortunate enough to coach them. I’m proud. I wish my parents and grandfather and all those folks were here to see that. It’s kind of an emotional feeling knowing it’s down there. It’s different when you walk in and see that. You have to pinch yourself. I really can’t believe it. I’m really thankful for the people who made that happen. I do truly appreciate it. It’s just hard to put into words.”

Q: You’re still involved with the game today. You still help your son Caleb coach at Ashville. How does it feel to still stay involved with the game?

A: “I enjoy practice. I love practice. That’s the time I get to be around the kids and be myself. You don’t have to be a particular way that people are expecting. I enjoy that part. It was an adjustment being a head (coach) to an assistant helping my son, but I do enjoy being involved with the practices and helping the kids. I don’t miss all the other headaches that went with it, as far as the scheduling. I was tickled to keep going and give me something to do, something I still love to do.”

Q: What would you like to personally say to the Hall of Fame audience?

A: “First of all, everybody in this class is tied together. Jason and I started at Cedar Bluff together. We’re really good friends. We got this guy who come over from Georgia to be our head coach. We got to work with him, and that was Steve (Smith). Steve had great success becoming the football head coach at Cedar Bluff. His wife (Rachel) came and actually took my old classroom. She was there at an integral point of the sports program there as well. Tori, her dad (Doug Davis) was at Cedar Bluff as an assistant principal. Doug and I are good friends. We’re all strung together. This class, I’m very honored to be in here with these people because they are truly all-stars in their professions.”

Q: Any final words?

A: “I just thank God for blessing me with all I’ve been able to do over the years. I want to thank my family. They’re awesome. They’ve been supportive. I look back and see some of the times I should’ve been somewhere with them that I wasn’t because I was doing other things that involved my job. For that reason and all of my co-workers, all the assistants and the other head coaches I worked for, the 28 years I had at Cedar Bluff were amazing. I don’t know many people who are outside Cedar Bluff, but if they’re in Cedar Bluff they appreciate what that school is. I’m biased, but in my opinion, it’s the best. I was blessed to be there for 28 years.”

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