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The Bradsher Beat
Monday, July 9, 2012

By Bethany Bradsher

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

By Bethany Bradsher
All rights reserved.

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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 extraordinary coach.

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 faith.

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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Bethany Bradsher Archives

07/09/2012 01:43 AM

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