News and Culture Notebook
9:53 pm
Thu August 22, 2013

Don Carthel's dismissal a loss for Lone Star Conference

There’s a shocking story from up on the high plains. West Texas A&M University fired head football coach Don Carthel on Thursday.

So much for that part of the song that says “where never is heard a discouraging word.” This is bad news.

The move stunned the world of Division II college football in Texas and around the country. The early word out of Canyon is that the firing – a week before the beginning of the regular season – was an unplanned event that WT officials were loath to carry out.

According to multiple reports from those attending a hastily arranged press conference Thursday evening, the dismissal was a response to an NCAA rule violation that occurred over the summer. The regulation in question was Bylaw 10.1, a general ethics rule.

The Amarillo Globe-News reports that McBroom said Carthel violated the rule by “knowingly furnishing or knowingly influencing others to provide false or misleading information in the course of an NCAA investigation.”

University staff wouldn’t go into detail beyond that, but local media at the press conference quoted WT athletic director Michael McBroom with statements including “we had no options…blatant violation of NCAA rules…single incident this summer.”

Don Carthel is the father of first-year Texas A&M University-Commerce head coach Colby Carthel, who was on staff at WT through last season.

A legacy of success

Don Carthel is the winningest coach in West Texas A&M history. Last year, he surpassed the victory total of legendary WT coach Joe E. Kerbel, who accumulated a 68-42-1 record during 11 seasons coaching the Buffaloes (1960-1970). Carthel’s record stands at 79-22 at WT, 125-68-1 overall.

Carthel was named American Football Coaches Association Division II Region Four Coach of the Year in 2012. Before Carthel’s arrival, the Buffaloes had won only seven games in four years. Since then, WT has enjoyed eight winning seasons, six NCAA Division II playoff appearances and five Lone Star Conference championships.

In 2012, the Buffaloes advanced to the national semifinals. I had the privilege of covering that team, though it was hardly planned that way. Along the way, I developed an appreciation for the Carthel brand of football.

Story of a special season

About this time last year, I was a mid-level editor at the Amarillo Globe-News, the city’s daily newspaper. The world of print journalism is about as stable these days as the world of coaching football, so it was no surprise when my position was eliminated in one of the “reorganizations” all too common at newspapers these days.

I wasn’t booted out onto the street, though. Thanks to my unremarkable but passable skills as a sports reporter, I was able to hang on to a position at the paper – and a paycheck.

The best thing about the shakeup was that one week and a half into the season’s schedule, I was assigned to the West Texas A&M football beat. I’d never covered a winning program before, with my only previous experience as an NCAA football beat writer being a couple of seasons covering Sul Ross State in 2003-04.

Talk about good timing. The 2012 Buffaloes were 0-1 in the pre-Haslett era, 11-2 with me in tow. And what a journey it was.

I got to experience things some sports writers never do, even if they stay in the business for decades. I traveled to NCAA playoff games in Chadron, Neb.; Pueblo, Colo. and Winston-Salem, N.C.

The game at Chadron State was one of the more dramatic football games I’ve attended in any capacity. WT won 38-30, preserving the victory by stopping the host Eagles on downs in the closing seconds.

I enjoyed the few hours I had away from football during the trip, as well. Our flights were in and out of historic Rapid City, S.D., so I managed to work in a few hours of tourism, highlighted by short visits to Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse monument, as well as a sunset drive through the forested highlands near the South Dakota-Nebraska line, deep in Oglala Lakota country. Even someone with spiritual radar as dull as mine could not help but be moved by the majesty and pathos of the landscape and its energy.

With the first playoff triumph in school history under their belts, the Buffaloes then went to frosty Ashland, Ohio, where many observers thought WT’s run would come to an end. The home team entered the game undefeated and favored, but the Buffs battled to a 33-28 victory every bit as dramatic as the previous week’s. The newspaper didn’t staff the game, so I stayed at home for that one, but I got back in on the fun next week with WT’s “elite eight” matchup at Colorado State-Pueblo.

No fancy airplane ride there – the Buffs took the bus and I woke before dawn for a cross-country drive with my sports editor, Lance Lahnert, at the wheel of a rental car. For the second week in a row, WT faced an undefeated, favored opponent – this time, the first-ranked team in Division II football. The ThunderWolves had beaten WT 44-34 in the season opener.

In Pueblo, the Buffaloes decided to take a break from dramatic finishes. WT shocked the home fans with a 34-13 trouncing of the nation’s number one squad. Suddenly, the Buffs were two victories away from the national title. The team had a feel of destiny around it. Having just stomped the supposed best team in the country, it seemed entirely possible that WT could go all the way.

Back on the plane the following week, this time to North Carolina, where Winston-Salem State stood between the Buffaloes and the national championship game in Alabama. This time, I got to go along.

In North Carolina, the magic of the 2012 WT season vanished. The Rams rumbled to a 41-18 victory in a game where everything that could go wrong for the Buffs did go wrong. A failure to execute at key moments doomed WT. Questionable officiating didn’t help. Anyone who has played in or watched one of those football games where the wheels just come off knows how the Buffs felt that night.

The loss hurt for even more than the obvious reasons. The Buffaloes had advanced to that game by beating three teams at about the same level of talent as WT. And talent-wise, most of the Buffaloes and their fans felt they were a notch better than Winston-Salem. In the opinion of many – including this writer – it was one of those situations where if the two teams played 10 games, WT would win eight or nine of those times.

The following week, Valdosta State rolled past Winston-Salem 35-7 at the Division II National Championship in Florence, Ala.

“They can gripe about the (Bowl Championship Series) all they want to, but there’s 35 or 36 programs that are really happy at the end of the year after their last game,” Carthel said following the loss in Winston-Salem. “You get into Division II or Division I-AA and there’s only one team that’s happy at the end of the year.”

After the disappointment faded a bit, though, you had to know the Buffs and their fans were happy with 2012. The team shattered individual and team school records and made the kind of run that most teams – most programs, actually – never make.

An old-school kind of coach

Don Carthel gets a lot of credit for that success, in my book. He’s as solid as they come on the Xs and Os side of things. But unlike some coaches with a good head for the game, Carthel knows how to build a team.

I say that because over the course of the season, I had many players, coaches and other people close to the program tell me that there was something intangible that was special about the 2012 West Texas A&M Buffaloes. The roster, while loaded with skill, wasn’t light years beyond that of recent WT teams, I was told. But the 2012 team had a sense of family, a bond even stronger than that usually found on a winning football team.

That sort of thing starts at the top. Doesn’t matter whether it’s football any other group activity, trust and mutual support comes from the top or it doesn’t come at all.

Carthel corresponds so much to the archetype of the old-school Texas football coach, it’s almost funny. His speech is colored with the twang and expressions from the cattle country near the Texas-New Mexico line, where he’s spent most of a life dedicated to the game. Carthel played football at Friona High School, then played and later coached at Eastern New Mexico before eventually ending up at WT.

He’s upbeat and friendly, but Carthel’s toothy grin reminds one a little of hard-hitting Texas statesmen from yesteryear like John Connally or LBJ. In other words, there’s just a hint of menace there – he’s a guy you want on your side, not working against you. That’s how it should be with a football coach.

Sports journalists like Carthel – he understands how to work the media, so he’s always quotable with something good to print or broadcast, even during those times when he’s keeping his true thoughts close to his vest.

Players love him. WT’s highly rated punter Kevin Van Voris tweeted “At a loss for words, Coach Carthel was the reason I decided to come to #WTAMU.” Many others echoed similar sentiments as the WT community reacted on social media in the hours after the announcement.

He’s loyal to his players. Rumors being exchanged tonight in the Panhandle say that his loyalty might have led to a bad decision and the eventual rule violation. One anonymous source reports hearing that Carthel covered expenses for two players in violation of NCAA rules. I offer no opinion as to the veracity of that account. But I find that more believable than some violation related to recruiting or some of the seedier practices mentioned in Bylaw 10.1. Presumably, we’ll be able to sift the truth from the hearsay in the coming weeks.

In the meantime, I join many in wishing the Carthel family the very best. The only people who don’t make big mistakes are the people who don’t try to do anything. Those who follow the path of least resistance never have their errors printed on the front page.

Thanks for the memories, Don. I look forward to seeing what Colby can do here in Commerce.