Larry Carpenter Continues Long Tenure At Lee University

Tuesday, June 30, 2020 - by George Starr
Larry Carpenter
Larry Carpenter

A slender built young athlete from Middletown, Ohio (Madison High School) walked onto the Lee College campus to play basketball for coach Dale Hughes in the fall of 1973 and some 47 years later Larry Carpenter continues to leave his mark; first as an outstanding basketball player, second an assistant basketball coach, then a head basketball coach and currently the Lee University Athletic Director. He also played on Lee's first baseball team (1975) and was a starter on the squad for three seasons.
Why Lee? "I was raised Church of God, my sister (Sandy Humble) was a student at Lee and I was blessed with great parents, (his father, the late Daily Carpenter and his mother Elba who just turned 90).

"I was impressed with Coach (Dale) Hughes and the quality of basketball that Lee offered. I played my first three years for Coach Hughes and then for coach (Earl) Rowan for a year," as he recalled his early days at Lee when he became known as "Carp".

Dale Hughes Shared his Memories of "Carp" as a Player:
 "When Larry first arrived on the campus of Lee College he quickly became a leader of young men and continues to be a leader of Lee athletics and the Gulf South Conference today. He was a skinny blonde-headed player, and when he was in the heat of a game and that blonde hair became soaked with perspiration, he was something to behold! I had the wonderful privilege of recruiting this premier player to the small city of Cleveland, Tennessee. Larry was the very best player with his back to the basket (inside) that I have ever seen. Get the ball to him and we would have a score, or he would be fouled. When our opponents would put two men on him shoulder-to-shoulder, he had such good moves and was so skinny he would find a way to still go between them and score. My years as a coach with Larry Carpenter were years of great memories."

Biggest Thrill: The Lee athletic teams were feared as the Vikings during his playing days and it did not take Carpenter long to earn his biggest thrill as a Viking. He was a freshman starter on the NCCAA National Championship team that defeated powerhouse Azusa Pacific (California) in the championship game. 

It was only the beginning on the hardwood for the young man from Madison High. Not only was he Lee's first NCCAA All-American, his jersey (No. 24) was the first men's jersey to be retired and currently hangs high in rafters above Walker Arena. Carpenter tallied 1758 points in 104 games in four years and pulled down 994 career rebounds. 

He completed his career as a two-time NCCAA All-American and was twice named a NAIA District 24 First-Team selection. He is a member of the Lee Athletic Hall of Fame and a member of the Greater Chattanooga Sports Hall of Fame. 

Carpenter met his wife, Cherri: who came to Lee at the beginning of his junior year. "We started dating the first week of school and were married the next August," Carpenter noted. Larry and Cherri will celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary later this summer. 

About his most noted accomplishments as a player: "Maturing as an individual and player comes first. Being a part of a program that transitioned into the NAIA was special. In our first year in the NAIA, we surprised a lot of people by beating some of the great established NAIA teams. We also hosted the District 24 Tournament (at Cleveland State, while the Lee gym was being renovated) that year, earning that right by having the best record of all the NAIA teams in the state of Tennessee," Carpenter stated 

About having his jersey retired: "It was totally unexpected. No jersey had previously been retired so I went to the athletic banquet thinking about our season. You can imagine the shock when they made the presentation. It was a very special night and to this day, it is one of the greatest honors I have been blessed to receive," he said as he proudly recaptured the evening. 

Beginning his coaching career: After graduating from Lee, Carpenter immediately went to work in research for Olin Chemical. When former Viking Randy Steele took over as the Lee head basketball coach in 1985, he asked Gary Ray (another former Viking) and Carpenter to be his assistants. 

Ray later moved on to other important duties, but Steele and Carpenter teamed for seven impressive years of directing Lee teams that featured crowd-pleasing shooters. Late in Steele's career, the Flames went on the road to upset extremely strong teams at Memphis Christian Brothers and Belmont in Nashville. Steele and Carpenter had the team primed for a home date with Union (Tennessee). A win would send Lee to the NAIA National Tournament for the first time in program's basketball history. The visiting Bulldogs (from Jackson, Tennessee) won an overtime thriller, stunning the Flames and the large crowd. 

Carpenter named Lee's head basketball coach: After working at Olin and being coach Steele's assistant, Carpenter left Olin to take over the Lee program."In 1992 I applied for the head coaching job and was fortunate to be hired," he admitted. Armed with the same type of talented outside gunners, the Flames claimed Lee's third and final NCCAA National Championship in 1994. His teams continued to battle for even higher honors against rugged NAIA competition. He enjoyed four 20-or-better winning seasons and his Flames posted a 26-12 mark during the 1994-95 season. Carpenter served as the basketball coach for three years before beginning dual roles as coach and athletic director for the next four seasons. 

Earning Top Honors as Athletic Director: Carpenter was named NACDA AD of the Year in the NAIA Southeast Region in 1999-2000, 2008 and 2009. He was also selected as the TranSouth AD of the Year in 2000, 2001 and 2002 and Region XI AD of the Year in 2001 and 2002. The accolades continued in 2007-08 as he was named SSAC AD of the Year in Region XIII and NAIA National Athletic Director of the Year. 

He served as Vice-President of the TranSouth Conference from 1999 through 2004 and was elected secretary of the NAIA Council of Affiliated Conferences and Independents in 2003. He is a past President of the NAIA Athletic Directors Association and served as the NAIA Region XIII chair from 2006-2008. 

Biggest Accomplishments as Athletic Director: Carpenter currently oversees 18 Lee sports. He says seeing Lee make the move to NCAA DII is probably what stands out the most during his 25 years as AD. "With the move to DII came the addition or upgrades to our athletic facilities which have played a big part in our immediate DII success," he explained. Following the 2017-18 athletic seasons, the Lee University Athletic Department earned its first Gulf South Conference Women's All-Sports Trophy and the entire athletic program placed second overall. 

Hopes for Athletic Programs in the Future: "I want to see our teams continue to improve both in the conference (GSC) and at the national level," Carpenter was quick to respond. "I also want to see our clubs continue to keep our academics as one of our top priorities and still maintain the Christ-centered mission of our university." Carpenter has worked under six vice presidents over the past 25 years: Dr. Henry Smith, Dr. David Tilley, Dale Goff, Gary Ray, Dr. Walt Mauldin and currently Cole Strong. 

Lee University President Dr. Paul Conn said, "It has been a great pleasure to work with Coach Carpenter in so many roles over all these years. He has earned the respect of fellow coaches and AD's in every conference we have been in, both NAIA and NCAA, and the coaches at Lee have always known he is a true friend and advocate for them." 

Baseball Park Named for Carpenter: "It was a great feeling having (one of the best DII baseball parks) named after me and now seeing the track almost nearing completion. Having the park named for me was an unbelievable and totally unexpected honor. To have your name on a beautiful facility is something I will always cherish. I am so excited about the new track. Like the baseball stadium, I expect it to be one of the finest facilities in the south. With all the success our teams have had without a track, I am anxious to see how well we can do with one," he proclaimed. "If there is one thing I would like to be remembered for, it would be, with the help of our administration, we've assembled one of the finest athletic staffs in the country." 

Following the tradition: Coach Carpenter's son Zach is following in his father's footsteps.  He is the assistant basketball coach at UT-Martin.  Larry and Cherri also have two daughters, Brittany (Willis) Jepson and Ashley (Bill) Fairchild. They have five grandchildren, Ella, Mac, Emma, Jack, and Addie. 

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