By Trey Williams
Science Hill Hall of Famer Gary Carter went 5-2 against Kentucky while playing for Don DeVoe at Tennessee.
The most electric triumph was when, as a freshman, the 6-foot-3, 190-pounder tallied team highs in points (22) and rebounds (nine) as the Volunteers defeated the Wildcats 75-69 in overtime in the 1979 SEC Tournament championship game in Birmingham.
“We were always happy to beat Kentucky, especially to win the tournament,” Carter said. “It seemed like we had their number back then.”
Terry Crosby and Johnny Darden were seniors that season. Darden, a point guard, had been recruited by John Wooden at UCLA.
Four decades after the tournament win against Kentucky, Carter was the first thing Darden mentioned about the game. It’s understandable. Carter was 7-of-13 from the field, 8-for-8 at the foul line, second on the team with four assists and played exceptional defense.
“Gary Carter was key to that game,” Darden said.
Carter and Darden were roommates during road games.
“Gary and Terry Crosby were the two best athletes on that team,” Darden said. “Gary Carter – football, basketball and baseball – he was good in all three. Terry was pretty much the same. Probably his (Crosby’s) weakest sport was baseball. But Gary, he was uncanny.”
Indeed, the late Ferrell Bowman, a Science Hill Hall of Famer who played shortstop in the 1962 World Series for the San Francisco Giants, said the strong-armed, strong-wristed Carter was probably the best baseball prospect he saw at Science Hill – a five-tool player.
“Gary made it look easy,” Bowman said.
Carter was also an all-state football player, though he didn’t play his senior season. Basketball coach Elvin Little was less than thrilled about the idea of Carter playing football, particularly his senior season.
Not playing was tough for a teenager that enjoyed watching his dual-threat predecessor, Sammy Simpson, quarterback at Science Hill and Condredge Holloway at Tennessee.
“Mammy (Simpson) helped me a lot with playing quarterback at Science Hill,” Carter said. “He wore No. 14 and I wore that number. Mammy had a strong, strong arm and he was really quick.
“I was heartsick, man. I played football my sophomore and junior year, and Coach Little didn’t really say too much about me playing football. But I knew, without a doubt, he didn’t want me to play, especially my last year. And I thought about it, and I didn’t play.”
One of Carter’s football teammates was Van Williams, who went on to return kickoffs and play running back for the Buffalo Bills.
“I mean Gary was good at anything he did,” Williams said. “He could play baseball, basketball, football. At all of ‘em he was good. He was an all-around athlete.”
Carter won the football toss in the conference preseason jamboree prior to his junior season with a throw of 63 yards.
“He could knock you down with a football,” Williams said.
Dale Scott was a David Crockett standout during Carter’s era. He relishes the thought of having ended Carter’s senior season in baseball and junior season in basketball, although Scott doubts Crockett would’ve eliminated Science Hill in baseball if the Hilltoppers had pitched Carter in the regional semifinal in Morristown. But Carter didn’t pitch, Scott did and Crockett won, 2-1.
The Big Seven Player of the Year in baseball in ’78, Carter had a career record of 20-8 and batted well above .400 each of his final two seasons.
“We all thought they’s gonna pitch Gary Carter,” Scott said. “We thought it was gonna be me and him facing off that night. But I guess they figured they’s gonna pitch Gary McConnell and probably beat us and, you know, save Gary Carter. … And believe me, Gary Carter was a little hot. He was hot as a firecracker, I’m gonna tell you.”
Carter had the Hilltoppers’ lone RBI.
“Gary Carter was (tough to get out),” Scott said. “God almighty, he was a hitting machine.”
Earlier that year against Crockett, Carter had broken Steve Spurrier’s career school scoring record (1,470) during a 23-point performance. He finished his career with 1,625 points.
DeVoe got Carter to Tennessee, where Little had played. Carter said he might’ve gone to East Tennessee State if DeVoe’s former Virginia Tech assistant, Sonny Smith, hadn’t left Johnson City for Auburn.
“I knew Don DeVoe was getting a player with Gary,” Little said. “He was tough and he could score. And he could play defense and rebound.”
The recruiting process has come a long way since the 1977-78 season. Carter didn’t know DeVoe was on Science Hill’s campus until he saw him. Carter was sitting in class his senior year when a teacher told him Little needed to see him in his office.
“I got out of class and walked to the gym,” Carter said. “Opened up the door and I can remember seeing Coach Little and this other man about 6-6 or 6-7 with a big nose. And you know who it was, Don DeVoe. …
“He’d never seen me play. He might’ve watched some film that morning when he came up. I have no clue. But he ain’t ever seen me play in person. So I did some drills – shooting drills, line drills or whatever. And he said, ‘Gary, I think you could play in the SEC. I would like to offer you a scholarship.’
“I knew Coach Little played at UT. So when I talked to him and told him what I was gonna do, he said, ‘You made a good choice, Gary. You made a good choice.’”
Carter said he didn’t feel pressured by Little to pick basketball over baseball for college.
“He knew I loved baseball and he gave me the choice,” Carter said. “He didn’t steer me one way to another. He knew I loved baseball. He kind of just backed off and let me make the decision.
“Now, when Clemson recruited me for basketball and baseball, he knew about that. But he never said, ‘I want you to go here or there.’ Back then, Clemson stayed ranked in the top 10 (in baseball) and Bill Foster, of course, was the basketball coach. They had some good teams back then with Tree Rollins and some of those guys.”
Little bolstered toughness for Carter, who scored 1,099 points at Tennessee despite missing all but six games his senior season due to being declared academically ineligible between semesters.
“I know Coach Little was a fiery coach,” Carter said. “I mean he spoke loud, and if he had to use a little bit of profanity, that was cool, because we knew how to take Coach Little. And he was a winner – we were winners – so it wasn’t no problem for us to get pumped up for a game. He would always get up in certain players’ faces. We might not like to see it, but you know, he was getting us pumped up.
“I enjoyed Coach Little. He helped me tremendously and he gave me the green light.”
A year behind Carter at Tennessee, Dale Ellis scored 2,065 points for the Vols and more than 19,000 in the NBA.
“I loved playing with Gary,” Ellis said. “I knew exactly what I was gonna get with him every single night. He was gonna come out and play aggressive basketball and give you 100 percent from the start of the game to the end of the game. He was fun to play with.”
Ellis smiled picturing Carter intercepting a pass to hit a 40-foot buzzer-beater for a 59-58 win against American University.
“He was known for making big plays,” Ellis said. “We always felt comfortable with the ball in Gary’s hands.”