The first time I ever met Ronnie Carter I was barely out of high school, a wet-behind-the-ears reporter covering the state basketball tournament. But he answered each of my naive questions with the same respect he gave much more veteran and respected media members, and for the next 20-plus years of covering sports across the state, I marveled at how Carter handled every situation with the same unwavering fairness he had shown me in that early meeting.
The best description is to say Carter always has been a first-class gentleman.
So it was a fitting tribute that the former executive director of the TSSAA was notified he would be only the eighth Tennessean to be inducted into the National High School Hall of Fame later this year.
I never have hesitated to voice my opinion when I felt the governing body of our state's high school sports was in the wrong. But while we didn't always agree on every decision, I never once doubted that Carter always had the best interest of the athletes in mind.
He came to the TSSAA in 1978 as an assistant director after an 11-year career in secondary education as a teacher, coach, official and administrator in Nashville, where he coached football, basketball, wrestling and track. After eight years with the TSSAA, he became the state's high school governing body's executive director, where he remained until his retirement in 2009, making him the fifth-longest tenured high school director in the nation.
Under his direction, high school sports in Tennessee became a national trend-setter in state tournaments and classification issues. Tennessee is the only state with a five-sport, Olympic-style spring sport championship tournament, better known as the Spring Fling. That event began in Chattanooga in 1993 before moving to Memphis and eventually to Murfreesboro and generates more than $4 million annually for that city's economy.
Tennessee also was one of the first states with a central site for football state championships, beginning in 1982, and Carter was instrumental also in the addition of softball as a sanctioned sport in 1978. Later, as executive director, oversaw the additions of soccer and bowling as sanctioned sports.
His calm demeanor helped both sides find an acceptable plan during the heated public-private split in 1996, a time when the private schools considered withdrawing to form their own organization.
But you can't hold such a leadership role and not ruffle a few feathers, particularly when it comes to dealing with coaches and parents whose competitive nature can sometimes blind their common sense. A stickler for the rules and safety of prep athletes, Carter didn't waver when a team, coach or player had been caught trying to bend a rule. And he typically would explain the state office's ruling with such a Southern charm that those on the receiving end typically would accept the punishment and thank Carter for the way he handled it.
After one such meeting, I was once told by a Chattanooga-area coach, "Ronnie could sell ice cubes to an Eskimo."
The biggest story involving the TSSAA during Carter's tenure was the 10-year legal battle between the organization and one of its member schools, Brentwood Academy. The case began over recruiting violations committed by the Nashville-area private school and eventually was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court twice before ending in 2007. The TSSAA never has lost a court case.
"You could always count on Ronnie to know how to handle even the toughest situation," said legendary East Ridge coach Catherine Neely, who became the state's first female inductee into the National High School Hall of Fame last year. "He stood by his principles and followed the rules exactly how he should, and I always respected him for that. He wouldn't back down. So long as you followed the rules, you wouldn't have a problem with him.
"But you could also go to him with an idea or a way to make sports better for kids, and he would listen. He wasn't afraid to make a change if he felt it was the right thing to do. And whether he was in a meeting with coaches or a courtroom, he just seemed like the sharpest guy in the room. He just had that way about him. I'm really proud for him because of what he has meant to high school sports in our state."