LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. —
When school starts in August in the Laurel County, something will be missing. For the first time since the early 1980s, Bill Carson will not be on a sideline or in a classroom. For 33 years Coach Carson has been a constant influence on the children of Laurel County.
“Hopefully I have made some type of impact on them,” Carson said.
Those who have worked with Carson are quick to respond that yes he has had an impact.
“I don’t know how many thousands of kids he has taught and coached, but he has changed a lot of lives,” North Laurel football coach Chris Larkey said.
Larkey has a unique perspective as someone that has played for Carson, coached with him and coached against him.
“He knows so much about the history of Laurel County. The kids will miss hearing what he has to say,” Larkey said.
Carson, who turned 58 this month, began his teaching career at London Elementary when Jack Binder was a principal. He would stay at London eight years before taking a job at North Middle. He has spent the last two decades at North Laurel High School.
At London, Carson coached seventh grade football, girls’ basketball and boys’ basketball. In 1980, Harold Robinson was head coach of the football team. Carson led teams to county championships early in his coaching career, but prefers not to single out teams or players as the best.
“I’ve had a lot of them and I would hate to leave somebody out,” Carson said.
Players are bigger and stronger today than when he started coaching, but the athletes of the early 80s had some advantages too. The 80s were a time of less distraction, no texting, Facebook, and Instagram.
“In general, I think the talent today might be a little bit better,” Carson said. “In some regards, the kids worked a little bit harder in the old days. Right now they already think they are good before they show up for practice.”
Carson also remembers when the best athletes played all of the major sports.
“Some kids want to specialize and stay with one sport, which I don’t agree with. I think if they can play all three major sports in high school they should,” Carson said.
He also disagrees with the notion that players today have no discipline or respect for their coaches.
“I think kids that are involved on athletic teams the discipline is fine. Every now and then you’ll have two or three kids that want to challenge the discipline of the coach, but usually those kids aren’t around very long,” Carson said.
Athletics have always been a big part of life for the Carsons. Brother Mark was a star athlete and is now probably best known as the father of UK baseball player Marcus Carson. Gary Carson was a standout in all sports. Rick and Tim were involved at the school level, but also very involved in youth sport in Laurel County.
“We kindly went to the ball fields. I remember at 11 and 12 years of age playing Little League baseball. I wasn’t very good, but it really didn’t bother me to sit on the bench. If we got in in the fifth inning it was fine, if we didn’t we were just as happy,” Carson said.
Carson doesn’t claim to be a great athlete, although he did run track at Berea College.
“When we were running, if you were running 2:07 to 2:10 in the 800 you were moving pretty good. Now when they are running at 2:02, 2:01 and your 400 is down to about 47, 48 (seconds). You would pace yourself. The 800 is a half mile, but today you see those kids running almost a sprint from the get-go in the half mile,” Carson said.
Carson will have plenty to do once retired. He was presented a saddle and a rocking chair by the two teams he was still working with, North Middle basketball and North High football. The saddle will probably get more use than the rocking chair.
“It will kind of be hard to stay away, but I’m sure I can find something to do. My family and the horses I fool with will keep me busy,” Carson said.
Carson has been married to his wife Sharon for 33 years. They have two children, Billy Carson and Bridgette Carson Goins, and one grandson Zachary Carson Goins. Billy Carson is an assistant coach for the North Laurel basketball team.
As much as Carson has been involved in Laurel County athletics, the larger void might be his 33 years experience in the classroom and on the sideline.
“We’re so appreciative of his service and he is going to be greatly missed. We won’t be able to replace him,” North Laurel principal Mike Black said.
Much of what Carson has lived through would be what his most recent students would consider history. Although he was born at the tail end of segregation in Laurel County, he still lived through what many will only read about in books.
“I can remember me and Dicky Hill being the only black kids in first grade, but we were in there with white kids. We didn’t have to go to the colored School in East Bernstadt,” Carson said.
Carson’s parents, Williams “Junior” and Joyce Carson, did attend the East Bernstadt school located just behind what is now Apeyard Market.
“They only went to like the eighth grade. So when it came time for them to go to high school, they had to go to places like Barbourville to go on to high school,” Carson said.
Joyce Carson attended high school at Lincoln Ridge in Simpsonville.
“It was a dormitory type school and they were sent there to learn some type of trade. On weekends they would come home,” Carson said.
Carson has heard stories from his parents of the Reda Theater having a black section upstairs or drinking fountains being separated by color. The biggest change Carson has seen in Laurel County has not been about the people as much as the number of people. When he asks his class how many are natives of Laurel County there are not as many hands raised.
“Obviously there are more people, people from different backgrounds. In general, it’s a community where things have stayed the same. Where people get along pretty good,” Carson said.
No one knows Bill Carson as well as his brothers. He has had an influence on their lives as well.
“Bill is a man of character, integrity and commitment. If I had a son I would want him modeled right after him,” Tim Carson said.
He credits his brother as one of the reasons he completed a college degree. Bill Carson was a senior at Berea when Tim enrolled as a freshman. After a month of college, Tim was ready to quit. His parents told him to talk to his big brother first. Tim expected a long lecture about quitting.
“He said, ‘Quit if you want to. That is your future. If you want to dig ditches the rest of your life that’s up to you.’ I had a summer job as a plumber’s helper. ‘Now let’s go to the gym and play some ball.’ I ended up with a BS degree in Business Management from Berea College.”
Bill Carson can retire from teaching and coaching, but for those that know him or have played for him he will still be Coach Carson. And he will still be trying to instill the same principles he has preached for over three decades.
“I tell them it’s OK to be involved in doing positive things. Hopefully that is a little message I have instilled in them,” Carson said.