Former Gamecocks coach Jim Carlen dies at 79

jkidd@beaufortgazette.com
mccombs@islandpacket.com
July 23, 2012 

Jim Carlen, who moved to Hilton Head Island after one of the most successful football coaching stints ever at the University of South Carolina, died Sunday in Columbia.

Carlen, 79, died "very peacefully after a long illness," a family friend told The (Columbia) State newspaper. An employee at Dunbar Funeral Home in Columbia said he did not know the cause of death.

Carlen and his wife, Meredith, have lived in South Carolina since his tenure at USC ended in 1981, and they spent most of the time on Hilton Head. He never returned to college football but helped start the program at Hilton Head Christian Academy.

Carlen also worked in banking and real estate development, and served nearly two decades on the Beaufort-Jasper Water & Sewer Authority board of directors, including stints as chairman, according to officials with the utility.

But even locally, Carlen was best known as the Gamecocks' head coach from 1975 to 1981, when he compiled a 45-36-1 record and coached the school's only Heisman Trophy winner, George Rogers. Only Rex Enright (64 wins) and Steve Spurrier (55 wins) won more games as USC's head coach.

In Carlen's final season, the Gamecocks upset No. 3 North Carolina, 31-13, which stood as USC's biggest victory until Spurrier's 2010 team knocked off No. 1 Alabama.

"I heard this morning," Rogers told The (Columbia) State on Sunday. The running back rushed for 3,575 yards in his junior and senior seasons and won the Heisman in 1980. "He was like a father to me. He was like my dad. If we didn't have him, there probably wouldn't have been a Heisman Trophy."

Carlen also was USC's athletics director during his seven years in Columbia.

He was born in Cookeville, Tenn., where he was an Eagle Scout before playing football at Georgia Tech under coach Bobby Dodd. He spent four years in the Air Force after college before returning to coach at Georgia Tech under Dodd.

Carlen got his first head coaching job at West Virginia and went 25-13-3 from 1966-69. His final season there was his best -- the Mountaineers won 10 games and defeated USC in the Peach Bowl.

"Jim was very instrumental in the overall growth of our football program, and even after he left, he still remained interested in the Mountaineers. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Carlen family and friends," West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck said in a prepared statement.

When Carlen left for Texas Tech, he was replaced by one of his coordinators, Bobby Bowden, who went on to become the second-winningest coach in major-college football history.

Carlen coached the Red Raiders from 1970-74 and compiled a 37-20-2 record. Overall, Carlen was 108-69-6, including a 2-5-1 record in bowls.

His Lowcountry friends and colleagues say many of the attributes that made him a successful on the gridiron translated well to the board room ... where he often showed up wearing open-collared shirts or even flip-flops.

"He loved to play the dumb coach role, but he was smart as a whip," said BJWSA board member John Rogers. "I guarantee he knew what was on every line of every document we ever discussed. He was very much a man of attention to detail."

Among the significant milestones of Carlen's tenure at BJWSA was the authority's acquisition of the city of Beaufort's water system, according to Dean Moss, the authority's longtime director, who retired last year.

"He was a very different person from the other board members," Moss said. "He wasn't stiff and formal, but he was very active, very outspoken. He had a lot of experience running things, and he knew a lot of people all over the country. Coach knew more people than I could ever conceive of."

Carlen's personable nature worked as well with someone across the bargaining table as it did in a recruit's living room, Moss said. He also had a coach's knack for breathing fire on those he directed without burning them permanently.

Moss recalled being summoned to the Shoney's on Hilton Head to have breakfast with Carlen, who was unhappy about some issue early in his tenure on the BJWSA board.

"I got chewed out pretty good. In fact, 'breakfast at Shoney's' became a watchword for getting your butt chewed," Moss said with a laugh. "But once he said what he had to say, he had said it and that was it. Then you moved on."

"He was just one of those people you meet once in a lifetime," Moss said, adding he learned much from Carlen's leadership style.

"He always had the interest of me and the staff of the authority at heart, and he mentored me a lot," said Moss, who was in his early 40s and just a few years into his tenure at BJWSA when Carlen joined the board. "He had so much experience leading people and making tough decisions. He was very, very helpful to me as I matured and grew into that job."

Carlen twice came out of coaching retirement to coach local high schools.

In 1993, he oversaw the Thomas Heyward Academy football team for a season -- though he didn't officially have the "head coach" title -- as a favor to Rogers, who is the school's headmaster.

Then, he helped Hilton Head Christian Academy start its football program, coaching the Eagles in their first year of junior-varsity competition in 2001 and their first varsity season in 2002. He then helped pick successor Tommy Lewis, then 35, and he's still at the school.

"Obviously, he was very instrumental in getting football started here, but he also started getting me pointed in the right direction with the program and the school, and I have nothing but very fond memories of him," Lewis said Sunday.

Carlen was given the Order of the Palmetto by former S.C. Gov. James B. Edwards and has been honored by West Virginia for his contributions to the school's Fellowship of Christian Athletes organization.

He also once was noted by the American Red Cross in for making 152 blood donations, averaging five pints a year for 37 years. Fewer than 10 people in the country hit the 20 gallon level, a national Red Cross spokesman told The Island Packet in 1988. Carlen said he was a freshman at Georgia Tech when he first started donating blood.

"I was just a little old country boy. You know how it is, once you do it, you're on somebody's list," he said. "I've just made it a habit. I've given in Germany and everywhere I've been."

Surviving are his wife, Meredith Taylor Carlen; sons, James Anthony Carlen IV of Columbia and William Holt Carlen of Columbia; daughters, Mollianne Elliott of Roswell, Ga., and Melanie Caswell of Columbia; and 12 grandchildren.

A memorial service will be at 4 p.m. Friday at Trenholm Road United Methodist Church in Columbia. Donations may be made to Fellowship of Christian Athletes, 8701 Leeds Road, Kansas City, MO 64129 or to Trenholm Road United Methodist Church, 3401 Trenholm Road, Columbia, SC 29204.

The Associated Press and The (Columbia) State newspaper contributed to this report.

Related content:

Calling up a legend, Nov. 22, 2008

Carlen wil speak at NYC ceremony

HHCA football enters new era

Suozzi sees spotlight, sidelines, Oct. 31, 2002

A lasting legacy, Oct. 4, 2002

HHCA's firsst varsity game set for tonight, Aug. 30, 2002

HHCA holding spring drills for first football team, May 20, 2001

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