Thirty-eight students attend Dubois High in western Wyoming, and last fall the school needed a basketball coach. The position demands much time for little pay, which is why the Rams churned through five coaches in the past four years, most recently the technical-education teacher. After Dubois struggled last season, several players groused they would try out for wrestling. The star power forward, a 6'5" junior named Walker Carrico, planned on transferring to a bigger program an hour away. He shared his exit strategy with his grandfather, Mike Carrico, a 78-year-old retiree in San Diego. Forget a coach—Dubois might not have a team. "I don't want to see this happen," Mike said.
Nearly six decades after he played basketball at Montana State and four decades after he coached his son in an Orange County church league, Carrico applied for the job. Administrators liked his résumé—he's a former Marine sergeant and computer-company CEO who is nationally ranked on the senior tennis circuit—and appreciated that he asked for no salary or benefits. "At a small school," says athletic director Tina Baker, "you have to do some unorthodox things."
So Carrico learned the 1--4 offense through instructional videos he bought online. He took state-mandated courses in everything from concussions to the Constitution. He earned a coaching certificate, and in late October he packed his Dodge Caravan and steered out of his gated community overlooking the Pacific. Before the first practice Carrico told the team, "You call me Coach or Sir, and that's all. Now I'm going to run your asses off." What happened to good old Grandpa, Walker wondered, walking his golden retriever by the beach? "He yells a lot," Walker says.
Dubois has eight boys on the roster, but one had never played basketball, one is nursing a torn labrum and one is in physical therapy after a car accident. When two Rams fouled out against Burlington, they played with four. They often practice against the girls' squad.
The season started with a 20-point loss to Encampment, which shredded Carrico's 2--3 zone. At 6:30 a.m. the next day he told the team they were switching to man, and they won six in a row. "That's when everybody realized he was ready for this," says Walker. He occasionally slips and mutters "Grandpa" during timeouts, but he has flourished in the 1--4, averaging 16.0 points and 8.5 rebounds. The tech-ed teacher, Aric Hanusa, has returned as a valued second coach. The school has insisted on paying Carrico $3,875.
If Hoosiers were a Western, you could set it in Dubois, a cowboy town between the Absaroka and Wind River mountains. There are no stop signs, much less stoplights, and no hospital within 80 miles. Many of the Rams' bus rides take at least four hours. Carrico lives with his son, daughter-in-law and grandson in a three-bedroom house outside of town. He is greeted by name at Super Foods and at Warm Valley Community Church, thanked for bringing a dose of old school to high school. When one player's grades slipped, he instituted prepractice study hall. When another missed a game for no reason, Carrico made him apologize to the team. "I won't," the player said. "Turn in your jersey," Carrico replied. After 20 minutes the player relented.
Carrico fills water bottles and washes uniforms, downloads game tapes and meets with the editor of the Frontier weekly newspaper every Monday. He's following an eighth-grade point guard he hopes to coach next season. He is incensed by some of the whistles against his hulking frontcourt—center Austin Tharp is 6'6"—but he forbids technical fouls. He knows his wife, Christine, is watching on the Internet back in San Diego, spotting Mike in the basketball tie she gave him.
After a nasty flu hit the team, Dubois is 10--9, most likely the second or third seed at the regional tournament next week in Ladler. If the Rams finish in the top four there, they will reach the state tournament for the first time in 10 years. First, though, is the regular-season finale this Friday against Meeteetse. Locals will crowd the gym, as they usually do, to howl for two seniors who are finishing their high school careers—and one who is just getting started.
Hiring a 78-year-old who last coached hoops during the Ford Administration? "At a small school," says the AD at Dubois High, "you have to do some unorthodox things."
What's the unlikeliest coaching success story you've heard?
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ANN JOHANSSON FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED