Here are some bits and pieces from stories along the way.
WALKING IN MEMPHIS
It took a voice from the corner of Northeast Tennessee to help soothe the wounds endured by Ronnie Carter and the TSSAA for setting up the Spring Fling’s shop within shouting distance of Beale Street.
After a nine-year run in Chattanooga — which was a popular location for everybody except Memphis folks — the TSSAA accepted the West Tennessee bid to house the Spring Fling. And from 2003-05, the rest of the state howled in opposition.
“We got eaten alive, as you can imagine,” Carter said. “How far it is from Johnson City to Memphis? And not only that, the best facility we had for softball was in Southaven.”
Although Southaven is a suburb of Memphis, it is located in DeSoto County, Mississippi. That added ammunition to the attacks against the TSSAA, saying it had moved one of its state tournaments to an out-of-state location.
But almost like “Horton Hears a Who!” a small, but sincere, voice emerged from the midst of the big complaints. Unaka’s baseball team made three trips to Memphis for the Class A tournament. The Rangers never won and were outscored 57-21 in six games.
However, at the 2003 opening ceremonies, the Rangers got to stroll onto the field at the still-new AutoZone Park — which was built to Major League Baseball standards in 2000 — where Carter found a moment of support.
“Unaka’s baseball coach (Acie Ensor) came up to me and said, ‘Mr. Carter, if anybody complains about how far they’ve driven, tell them to come see me,’ ” Carter said. “This is the greatest thing that has ever happened to our school. It’s the greatest thing we’ve ever experienced. We’re having a ball down here.”
THE BORO STILL BEST
Carter said the move to Murfreesboro was the obvious choice because the geographic center of Tennessee is located a hop, skip and jump from the heart of the Middle Tennessee State campus.
“Murfreesboro is such an ideal location for so many reasons,” he said. “The most we’ve ever lost, weather-wise, is half a day since we moved there in 2006. And talk about first-class facilities, wow. Eight of the baseball fields have lights, tarps and indoor facilities. And that’s not counting MTSU’s field.
“Could anyone get it from Murfreesboro now? I don’t know if anyone has the facilities to put it together.”
So how does the Spring Fling compare to the Super Bowl in terms of media coverage?
When the Tennessee Titans reached the AFC championship game in January, The Tennessean had one sports writer — Mike Organ — still at the Nashville newspaper who was working there when the team made the Super Bowl in 1999. He got a call from higher-ups who wanted to make plans for the big game if the Titans had made it this year.
“He said the number he came up with for coverage was 12 writers and photographers,” Carter said. “Now, I understand it was a difference in time back in the 1990s. But in the first year of the Spring Fling in 1994, the Chattanooga newspapers staffed it with over 20 writers and photographers — from each paper.”
SPRING FLING BEGINNINGS
In the 1990s, Carter was talking with MTSU track coach Dean Hayes, who told him about the Ohio Valley Conference spring event.
“They put track, golf and tennis together to create interest,” Carter said. “It intrigued me. We kicked the idea around. We were looking for something to draw more interest to the spring sports.”
Interest in all of the spring sports has grown since baseball, softball, soccer, tennis and track moved to a one-city location for state championships in 1994. The events were previously held not only in different cities but also in different weeks. Baseball got plenty of attention, but Spring Fling allowed other sports to share in a spotlight that has grown to accommodate the big event.
“I can remember this state used to have such a football and basketball mentality,” Carter said. “At the end of the state basketball tournament one year, a person came up to me and said, ‘Well, you don’t have anything to do the rest of the year.’ But the Spring Fling started and made it better for kids and coaches.”
Tennessee allowed only one team from each of the 16 districts to earn a spot in the playoffs until the mid-1980s. But there was a push to expand, allowing runner-up finishers to reach the postseason.
“It was being debated at all three regional meetings,” Carter said. “What was happening was you had the top two teams in each district playing each other early in the season sometimes. One team would finish 9-1 and make the playoffs and the other would go 8-2. The team that lost that early-season matchup would see its gate receipts go down for the rest of the season.”
At one regional meeting, a principal stated his case.
“He said, ‘I did not play sports, didn’t coach, and I don’t have that background. But what I’ve seen is when athletics are good, particularly football, schools go better,’ ” Carter said. “ ‘We have less fights, there are less problems in the restrooms, and even teachers who don’t care for sports do a better job. I don’t understand it, but it’s a phenomenon I have observed.’ ”
Carter said sports are not just about the final score.
“They are bigger than that,” he said. “You see the impact athletics can have.”
Carter and his wife, Caroline, got married in 1969.
Caroline’s family was no stranger to heartache. Her sister died at age 40 from breast cancer, and her father died from cancer.
In 1995, Caroline was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“The only thing the family had seen with cancer was death,” Carter said. “But she is a 25-year survivor.”