MOUNT CARMEL, Ill. -- A near death experience -- some look back on such moments with terror -- others such as Wabash Valley College men's basketball coach Mike Carpenter view it as a potential blessing.
Carpenter, from Linton, Ind. was diagnosed with an arrhythmia of his heart in his sophomore year of high school. Despite the diagnosis, he chose to continue to play sports, becoming a standout basketball and baseball player, earning seven varsity letters and numerous All-Conference and All-Area awards, as well as the Southern Indiana All-Star team in baseball. Fast forward a few years, Carpenter is continuing his dream of playing the game he loves, now collegiately. Carpenter is on campus at the university in the off-season conditioning program when it hits -- Carpenter collapses on the floor -- not remembering what happened, he woke up in the hospital. Doctors advised Carpenter that his playing days would effectively be over.
"That's a hard thing for an 18-year-old kid to understand," Carpenter recollected. "I didn't want to do it, I didn't want to quit. You think you're invincible at that age. After talking it over with my parents and everybody they made me realize there's a lot more things to do other than play basketball. That's what I share with these kids all the time. Basketball's going to be over, it could be today, it could be 10 years from now, it's not everything. It was a good lesson for me, it ended up being a blessing in disguise. I think sometimes where I would be had that not happened."
Though his playing days were over, Carpenter was fortunate enough to be kept on scholarship by his coach at the time, who allowed him to stay with the program as an assistant following his incident. Three years later, he was elevated to a paid assistant.
Carpenter knew even prior to retiring from basketball that he would desire a career in coaching one day, similarly to his father. His condition allowed him to get an early jump on his career instead of continuing his collegiate career.
Beginning coaching back in 1993, Carpenter has had a variety of unique experiences to pull from, including notably working for former Indiana University and Hall-of-Fame coach Bob Knight as a staff member of the Bob Knight Basketball School. Carpenter has been friends with Knight's son, Pat, who coached at Texas Tech University and is currently a scout for the Indiana Pacers and was able to learn from Bob.
"Coach Knight's son [Pat] to this day is one of my best friends," coach Carpenter said. "Since back in the late '90's we've hung out. I would be fortunate enough to get over there to go to practices and games, be in the locker room, be around the team. I learned a lot just watching him in practices. He's a tremendous teacher of the game, I think a lot of the media wants to talk about his temper and his antics he does. When the media's not around he's a completely different person. When it's just him and his team in that practice facility working on things, he's like a magician or surgeon."
He's had stops since then at Western Illinois University, the University of Saint Francis and Danville Area Community College, among others coaching ventures. Danville allotted Carpenter his first head coaching opportunity back in 2005, which paved his path to Wabash Valley, a job he knew he would want at some point in his coaching career after his brother played collegiate baseball at Wabash Valley College back in 1990-91, providing Carpenter the opportunity to familiarize himself with the college.
"When the opportunity arose -- as a 13-year-old kid you never think you'll coach here -- you think you'll watch a game here, once I became a head coach this was a job I had my eye on," Carpenter said. "If it ever opened up, I would want it. I was lucky enough that it opened up and they called me and I jumped on it. It's a good place with a lot of tradition and really good people in the community who have been great to me."
Though it was an opportunity that he had eyed for quite some time, Carpenter explained to the hiring committee that it would take some time as he corrected the culture of the men's basketball program, in his attempt to instill players of high character into the program and a winning culture.
"I'm a big believer in culture," Carpenter said. "I wanted it to be our own deal and our own culture. It wasn't going to be a quick fix. The first year was a wash because I met six of my players the day they moved in, I signed them over the phone. We got hired late in June, didn't have much time to recruit, so that was a complete rebuild."
Following the initial rebuild, the program suffered a setback due to a corrupted culture from athletes who weren't carrying out their expected duties as student-athletes, on and off the court, requiring another rebuild. The second rebuild built the foundation for the current success the Warriors enjoy.
"Culture's totally changed from five years ago," coach Carpenter said. "Completely changed to where we've got high character guys in here that work hard and play together, want to win and graduate and go on to the next level. I think now we can maintain that, it's the same thing we did at Danville. I took over a team that hadn't had a winning season in six consecutive seasons. By year two we we're in the final four. It's about recruiting and having the right kind of people around you moving forward. I see us staying in the top 20, top 10 for the next 10 years hopefully. Giving the people in this community something to cheer about."
Now, entering his sixth season as the coach of the men's basketball program, Carpenter additionally serves as athletic director for the college, President of the Great Rivers Athletic Conference and Chair for Region 24 and the GRAC Conference for Division I Men's Basketball -- tasks they felt comfortable appointing Carpenter to due to his experience as chair of the conference while at Danville.
Under Carpenter the Warriors' record has continued to improve, leading to a 23-9 record in 2016-17, followed by a 21-10 record in 2017-18. His success is telling in some of his accolades, including being recognized as one of the top 50 junior college coaches in America per Basketball Times Magazine, three-time Region 24 Coach of the Year, two-time Conference Coach of the Year, two-time Illinois Coaches Association Coach of the Year, while enjoying 233 career wins, 1 NJCAA Final Four, three Region Championships, two Conference Championships, as well as being ranked in the top 20 of the polls seven times in 12 seasons as head coach.
Though its nice to be recognized for his success, Carpenter stresses that the success is not solely due to him, acknowledging his assistants and players play a major role in the success.
"It's nice to get individual accolades of course, but I've been very fortunate to have just tremendous staffs." coach Carpenter spoke of his accomplishments. "My staff I have here is as good as any staff in the country in my opinion. You have to surround yourself with good people to be successful. We've been successful because we've recruited the right kind of kids. They're talented, but I have the right people working with me. It's unfortunate I get the accolades sometimes because it should go to the assistants instead of me."
With as much success as he has enjoyed, Carpenter expects the best has yet to come. He believes this year's squad has the potential to be his best team yet at Wabash Valley.
"I'm really excited [for this year]," coach Carpenter spoke of the upcoming season. "Probably the most excited since I've came here. We've got seven of our guys returning from last year, over 50 points per game. For junior college, that's a lot. We have the three Division I transfers, Justin Carpenter from Mount Carmel being one of them. The talent level's there, we have good size, we can shoot it, they're experienced, they're good guys and they like each other. It's really fun in practice because they work really hard but they like playing with each other, they like playing against each other. A very deep team, we'll see what happens. We have a lot to work on, but I like our chances right now."
Would coach Carpener be at Wabash Valley, as tenured as he is coaching had it not been for that fateful day in September when he was 18-years-old? No one knows. As far as his future, he does know one thing, he sees himself staying in Mount Carmel.
"I'm comfortable here, I'm happy here," Carpenter said. "The people have been great to me, supportive. It's a neat little community. I don't look too far ahead, I just take it day by day. I learned a long time ago that you don't mess with happiness, if you're happy leave it alone. I think we still have unfinished business on the court."
His Warriors open their season on Friday, Nov. 2 on the road against Mineral Area College at 5 p.m. Their first home game will come Friday, Nov. 9 against his former school, Danville, at 7 p.m. in the Warrior Classic.