Know Greater Heroes

By: Dave Jones Issue: Sports Section: Collaborator Profile

One College’s Commitment to Community

Greater Heroes

In 1988, when Norma Carr accepted the job as Athletic Director at Salt Lake Community College (SLCC), the school’s athletic department was an afterthought. Her first office was a 1,200 sq. ft. modified shed that she shared with staff and athletic equipment. SLCC basketball games were played in high school gymnasiums throughout the Salt Lake Valley and the men’s program was facing sanctions by the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA). Her mentor at the University of Utah considered her crazy for committing to a college that had made no commitment to the infrastructure and discipline of its athletic programs. At that time, the upstart community college, that had traditionally been a vocational school, was teaching a respectable 13,000 students on four campuses.

In the twenty years between showing up for work at SLCC and leading her program to contend for its first-ever national title, Athletic Director Norma Carr pierced a Utah athletics’ men’s club. In addition to the national championship, SLCC has had all five of its teams ranked in the top 20 in the nation two-years running—Norma was recently presented with the Administrator of the Year award for two-year colleges, capping an impressive run.

But, Carr’s focus has always been on her players, her teams, and her region; she’s never been motivated by winning awards. “Yes, it’s an honor—probably one of the top honors I could get in my career,” Carr said. “But I didn't do the things in my life because I expected an award at some point; I did things in my administrative career because that's what I love to do and I believe in it."

In the spirit of teamwork, Norma cultivated a tight-knit group of coaches from the beginning. Collaboration doesn’t always come easily for headstrong, competitive individuals.

Teamwork, though, has been a hallmark of SLCC’s teams and athletic department staff. Just two years on the job, Norma hired men’s basketball coach Norm Parrish. More than nineteen years and 400 victories later, he’s still coaching for SLCC, although the office is more spacious than it was nearly two decades ago.

Since he took over the program in 1991, he has coached hundreds of players. Nearly forty percent of his players have gone on to play in the NCAA Division I ranks—and several made it all the way to the pros. Diversity has always been a key to his success. To that end, Norm has recruited players from all over the United States and every continent except Asia and Antarctica. Players from such foreign locales as Australia, Switzerland, Greece, Brazil, Russia, Serbia, Senegal, and Ivory Coast have suited up as SLCC Bruins.

Consider player Gary Wilkinson who showed up at SLCC at just the right time. A high school dropout four years removed from his would-be graduation, Gary called Coach Parrish looking for a chance to play basketball for SLCC. Having turned his life around after a close friend committed suicide, he completed his GED and served a religious mission. Still, he was an out of shape kid who had never played a minute of varsity ball in high school and had barely played at all since quitting high school. Wilkinson must have seen something in himself that others had overlooked, because he asked for a scholarship, but he also told the coach he wasn’t interested in walking on.

"A lot of guys would have hung up the phone," Gary's wife Jessica Wilkinson said. "That Coach Parrish gave him the time of day changed Gary's life." Despite the inauspicious introduction, Parrish offered Gary a chance. Being 6’9” might have had something to do with it. The maturity he had already demonstrated in turning his life around also played a part. "If Gary was disciplined enough to serve a religious organization for two years, I knew he’d be disciplined enough to handle most anything," Parrish said. "I didn't think I was taking much of a risk as far as baggage. It kind of erased the dropout." Not that he would have taken just anyone off the street. "I'd hate to say it, but if he were 6’2”, I probably never would have invited him to go play," Parrish said. "I would have said, 'You're another 6’2” kid that didn't go to high school.' His size got him a look, but he took full advantage."

Taking advantage meant leading his teams on the court and in the classroom—Gary graduated with a perfect 4.0 grade point average, earning an honorable mention Junior College All-America and was a two-time academic All-American at SLCC. He moved on to Utah State University, where he became the Western Athletic Conference Player of the Year and led his team to the NCAA tournament.

On the women’s side, continuity through diversity has been Carr’s legacy. Women’s basketball coach Betsy Specketer has been with the college for more than 14 years. She won her 300th career game as a Bruin in the 2009-10 season amidst an unprecedented charge in the national rankings that included a blistering 15 game winning streak.

When not on the court, SLCC women basketball players have distinguished themselves in the classroom with numerous academic awards. As a team, they consistently carry the highest grade-point averages in the country.

With more than 16 team players who carry a 3.5 grade point average or higher, the SLCC softball team is also one of the nation’s highest performing teams in the classroom. One SLCC softball player, Lindsey Palmer, was a two-time Academic All-American at SLCC. Fresh off of three Utah State Championship victories, MVP awards each year of high school, Lindsey brought a sparkling athletic and academic record to college. Boasting a flawless 4.0 grade point average, Lindsey was named a first-team All-American while securing 29-2 as a pitcher.

She led her team to the Scenic West Conference title and advanced deep into the National Tournament. For her efforts, she was also named the 2008 Betty Jo Graber Female Athlete of the Year, given to the top female athlete in the NJCAA. She continued her athletic and academic career at the University of Utah.

One month after Salt Lake Community College celebrated its 60th Anniversary and Lindsey’s national honor the men’s basketball team started their 2008-2009 season. The season was peppered with visits to area elementary schools through the “Know Greater Heroes” program.

The SLCC Bruins marched through the schedule quietly replaying their opponents from the previous year with an eye toward the tournament season. Always less than a year from breaking up, two-year teams do not have the luxury of recruitment and reconstruction years. Coach Parrish only has a few months to teach his lessons of defensive play, responsibility and leadership.

The members of the previous year’s upstart national runner-up team remembered and urged their younger teammates to a 31-6 record. And on March 21, 2009 – with thousands of classmates, children in elementary schools and the silent majority of graduates of SLCC listening to an Internet radio feed, (NJCAA games are not televised) the Bruins claimed the school’s first national championship.

The team returned to Salt Lake City for celebration, television appearances and a gubernatorial proclamation.

After all of the excitement, Norm Parrish returned to teaching in the classroom, between-season conditioning, and the proud obscurity of being a community college coach. After a three day bus trip to get back to Salt Lake City, nearby University of Utah men’s basketball head coach Jim Boylen stopped by Norm’s office to pay him a visit and talk basketball. As the two coaches were talking, Norma happened to be near by. Boylen pointed to Parrish and told her, “You need to get a new contract for him." Issue 7 Know Greater Heroes

Since 1988, SLCC has grown into a comprehensive community college with a national reputation. The College now boasts 33,774 students, 14 locations, 5 athletic programs that compete nationally, and student athletes who are consistently recognized for their academic and athletic achievement. More than twenty years later, Norma Carr is still the only woman running men’s athletic programs in Utah. The SLCC athletic department is housed in the 180,000 sq. ft. Lifetime Activities Center. And, the SLCC men’s basketball team has brought home the State’s only national basketball championship since 1966.

All of the distinctions and national championships aside, what Carr believes in is winning—everywhere. Her coaches, staff and colleagues know that on-court success is important—even necessary—but it’s not enough. Student athletes in her programs will succeed in the classroom, in the community, and in their lives after they leave SLCC. Carr simply won’t consider anything less.

Dave Jones is a public relations specialist in the Institutional Marketing and Communications Department of Salt Lake Community College. The College educates and trains over 60,000 students annually at 14 Salt Lake valley locations and SLCC Online.

On March 23, 2008…

…the Salt Lake Community College men’s basketball team spent the morning of the biggest game in its players’ lives at an elementary school. Kevin Brening, the team’s host for the NJCAA National Championship tournament in Hutchinson, Kansas was so impressed with the character of SLCC’s players staying in his house that when he heard about the “Know Greater Heroes” program, he arranged for the players to conduct a rally at his daughters’ school.

So, instead of working on their jump shots, just hours prior to playing in the game that would be for the right to play for a national championship, a group of players got in the team bus and went to talk to 600 K-6 graders at Holy Cross Elementary School. The school’s entire student body was treated to an impromptu presentation on friendship, teamwork, goal setting, leadership, and basketball.

The Know Greater Heroes program takes SLCC players into hundreds of local elementary schools throughout Utah for engaging, high-energy assemblies. These young audiences get to hear and see real leaders up close who excel in sports and who live right in their own community.

Student athletes might learn even more from the program than the elementary school kids. Not that it’s always comfortable or easy for them. “When we first started out in this program, I know a lot of us were pretty shy or scared. Talking in front of people isn’t really our thing,” said Brian Green. “But the program is really a great opportunity for us. Lots of times, I think we get more out of it than the kids we see, because it really makes us deal with the issues we have. We come out [of the program] with a lot more poise and confidence that we take onto the court with us.”

Since 2004, all SLCC athletics teams have been involved in the leadership program that provides 30,000 Utah school children each year with positive role models and the message of choosing sports instead of drugs. More than twice each week during the school year, the athletes perform at a different elementary school. The program is built into the college curriculum, and is considered a major part of the student athletes academic and social development.

Nearly 90 percent of SLCC student athletes participate in leadership development activities. The retention rate among SLCC athletes is almost identical to this number. Three of the college’s five sports had a perfect 100 percent retention rate. The other two had 92 percent and 70 percent rates. About two-thirds of all SLCC student athletes are recruited to continue their playing careers by four-year institutions, and three-fourths move on to attend college at four-year schools. Leading these future leaders is a decorated coaching staff comprised of individuals at the top of their professions. SLCC’s players are learning from the best. Three of the five coaches have won national and regional Coach of the Year honors for their sports.

Focusing primarily on Federal Title I schools—schools with high concentrations of students at significant risk of failing to meet state academic achievement standards—the program targets an important audience. “We get student athletes that come here from all kinds of backgrounds,” said Athletic Director Norma Carr. “Some need more attention and guidance than others. It’s rewarding to see those athletes especially go into the schools and make a difference in young people’s lives who also really need someone to look up to.”

It’s even more rewarding when the athletes as role models go on to athletic achievement. “It’s pretty cool to go to the assemblies and be introduced as ‘National Champions,” said Lesean Wilcox. “You can see the kids’ eyes get bigger when they hear that.”