Calling up a legend

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Calling up a legend

By JUSTIN JARRETT jjarrett@islandpacket.com jjarrett@beaufortgazette.com
Published Saturday, November 22, 2008 in The Island Packet  |  623 Words  |  justinjarrett

To have a conversation with Jim Carlen is much like sitting at the kitchen table rapping with your grandfather ... if your grandfather knew everyone you've ever heard of and had forgotten more about football than you'll ever know.
And by the end of the conversation, you'll be certain you've known Carlen all your life, even if you've never met him.
This call was to catch up with the former South Carolina coach and ask him to reflect on his induction three weeks ago into the Texas Tech Hall of Honor, and perhaps provide a pearl of wisdom about the Red Raiders' big game tonight at Oklahoma.
If we ever got around to the subject, it was only a glancing blow, but we covered just about everything else. Carlen wove a tapestry of celebrity friendships along the way, mostly from the football world, but he also has played golf with Willie Nelson and Charley Pride, and he considered Elvis Presley a "good friend" who he knew "extremely well."
Every which way the conversation turned, there was another old friend of Carlen's.
"I get interested in people, but I don't judge what they are," Carlen said in a recent interview with The State newspaper. "You can find something wrong with everybody."
And plenty of people surely could find something wrong with Jim Carlen. By all accounts he had a mean streak, especially when he was coaching, and he says he regrets earning a reputation for being hard-headed.
At USC alone, Carlen left in his wake a fair number of ruffled feathers. As Bob Gillespie of The State wrote in that recent article, "His blunt manner and sharp tongue often generated as many headlines as his teams, and he feuded with reporters, fans and even USC president James Holderman."
But those who know him best say earning Carlen's friendship is as good as gold.
Heck, the guy got Bobby Bowden his first job as a head coach, and we all know how that turned out.
Carlen undoubtedly has mellowed with age. At 75, he has found content on Hilton Head Island. He seems eager to reconnect with his past, but says it's only because he wants his former coaches and players to get the recognition they deserve. That, he says, is what lured him back to Lubbock, Texas, earlier this month, some 35 years after he led the Red Raiders to a school-best 11-1 record and a victory against Tennessee in the Gator Bowl.
"Coaches are passing away, players are passing away," Carlen said. "That's the reason I go. I go because I was the head of the thing, but I was a very small part of it. Players do the playing, coaches do the coaching, and I do the watching."
It's apparent he still does plenty of watching when he talks about "that big boy at Florida" (that's Carlen code for Tim Tebow), and explains why he thinks the Gators are the best team in college football -- no disrespect intended to his good friend Mack Brown, who he practically raised, nor his good friend Joe Paterno (he just doesn't think the Big Ten is on par with the Southeastern Conference or the Big 12 this year), nor the memory of his good friend Bear Bryant (sorry, Mr. Bryant, but coach Carlen thinks Alabama is overrated).
We talked and talked, about everything and nothing all at once, like ... well, like a couple of good friends.
Somewhere along the way it occurred to me that maybe the reason Jim Carlen has so many "good friends" is because he treats everyone he meets like a good friend -- at least until he decides otherwise.