Every year as the Starkville High School boys basketball team ends the regular season and heads into the playoffs, Yellow Jackets head coach Greg Carter feels like an entirely new season is beginning.
Now, as Carter leaves behind the school where he has coached for nearly two decades, the same feeling has begun to dawn on him.
“Once I start thinking about this new opportunity, it’s almost like I’m re-energized,” Carter told The Dispatch on Wednesday.
After 19 seasons coaching basketball at Starkville and four state championships, Carter accepted a job as athletic director for the Hattiesburg Public School District. He was confirmed Tuesday night at a district board meeting.
“To be in an athletic department with the tradition Hattiesburg has, the coaches that they have in place now, it was a great opportunity,” Carter said.
Players, parents and administrators who interacted with Carter during his time shaping the Yellow Jackets’ program said Hattiesburg is getting in Carter an athletic director who checks all the boxes: academic achievement, athletic success and leadership.
“He’s just a silent giant,” former Starkville High Principal Sean McDonnall said, “and just a good guy.”
As a teacher and coach from 2001 to 2007, assistant principal from 2007 to 2016 and principal from 2016 to 2020, McDonnall got a front-row seat to Carter’s coaching career. But behind the scenes, McDonnall saw Carter evolve, too. Carter started out as Starkville’s in-school detention instructor — a position held by prior Jackets basketball coaches — before starting to teach physical education in 2006.
McDonnall was Carter’s mentor as the coach pursued his master’s in administration and supervision, an achievement Carter pursued with the same passion he showed on the court. In 2017, Carter received the degree through the University of Phoenix.
“I think he approached that like he did everything else: ‘This is my goal; I’m going to get it,'” McDonnall said.
‘A winner and a leader’
Donte Powers, who played for Carter at Starkville before going on to East Mississippi Community College and now Sam Houston State, said Carter will bring that same spirit to his new position in Hattiesburg.
“They’re bringing a winner and a leader — somebody who can come in expecting to win,” Powers said. “They’re getting a really good person at heart, as well.”
Powers said he and his teammates could always come by Carter’s office and chat about anything, whether it was basketball, school or life. He said the connection the Jackets’ coach forged with his players helped him gain their trust and made it easier to implement what Carter hoped to run on the court.
Clearly, that paid off. Starkville had just one state championship in school history — in 1961 — before Carter took over beginning with the 2002-03 season. He led the Jackets to championships in 2010, 2015, 2019 and 2020 in spite of the constant roster turnover they faced nearly every year.
“When you hear Coach Greg Carter, you think of the G.O.A.T.,” said Eric Green, whose three sons have all played under Carter at Starkville. “They don’t rebuild. They reload.”
Green’s sons Tyler Talley and Eric Green shared the court as the Jackets won the MHSAA Class 6A championship in 2019. Talley graduated that spring, but his younger brother was a big part of the team that went back to back the following season. On Saturday, Eric led the Jackets in scoring in a 56-51 loss to Clinton in the state championship in what turned out to be Carter’s final game coaching the Jackets.
“That was history,” the elder Green said. “He played basketball for a legend.”
Stability and direction
Carter expressed regret that his tenure in Starkville couldn’t end with a three-peat and a fifth state title under his leadership. Heading into the contest at the Mississippi Coliseum in Jackson, he wasn’t even sure he would be leaving: He had received the job offer from Hattiesburg but did not accept until Monday.
In doing so, he closed the book on a transformation of the Yellow Jackets’ program. When the Forest native and hall of fame player at Mississippi State came to Starkville after seven years assisting with the Bulldogs and a year at Brandon, he took over a team whose previous two coaches spent just two years each at the school.
“It needed some stability and some positive direction, and I think that’s what I brought to the table,” Carter said.
He hopes to bring more to Hattiesburg, saying he wants to stay in his new position for a while and intends to put down roots in the community. Carter noted that building relationships with local business leaders, school administrators, teachers and other area figures was paramount at Starkville and hopes to bring the same to the Tigers’ athletics teams, mentioning that his goal is to compete for the MHSAA Class 5A all-sports award every year.
“Especially in Starkville, being as diverse as we are, I think that’s huge — that relationship with the community as well as players and parents,” McDonnall said. “That’s huge, especially in a big program like his.”
A quiet and soft-spoken man with a great sense of humor and an unparalleled ability to create a rapport with his players, Carter ran a tight ship on his team, maintained high expectations and made sure to hold his athletes accountable.
“We never had any issues with basketball players because all you had to do was go talk to Coach Carter,” McDonnall said.
After nearly two decades working alongside Carter, McDonnall said the coach will be sorely missed in Starkville.
“He’s been excellent to work with the last 19 years,” McDonnall said. “I’m happy that he’s decided to make this move in his life.”
‘You don’t get another Coach Carter’
Hattiesburg Superintendent Robert Williams called Carter a “proven winner” who will instill a title-winning mentality in the athletes in the district’s 23 sports.
“I’m not saying that we will win a championship in every sport, but we want to make sure we will have a championship mindset for our students not only on the field but also off the field,” Williams told The Dispatch.
He said hiring Carter strengthens the trifecta the district is aiming to hit: excellence in athletics, arts and activities. With strong band and forensics programs, Hattiesburg can achieve success in all three areas.
“I can’t count the number of texts that I received today saying ‘home run hire,’ ‘great hire,'” Williams said Wednesday.
Starkville athletic director Greg Owen knows keeping Starkville’s basketball program at that same high level without Carter in the fold won’t be easy. Owen joked that Carter was such a respected presence on the sidelines that referees would occasionally defer to the Jackets’ coach on whether to call fouls.
Now, Carter will bring his leadership, gravitas and knowledge to Hattiesburg as Starkville searches for his replacement. While Carter recommended his former assistant Qu’Varius Howard, who led Kemper County to the Class 3A semifinals in his first year leading the Wildcats, everyone knows finding a coach who can immediately bring to the Jackets’ program what Carter brought won’t be easy.
“You don’t get another Coach Carter,” Owen said. “You may get another head coach, but you’re not going to find another Coach Carter.”