Coach Ken Carter (second from left) talks with Lehigh men's basketball coach Billy Taylor and players Mitch Gilfillan (left) and Mike Fischman(right) .
Coach Ken Carter teaches life lessons in a way that people tend to remember. In 1999, he made national headlines when he benched his undefeated Richmond, Cal., high school basketball team due to poor academic performance.
His principled stance on the value of an education inspired the hit film Coach Carter
, starring Samuel L. Jackson in the lead role. So when the real-life Coach Carter came to Lehigh recently, it was no surprise that he didn’t just talk about knowledge, accountability, and leadership. He gave a flamboyant demonstration not likely to be forgotten by any of the 150 members of the university community who attended his appearance at Packard Auditorium on Feb. 22.
Carter invited a Lehigh student to the stage to help him identify the president whose image graces the $20 bill. After the student correctly identified Andrew Jackson, Carter crumpled the $20 bill, threw it on the ground, and stomped on it.
“Even though I balled this $20 bill and threw it on the ground, would you still want it?” he asked. The student answered yes, setting Carter up for his take-home lesson.
“Like this $20 bill, life is going to come along and knock you down,” Carter said. “But if you have a good education and a positive attitude, when you stand up and straighten yourself out, you are still valuable.”
But the lesson wasn’t over. Carter then asked the student whether he would like the surefire $20 bill or the mystery bill in his pocket. With the audience’s encouragement, the student opted for the mystery bill, which turned out to be a $100 bill.
“This young man just earned $100 in two minutes because he had knowledge,” Carter said. “You must always do more than you are paid for as an investment in your future. The only people who make money in the U.S. work at the U.S. Mint. The rest of you have to earn it. And you earn it by knowledge.”
The secret to leadership
Coach Ken Carter talked to students about knowledge, accountability and leadership.
Carter set the tone early with the crowd, telling the mix of students, community members, faculty and staff that his presentation would be like a woman’s dress—“long enough to cover the bases, but short enough to keep your interest.”
Reminiscing about his childhood growing up in McComb, Miss., and later in Richmond, Cal., Carter described his family as beyond poor—“they were broke.” Growing up with one brother and seven sisters, Carter credited his childhood and relationship with his sisters for teaching him how to be a good listener and leader.
“Before you can become a leader, you must learn to follow,” he says. “I had no problem learning that lesson because I had seven sisters—if you have seven sisters you learn quickly to listen and follow orders.”
But leadership alone is not enough, he said. To be truly successful, you need knowledge and accountability as well.
In his own life, Carter joined the Richmond High School staff as basketball coach after he realized that the monetary donations he had made to his high school alma mater were not enough. The statistics Carter shared were bleak: “In Richmond, Cal., you are 80 times more likely to go to jail than college—50 percent of the kids that start as freshman never graduate.”
Having learned some valuable life experience when he was away from his childhood neighborhood, Carter returned to Richmond High School with a plan. He required all student basketball players, parents, and coaching staff to sign a contract agreeing to uphold classroom academic standards. The academic struggles that his students encountered became apparent during tournament play in a statewide competition.
“My team was down four points and our best player had just fouled out of the game with two minutes left,” Carter recalled. “I grabbed a replacement player and told him to go out there and get ferocious … The player got halfway on the court before he turned around and asked me which player was ferocious.”
As the audience laughed, Carter added: “I knew then that we had an academic problem when a player didn’t even know what ferocious meant.”
That’s where accountability comes in. “If we set the targets extremely high, guess what happens? People hit them,” he said.
Carter credits the contract for holding his entire program accountable—including him—and he has been successful ever since. “In eight years of coaching,” he said, “every senior that I have ever had in my program has gone on to college.”
”Being accountable for your actions”
Carter’s ideology is mirrored by Lehigh’s men’s basketball coach, Billy Taylor.
“From a coach’s perspective, it’s always nice to hear someone reinforce all the core values we try to stress to our men on a daily basis,” Taylor said. “Our young men have so many demands on their daily lives—academics, athletics, and social—and to be accountable for their actions whether on the court, practicing real hard or working out in the weight room, in the classroom, attending class and doing well in their classes are all very important values.”
Added Mitch Gilfillan, a junior political science major and a guard on the men’s basketball team: “Coach Carter’s speech teaches the values of growing up—discipline, what it takes to be successful, and most importantly, being accountable for your actions. Both Coach Carter and Coach Taylor are true disciplinarians in the fact that they preach values stressing good character on and off the floor, which results in victories, as evidenced in both coaches.”
Earlier in the evening, Carter shared some private moments with Lehigh students at a meet and greet arranged by the Office of Multicultural Affairs.
“Speakers like Coach Carter not only help us to celebrate and share the important messages of Black History Month, they also help us to reinforce the core values that Lehigh holds strong,” said Stephan Coggs, assistant dean of multicultural affairs.
Coach Carter’s visit was sponsored by the Office of Multicultural Affairs, University Productions, Academic Support and Athletics.