Twenty-eight years ago, Mike Carter wanted to coach football. That’s how it all began – with a desire to coach a sport for which he was not suited. Fresh out of college with a degree in physical education, Carter possessed the requisite ambition and work ethic but not the experience.
He hadn’t played football in college or high school. His last brush with the gridiron occurred in a powder-puff football game in 1980. True story: That powder-puff game his senior year sparked in Carter the realization that he wanted to coach for a living.
So naturally he wound up in volleyball. In 1990, Randolph High School hired him to coach a sport he knew little about. The first officiated high school volleyball game Carter ever saw was the one he coached.
Almost three decades later, he owns more victories – 870 – than any high school volleyball coach in San Antonio area history. His Reagan Rattlers, ranked No. 1 in Texas, have vaulted to the top of the USA Today national rankings for the first time. Three of his players have committed to Division I schools. A fourth player is weighing D1 options. And two or three others with D1 ability have decided they just want to be regular college students.
“I think this is the deepest, most talented team I’ve had,” Carter said.
It will be his last team. After 28 seasons, Carter, 55, has decided to retire. If he wins that elusive state championship – Reagan fell short in the 2006 finals – Carter and the Rattlers will celebrate a perfect ending. If not, Carter will say goodbye to a career no one imagined.
Stacey Carter, Mike’s wife, remembers that first season at Randolph when her husband juggled multiple jobs.
“He would coach volleyball, then we would leave straight from there and scout football teams in smaller towns,” Stacey said. “He was also the head basketball coach and assistant track coach. Then a couple of years later, he announced the football games. He also drove the team bus. He did every job possible.”
Scouting and announcing was the closest Mike ever got to coaching football. When he began applying for jobs after graduating from Texas State University, every prospective employer had one question: Where did you play college ball? No one asked about high school.
“I wrestled in high school,” he said. “I weighed 105 my senior year. When you only weigh 105, it’s kinda hard to play football. But I went from 105 to 202 in four years in the Air Force and got on the powerlifting team.”
Mike let go of powerlifting but hasn’t let go of the gym. At 6 a.m., five days a week, he runs, flips tires, climbs ropes and performs Olympic lifts, his crossfit routine. Then Mike showers and heads to work, 185 pounds of lean muscle.
The Mike Carter narrative is stunning. Most successful volleyball coaches grew up playing the game. Lupe Ruiz, who once held the city record for career wins, knew she wanted to coach in middle school. Ruiz played volleyball at the University of Texas, coached a state championship team at McCollum High School in 1975, led Lee High School to the regional finals in 1980 and 1987, and retired with 653 wins.
Mike had to learn the game. Before he coached his first match, Mike sought out coaches from the UT Austin and Texas State. He registered for their speaking clinics, signed up to work their volleyball camps, asked lots of questions, and took copious notes.
“I was very fortunate that Mick Haley, out of Texas, and Karen Chisum, out of Texas State, both took me under their wing and let me work every single camp and clinic,” Mike said. “They gave me every book to learn from. They taught me the game and let me work for about five, six, seven years, every minute that I could to just steal every idea of how to do things.”
Over time, he grew from student of the game to master coach. He won 101 games in five seasons at Randolph, 103 in four seasons at Holmes and 666 and counting in 19 seasons at Reagan. The Rattlers have captured 13 district titles and advanced to the state tournament three times.
During one challenging stretch, Mike coached against his two daughters, Kristen and Kyndall, who played for Smithson Valley High School. With divided allegiances, Stacey made a shirt with the name of one school on the front and the other on the back.
“It was a little intense,” Stacey said. “You can’t yell against your kids. But you can’t yell against your husband. It was very interesting.”
In one show of support for Smithson Valley, Stacey and the girls hung signs on the gate in front of their house that said, “Beat the Rattlers.” On the way to the Reagan-Smithson Valley game that night, Mike drove the team bus past his house to fire up his players. The Rattlers smashed the Rangers.
“We didn’t try that anymore,” Stacey said.
Mike is trying to win state. That’s the goal every year. He has a strong nucleus of seniors from last year’s team that reached the state semifinals. Three of the best – outside hitter Elissa Barbosa (committed to Georgetown), setter Camryn Ennis (Kansas) and libero Lydia Niebla (UTSA) – played for Mike’s club team when they were 12-years-old.
“Those guys have won at everything they’ve done,” Mike said. “And they are surrounded by nine other seniors who are hungry and talented. Every day is fun. Practices are higher energy. Like any team, you have your ups and downs and lulls in a season. But day in and day out, they are a blast. I knew I wanted to go out with this team.”
And when the season ends? Mike will continue his second career, coaching and developing college talent with the Alamo Volleyball Association.
“This has been our life,” said Stacey, a reading specialist at Fort Sam Houston Elementary. “It has been an honor. We have met so many amazing people.”
The Rattlers are 34-1. It would be easy to look ahead and start thinking about the playoffs. But Mike won’t look beyond the next game. He didn’t know USA Today had ranked his team No. 1 until a parent sent him the story.
Mike would like a celebratory ending but if doesn’t happen, he won’t be crushed. He learned long ago that sometimes when one dream falls apart, another is falling into place.