MARENGO – As the crowd began to thin at Covrette Stadium on a rainy, freezing, late October night this fall, Chad Carpenter was nowhere to be found.
His Highland Scots had just dismantled East Knox, a team with an identical 7-1 record, racking up 401 first-half yards en route to a 43-point win. It was one of their best performances of the year, breezing by another potential KMAC title challenger and setting up the de facto championship game in Week 10 against Northmor.
It was a game most coaches would be eager to boast about. The performance was nothing short of physical, mental, and emotional dominance. It was never close. But 30 minutes after the final horn sounded, Carpenter had gone missing.
When media were allowed into the locker room to find him, he stood near the back, a slice of pizza in-hand, dark bags under his eyes. He leaned up against a table and looked sheepishly toward the reporters approaching him.
He gave them grief, but in a fun way. He made fun of one reporter for picking against him, but he said he understood. Visibly exhausted, he cracked jokes before his standard, “Alright guys, whaddya got?”, which meant he was ready to answer questions.
This was Chad Carpenter.
He didn’t dislike the media, he just didn’t seek the spotlight. As the years went by, he preferred to let the results do the talking. And boy, they did.
Highland went 9-2 this year, earning a league title and qualifying for the playoffs for the second straight season. It was the Scots’ fourth consecutive year of improvement; they won six games in 2015 and have increased their win total by one game each year since.
He had built the program to the pinnacle; before losing to Lorain Clearview in the first round of the playoffs this season, they had won eight games by three touchdowns or more. The East Knox game was symbolic of their rampage through the KMAC this season – the games should have been close on paper, but on the field they never were.
But after 17 years of building Highland to this point, Carpenter – the winningest coach in school history – decided his time had come. He could step down now and the program would be in a good place, a much better place than he found it. So he did.
Last Friday, Dec. 14, Carpenter announced his retirement.
“Really tough. Really, really tough,” Carpenter said of the decision this week in his high school office, where he serves as Highland’s assistant principal. “It was really hard.”
Carpenter will keep his academic position but forgo a job that has consumed his life for the past 19 years, that of head football coach.
Sitting in his office Tuesday, reclining in his chair and twiddling a pen in his thick, strong, former-college-defensive-end fingers, he explained why he decided to hang it up.
It was just time, he said.
The past 17 years have been about juggling three things – family, school and football. He has two daughters, 12 and 15 years old, who are still coming up through the Highland school system. His son, Chase, just completed his senior season as an all-state offensive lineman.
He’s seeking more balance between work and family life, and he felt now – with the football program in a state of perpetual success – would be a good time to step down, so he could find that balance.
“You only have so many hours in a day. And for a time period, I was robbing from my family to cover the other two (school and football). And now, it’s like something’s gotta give,” Carpenter said. “I’ve felt that way for a few years. And so with my girls coming up through, I’m not sacrificing family anymore.”
It wasn’t an easy decision, however. Carpenter said he thought about the prospect of retiring all season; something inside told him this might be his last go-around, so he tried to enjoy it a little more than usual.
By Thanksgiving, he knew it was time. He told his family first, then he told athletic director Mike DeLaney, his coaching staff and his team last week. They met on Friday, the freshman, sophomore and juniors hoping to play next year, and tears were shed.
He will miss the relationships that he’s developed with his players and their families. He will miss the grind – the challenges that come with each season, and the process of working to overcome them.
Carpenter said his decision was made tougher by the fact that he knew he would have to leave the players who are still coming up through the program, who he would love to have coached in the coming years. As high school sports go, new talent comes through each year. It’s an endless cycle. He wishes he could coach them all.
“You’re just so attached to all of them, and when one group leaves, another group takes its place and that bond is always there,” Carpenter said. “You know, I’m very blessed to have incredible assistant coaches that also are maybe even more so involved with those kids. And that’s why I feel like I can walk away and I know everybody’s going to be taken care of.”
Now, Highland will try to find a replacement for its winningest coach. It won’t be easy.
Carpenter amassed 113 wins at Highland, losing just 66 games (for a win percentage of .63). He took the program to its first ever playoff appearance in 2006 – and did it again, and again, and again, eventually qualifying five straight times. He won several league titles and built the program up to a state of annual success.
He began in Marengo as a 31-year old, fresh off his first two seasons of head coaching at Mapleton High School in Ashland County. He came to Highland because he wanted to be closer to his family (he graduated from Fredericktown High School in 1989) and wanted to raise his children near his hometown.
But the first season was brutal. Following a 2001 season that was marred by tragedy, only 24 players came out for the team. Parents were worried about Carpenter’s rigorous offseason training program, and after being hired late in the year, he had yet to establish a solid relationship with his players. The Scots went 2-8 that season.
It would be Highland’s worst season under Carpenter’s watch. He soon gained the trust of his players and their parents, and the buy-in paid dividends. Highland went 6-4 the next season and never looked back.
“I’ve always been a competitor and I just hate to lose. I just hate to lose,” Carpenter said. “And so like I said, it was a rough year here all the way around for everybody. But once we got through that first year, we were able to start generating a little more excitement and it just seemed to get better then at that point.”
“He just had to get the kids to adjust to the way he did things,” added Jim Wharton, who has been involved with Highland football for 40 years and was the stadium announcer for Carpenter’s first 10 seasons. “Different coach, different way of doing things. And he struggled at first, but he’s won them over ever since.”
Between Mapleton and Highland, Carpenter tallied 120 wins and 79 losses in his 19 years as a head coach. He took Highland football to new heights – “you know, it was a basketball school,” Wharton chuckled – but it wasn’t the wins and losses that did it for Carpenter.
And that’s not what his players remember about him, either.
For as big and mean and tough as Carpenter looks – he played defensive end for Div. III Muskingum University in the 90s and has maintained his broad-shouldered, towering figure ever since, often sporting a gruff expression during the heat of competition that would elicit fear amongst giants, let alone high school boys – he doesn’t act that way.
He’s tough when he needs to be, but he can often be seen joking around with his players. He speaks softly and slowly, and walks with patience.
His players and assistants call him ‘Coach Carp,’ alluding to the down-to-earth relationship he’s established between them. He might resemble a quarterback killer – and he was back in the day – and he certainly boasts the career record to command authoritarian respect, but he does not seek that.
Instead, he sought to establish an unbreakable bond within his locker room. Success was a byproduct of togetherness, he thought, and his players bought in.
“He just gets all his kids to play for him. Everybody knows that he cares about them and he’s like a father figure to everybody out there,” senior tailback Brock Veley said.
“Just the way he presents himself on the field, out of school and in school... he’s just a role model that everybody looks up to. Everybody gives it their all for him, just to make him proud, because he puts in all the hard work just as much as we do.”
That’s not to say he went easy on his players, though. Carp was tough.
Former players are quick to recall the grueling offseason workouts, which began in January, that Carpenter ran year after year. They were filled with knockout lifting sessions and repeat 110s – where players would run from the back of one end zone to the opposite goal line – in the summer heat.
Carpenter and his former players say the workouts helped them develop the ‘Highland mentality.’ Through the pain and sacrifice, they became closer. That, Carpenter says, is what it takes to win.
“When you see all your friends and all that struggling through the same thing, it brings you closer together,” senior fullback Tate Tobin said. “And that’s something that I appreciate Coach Carp doing.”
Carpenter was also a top-notch playcaller, former opponents recall.
Jack Fitzpatrick, a senior at Fredericktown, remembers the first time he faced Carpenter's Scots. He was blown away by how prepared the team was, which was a common sentiment among players and coaches who lined up against Highland over the years.
"He knows how to coach," Fitzpatrick said. "Everything he did scheming-wise was so precise that I don’t even know how to explain it. It was just pure football, is the best way I can explain it."
"You know, I think he always got the most out of his kids," added Danville head coach Ed Honabarger, who has led the Blue Devils to the playoffs seven of the last eight years and shared the KMAC title with Highland in 2017.
"Just playing them in the past few years, they were always well-prepared to take on their opponents."
It’s more than just the rigorous training program and X’s and O’s that helped Carpenter gain the respect of his peers, though.
It was how he cared for his players off the field. As assistant principal, Carpenter helped mentor players year after year academically. He helped set players up for opportunities after high school, and even helped some well after their days in the blue and red. That was the case for Satchel Denton, a 2017 Highland graduate who would go on to kick for the University of Rhode Island after high school.
Denton and Carpenter still text regularly, Denton said, and when he felt the need to transfer after his freshman season (he wanted something smaller and closer to home), Carpenter helped set him up with Ashland University.
“He always put us before himself and he always made sure we had what we needed,” Denton said. “He always cared about us as people and players.”
Carpenter would also try to help players who were going through hard times at home. He would call parents to try to mend certain situations, Denton said. For many, he served as a father figure away from home.
“I’d say my dad has been a dad to all of his players,” Chase Carpenter said. “You know, he’s focused on everybody’s well-being. He wants everybody to do great in school, he’s always on everybody to get good grades, to go to class.
“And on the field, he wants everything the player has. He wants 100 percent of what you’ve got. And if you can do that, then my dad will love you like he loves me.”
Carpenter shared the same love for his assistant coaches, many of whom have been with the program for a number of years. The players respected how he would allow his assistants to “do their job,” as Tobin put it, and how he allowed them to grow under his tutelage.
Often times, Carpenter would set his assistants up for bigger opportunities down the road. This happened with Cody Reese, currently the East Knox head coach and elementary school principal, who served as an assistant on Carpenter’s staff from 2011-2014.
Reese remembers how Carpenter took him under his wing, and how he always “took care” of his assistants.
“Coach Carp does a great job of supporting his coaches and taking care of people. He’s a great mentor,” said Reese, who still calls Carpenter from time to time. “Coaches want to coach for him, and you don’t see it where coaches are coming and going. They’re there – they’re teachers in the district.
“He does a great job of letting them be coaches and coach their position. If he sees something, he’ll say it, but he trusts them to do what they need to do and doesn’t micromanage.”
That caring attitude extended beyond his own program, too. Carpenter had a profound impact on the players his teams played against, including former Northmor star running back Demetrius “Meechie” Johnson.
Johnson, who played Highland four times before graduating last year, said Carpenter would always ask him after games about his future plans. He said he wasn’t alone – Carpenter would ask others as well – which showed that he cared about the area’s youth on and off the field.
“He told me no matter what the outcome, I would be successful, and to follow my dreams and stick to it. He knew I’d be great,” Johnson said in a Twitter direct message this week.
“Coach Carpenter was a great all-around coach and he definitely made an impact on my life and also his athletes’ lives. You could tell talking to the guy, he just genuinely cares about the kids, which was always much bigger than the game.”
Between the hashes, though, Carpenter was a ruthless competitor. He took immense pride in 'out-toughing' other teams, running the Wing-T offense to perfection with a multi-back backfield.
All that offseason training, the pain and suffering? It was all part of the plan.
“He takes so much pride in running the ball down a team’s throat and just physically dominating teams,” said Tobin, laughing over the phone. “And I think that’s something (we) as a team embraced, and that’s something we loved to do too.”
This year, his team scored 40 points per game – and almost all of it came on the ground. Using a four-back system, which featured Veley, Tobin, Brody Matthews and Jack Weaver, Highland ran for over 3,500 yards this fall. The Scots executed their run game behind a fast and physical offensive line, led by several all-conference talents.
On defense, the Scots gave up just 15 points per game, utilizing a hard-nosed line and a quick secondary to keep teams out of the end zone.
“You know they’re going to be extremely physical, they’re going to be a very disciplined team, and you’re going to get a full game out of them,” Reese said of Highland. “For four quarters, it’s going to be a battle.”
In an era where coaches often struggle to fill out their roster, Carpenter consistently had 40 or more players on his team. That depth, on top of the starters’ physicality, was often too much for opponents to handle.
“Any Highland team that you’re going to go against, regardless of record, they’re going to be wanting to hit you in the mouth," Fitzpatrick said. "There’s no question, Highland is going to hit you."
Fitzpatrick, who also happens to be Carpenter’s neighbor, added that the program’s ability to reload year after year makes it all the more daunting to play against.
“It’s never a rebuild phase, it’s always ‘reload,’” Fitzpatrick said. “So whatever they do with their kids in the offseason is just absolutely tremendous because I could truthfully say, from my freshman to my senior year, it’s the same Highland team with just different jersey numbers out there.”
The good news for Highland: the train is rolling along just fine. Carpenter and several former players spoke highly of the incoming classes, which will be expected to carry the program to even greater heights next fall.
The bad news: the train will have to roll on without its conductor, who has brought trophies back to Marengo for nearly two decades. DeLaney called Carpenter’s retirement a “huge loss” for the program and athletic department, but he believes the program’s established culture will allow it to thrive as the coaching transition takes place.
DeLaney said Highland will begin its coaching search internally before potentially looking outside the program for candidates. There are currently several lucrative head coaching jobs open in the area, including Shelby, Crestview and Lexington, who have all shared similar success in recent years.
Highland will be looking for a coach who exhibits leadership qualities that match the program's standards.
“For me, it all comes down to leadership and improving the lives of the kids that they impact, and promoting what our athletic department is about,” DeLaney said. “If your football coach and program aren’t promoting the ideals of what your athletics program stands for, then that’s not what we want.”
Highland hopes to make a hire by its February school board meeting, DeLaney said.
But it will be nearly impossible to replace a coach like Carpenter, who went well beyond his job description on a daily basis.
“The X's and O's will take care of itself, and we can talk about that later, but just in terms of leadership and guiding young men, that’s what’s important," DeLaney said. "And Chad left some big shoes to fill in that regard."
While Carpenter is stepping away, he said he plans to stay involved with the players and program from afar. He'll still serve as assistant principal, after all, and will continue to advise many of Highland's students academically.
“I guess that’s my focus now, I want to make sure they’re still taken care of,” Carpenter said in his office, which is lined with framed pictures of teams, friends and family.
“I’m in a unique position in the school to help with that. And I’m not leaving this job, so I still want to be close to them and I still want to be their biggest fan and help when I can. You know, I don’t want to leave high and dry and just be gone."
Chase is glad his dad coached this long – he had considered retiring before his son entered high school, but decided to coach his class through (he had coached Chase and his friends in Colt football as well).
“It no doubt has brought me closer to my dad, on and off the field,” Chase said.
Chase said next year will be much different for not only his father, but his family as a whole. He said they have been “fully bought in” to the football lifestyle, and they will have much more down time together now. They’ll still be heavily involved in the school district – Chad's wife, Erin, is the school nurse, and two of the three kids will still attend Highland schools – but football will play a lesser role.
Chase said his father has experienced mixed emotions since announcing his retirement. He’s happy that he decided to hang it up, but he’ll miss what he’s been accustomed to over the last two decades.
“It’s pulling both ways,” Chase said. “I’m sure he's going to be happy that he made this decision, it’s going to be a lot less stress on him of course. But it’s just all the guys that he’d already been coaching this year, all the freshmen through juniors, that he’s going to leave behind. I’d say that’s the biggest issue with him leaving is just leaving those memories on the football field.”
On Tuesday, reclining in his office, Carpenter seemed at peace. He talked about how his phone was blowing up with text messages and calls last weekend after his retirement became public, and how he was still overwhelmed by it all.
“A lot of these guys I haven’t talked to in a while. And when I would see their name pop up, I would think of incredible memories of things that they’d done,” Carpenter said, pausing to smile. “That was just really neat.”
In general, though, he’s surprised the news of his retirement has blown up like this. It’s not what he envisioned, and probably not the attention he wanted, but it was going to be hard to avoid. It’s hard to simply fade away with the resumé – and impact – he’s had.
“In the OHSAA it’s supposed to be about education-based athletics, and he represents the best of that,” DeLaney said of Carpenter, who he’s known personally for nearly a decade. “You couldn’t ask for a better man to run your football program than Chad Carpenter.”