Jacksonville Sports Day

Dual-Sport Star Fletcher Carr Was One of UT Spartans’ Top Athletes

Erie, Pa. native Fletcher Carr (center) will be inducted into the Pennsylvania Wrestling Coaches Association Hall of Fame.

TAMPA – Fletcher Carr, one of the top athletes in University of Tampa history, had a sparkling Spartan career.

He was a four-year starting center in football, helping UT to a 1972 Tangerine Bowl victory in his final game. In wrestling, he was an All-American and two-time national champion, while nearly qualifying for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team.

And just think, Carr’s most notable accomplishments probably occurred after he left UT.

Fran Curci, who recruited Carr to UT from Erie, Pa., became head football coach at the University of Kentucky in 1973. He offered an assistant coaching job to Carr, 23, who had just graduated from UT. At first, Carr was hesitant.

Then Curci upped the offer. Carr could also become Kentucky’s head wrestling coach.

Well, that sealed the deal. One small problem.

Kentucky didn’t have a wrestling program.

It remains an amazing tale. Carr, who transformed a patchwork start-up program into a national powerhouse, became the first black head coach in Southeastern Conference history and the first black wrestling coach at a Division I school.

The UK Wildcats — or the “Mat Cats,” as they were called — were two-time SEC champions, two-time runners-up and two-time 10th-place finishers at the NCAA Championships. In eight seasons, Carr had 26 NCAA qualifiers and 10 All-Americans. He was also a two-time SEC Coach of the Year.

“Fletcher drew respect because of the way he carried himself and his results spoke for themselves,” said former UK wrestler Earl Rayford, an SEC champion and NCAA qualifier at 150 pounds. “The memories are tremendous.”

Unfortunately, UK wrestling is just a memory. Despite the success, the program was dropped following the 1982-83 season. With the addition of women’s sports and increased funding due to Title IX, wrestling became a financial casualty.

“It’s absurd that a program with so much success can just be dropped to the wayside,” said Sharon Mead, who was Carr’s administrative assistant. “It didn’t end with a bang. It ended with a whimper. That’s just wrong.

“A lot of time has passed and some people have just forgotten. But the people in town who were there at the time, they won’t ever forget Fletcher Carr.”

Carr’s upbringing was unforgettable enough.

As the son of a preacher man and one of 16 children — including five who became All-American wrestlers — Carr didn’t like the factory-working life he envisioned in Erie. He was dead set on entering the Marine Corps, even during the Vietnam War era, and waved off recruiters for football and wrestling.

Carr failed his military physical — a knee injury — and reconsidered his future. Curci, recruiting a East High School quarterback named Dennis Satyshur, came across Carr, a 190-pound center. He visited the Carr home, won over the father, and wouldn’t take no for an answer. So Carr headed to Tampa.

“I really didn’t know what I was getting into,” Carr said.

Exposed to the racial tensions of the Deep South, Carr said he felt like he had entered a strange new world. “I think there was one black girl on our entire campus,” he said. “Early on, I thought about leaving. But I stuck it out and I’m so glad I did.”

Carr became a UT football fixture, participating in the famous 1969 contest against Florida A&M (the first interracial football game in the South) and was on the ground floor of the Freddie Solomon era. Curci left for Miami following the 1970 season and Carr wound up playing for three different head coaches.

UT football was ground-breaking, ultra-successful and charismatic. But Carr made an even bigger mark in wrestling, his natural sport, and karate, where he was a black belt.

Carr was a two-time NCAA College national champion (equivalent to Division II), which earned him a spot at the NCAA Division I championships, where he finished third. He took second in the Pan-American Games and the AAU Nationals. He also won 56 consecutive dual matches.

“I never had to cut weight or anything like that,” Carr said. “I ate what I wanted. It really didn’t matter (the weight class). Sometimes, I wrestled up at heavyweight to get the competition.”

Wrestling helped Carr’s football abilities. He was outweighed by most opposing defensive linemen, but his knowledge and leverage created an advantage. Most memorably, Carr dominated All-American nose guard Tony Cristiani in UT’s upset of the Miami Hurricanes at the Orange Bowl.

“I was like a pulling center,” Carr said. “Even if you run me over, you’re still not getting the tackle because you’re going to be holding on to me.

“I liked football, but I really loved wrestling. It was the competition, the strategy and how hard you needed to work. I was a workaholic. I ran the whole time. I ran out to the mat and I was ready to go. You’d better be ready because I was always going full-speed.”

Carr took that attitude into coaching. When Curci shifted from Miami to Kentucky, Carr came aboard and worked with the Wildcat offensive linemen. But his true passion was starting UK’s wrestling program from scratch.

“Fletcher’s program was very attractive to a wrestler because he built it up so fast,” Rayford said. “I thought I’d be ready. I wasn’t. He pushed us physically to levels we had never seen before. He challenged us constantly.”

“Fletcher was extremely likable and popular in the athletic department, but he was a no-nonsense guy,” Mead said. “He could be fiery. But if he got quiet, you better watch out. He didn’t yell, but he got that stern look on his face and it could be scary. The guys responded to that. He brought out the best in his athletes.”

Carr was understandably disappointed when UK wrestling disappeared. He went into private business and moved to the Phoenix area. Old habits were restored. He joined Arizona State’s wrestling staff and helped the Sun Devils capture a national championship in 1988.

Carr, 71, still works with young wrestlers, while working camps and helping with clinics. It’s still his passion, although his day job is working in a supervisory role for a granite company, helping to produce award-winning countertops.

What has given Carr the most pride?

“My soul is saved,” Carr said. “How about that?”

His father was a minister. He majored in social studies and physical education at UT, but also minored in religion. At age 12, he became a Christian, but said he wasn’t fully committed until his adult life.

“When you’re young, you don’t have a complete understanding,” Carr said. “I’m not a Bible thumper. I like studying the Word. My thing is witnessing to people and being an example. It’s how you walk, how you talk.

“It’s always there. Coaching is similar. You never stop being a coach. You try to show people the way. I’ve been lucky to have a great life and if I can continue to show people how to have a great, blessed life, then I am one fortunate man.”

Joey Johnston has worked in the Tampa Bay sports media for more than three decades, winning multiple national awards while covering events such as the Super Bowl, World Series, Final Four, Wimbledon, the U. S. Open, the Stanley Cup Finals and all the major bowl games. But his favorite stories have always been about Tampa Bay Area teams and athletes. A third-generation Tampa native, he was a regular in the Tampa Stadium stands at University of Tampa football games.

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