There are only a few things you can count on in this world: death, taxes and Tom Carroll serving another year as Damien High School’s athletic director, a position he assumed in 1973, when it cost 40 cents to put a gallon of gas in your new $2,900 AMC Javelin.
His vintage is the Korean War. When the conflict broke out in 1950, he waited for his draft number to be pulled. “I have to admit I wasn’t a guy who was going to run out and join up,” Carroll said from his office stuffed with enough Damien memorabilia to furnish an entire wing at a local museum.
Yet, as he has been a role model to so many, he too found a role model that changed not only his personal journey but Damien’s history as well. He watched Bob Cavanaugh, a decorated and battle-scarred World War II U.S. Marine, step off the train in Springfield, Ohio, to a hero’s welcome. “Then and there, I wanted to be Bob Cavanaugh,” Carroll said.
Carroll might not have become Cavanaugh, but all the same, he’s made a pretty good name for himself.
Skipping to Dayton University, Carroll was a sports jock on a football scholarship. He avoided study groups and and study halls like a running back dodging would-be tacklers. He loved sports and tolerated academics. “I thought sports are where the fun’s at,” he said. He admits to just trying to get by with his studies, adding that his opportunity to receive a first-class education, for the most part, passed him by.
He was smart enough, however, to enroll at Long Beach State to complete the eight units he needed for graduation, despite also having a young family to provide for. “I ended up taking about 46 units to get those eight, but I didn’t mind because it was the first time I took my studies seriously,” he said. “There were things that intrigued me. In fact. I felt those 46 units were better than the four years I spent at Dayton, education-wise.”
He was also wise enough to see a new career path opening for him. He was working for the construction outfit, Sully Miller, raking asphast when the Teamsters Union, of which he was a member, went out on strike. At church, the newly unemployed Carroll heard that St. Catherine’s Military School in Anaheim needed a coach and a physical education teacher. After mass, Carroll asked where the school could be found and learned it was right behind the church. He applied and started working the next day, and has been virtually at work ever since moving in succession on the Catholic school circuit from St. Catherine’s, to Chaminade, to St. Anthony’s, to Mater Dei, and finally to Damien in 1973 as athletic director. He’s never left.
“When I took the job,” he recalled, “Father said, ‘Do a good job.’ I thought, ‘I can do this, just take it one season at a time,’ but boy oh boy, there’s a lot more to it than that.”
Whether confronted with a staffing, financial, funding, scheduling, liability, athletic, academic or one of a thousand administrative issues, he basically uses a single criterion before making a decision. “Whenever I’m faced with a big decision,” he said, “I always ask myself, ‘How is it going to affect the kids?'”
Era of Specialization
In an era of sports specialization, Carroll believes kids at Damien should have the opportunity to play all sports, at least their freshman and sophomore years. “Coaches should not try to influence or interfere with that,” he said.
This philosophy can often run counter to bullheaded coaches trying to build their programs by insisting their athletes play only for them or an affiliated club team. “Teams are not for coaches, the teams are for the kids,”Carroll said sharply. “We are just the caretakers or the guides who try to help our students learn how to play the game better.”
He evaluates the performance of his coaches not by how many wins they collect, but by how well they deal with kids. “If he is a caring man, if really takes good care of the kids, I will battle for him,” Carroll said.
Recalling his own checkered academic history, he wants Damien students to do more than just get by. Even though he is in charge of athletics, academics are No. 1 with Carroll. The administation, in which Carroll plays a central role, is firm in upholding the school’s academic standards, including the one “F” rule, which can keep a student from playing after-school sports.
“I think sometimes we’re awfully tough, but on the other hand, when it’s over and done with, I think we’re doing the right thing,” said Carroll. “Sometimes, people disagree and take their kids elsewhere.”
Carroll doesn’t deal in too many absolutes, but he makes this guarantee: “If you are a parent, and you drive up here and drop your boy off, to the best of our ability, we’ll take care of your son from 7:50 in the morning until 3 something in the afternoon, depending on whether he plays football or basketball or some other sport.”
It’s Damien’s reputation of loyalty and commitment that continues to attract top-flight students and athletes to the campus, often over the whispers of competing schools who believe Damien is actively recruiting.
“We don’t recruit,” Carroll said flatly. “We get accused of it all the time. That comes with being a catholic or private school. We don’t have boundaries. There are no boundaries to your mortal soul. This is freedom of choice. We don’t live in a communist country where the government tells you where you have to go to school. I always kid, that we’ll get you in here and baptize you, which is not true. We don’t do that.”
What is true is the list of big name athlete who have walked Damien’s halls. “I would be lying to you if I said I didn’t enjoy all the hype and hoopla that went with Mark McGwire’s home run records,” said Carroll, who coached McGwire in baseball at Damien. “It was a magical time, and it was fun because Mark was a good ol’ boy.”
More recently, 2003 Damien graduate Ian Johnson lit up the sports pages, setting the Western Athletic Conference record for rushing touchdowns at 58.The Boise State backer also scored the two-point conversion in the Broncos’ improbable 43-42 2007 Fiesta Bowl victory over Oklahoma in what many call the greatest game in college sports history.
A View from the Golf Cart
Carroll still feels there’s a place for an all-boys school in today’s world. “There are no distractions here,” said Carroll, who has three daughters, Lynn, Lisa and Laurie, and two boys John and Brian (aka Buckethead the famous electric guitarist who has released 25 solo albums and played on 50 more). “Although I think sometimes if we had girls here, maybe the boys would act more like gentlemen.”
When you finally get Carroll to talk about athletics,the coach’s competitive juices start flowing and he sits a little more upright in his chair as if he’s getting ready to signal a play in from the sidelines.
“The status of athletics is never as good as you want, but it’s right on track,” Carroll said. (This season, Carroll brought on board coach Greg Gano, who has the green and gold playing great ball with three consecutive wins, including last week’s 52-3 romp over Diamond Bar. In Damien’s last three games, the team has scored 90 points while surrendering just 10.)
Carroll likes where he sits, which is usually in a golf cart cruising the Spartan campus. “My God,” he said, “I’m not driving a dyanamite truck through the hills of West Virginia worrying about it going off the side, where people are saying, ‘Where’s Carroll? There’s a piece of him up there and there’s another piece over there.’ No, the occupational hazards I face are far from that.
“I’ve learned this much in my life, and they were probably saying it in the day of Noah’s Ark,” he said. “You cannot please everybody. Just think of the kids when you’re trying to reach a decision. Sometimes, it’s not popular with them, either. But if you make a decision in their best interest, and you’ve done it honestly and you’re truthful and you’ve done the best you can, I don’t think you have a thing to worry about.
“Just go get ’em.”