March 17, 2022
Mike Carey: The end of a country roads era
West Virginia's Mike Carey retires after 21 years as head coach
There are only a few names that come to mind when you start talking about basketball in the state of West Virginia. Most will say Jerry West first, then-current West Virginia men’s head coach Bob Huggins (who also played at WVU) and the third would be Mike Carey. Carey played and graduated from Salem College (Div. II) in Salem, WVA, entered coaching at the high school level in his home state and then coached the men’s program at his alma mater for four years. Then, in 2001, he became the head coach of the West Virginia women’s program.
Twenty-one years later, Carey is retiring as the winningest coach in program history. He was at the helm while West Virginia was still in the Big East Conference, being named Coach of the Year in that league in 2004 and 2010. He ushered them into the Big 12 and immediately impacted the landscape of women’s basketball in the conference. Carey was named Big 12 Coach of the Year in 2014. That year he led his team to a school-record 30-5 season and the regular season Big 12 title. The Mountaineers had 14 seasons with 20 or more wins under Carey’s leadership.
When Bob Huggins returned home to Morgantown in 2007 to lead the men’s program, it almost seemed like you were looking at the spitting image of another West Virginia coach. Both Carey and Huggins are tall with a side of gruffness. They can cast an intimidating shadow when they enter a room and are known to use colorful language. They were also each driven from day one to have West Virginia basketball be part of the national conversation every year. Some would say the two coaches have never seen a call from the officials they actually like. I am sure they could think of maybe one or two.
Carey tapped into various talent pools for players in states like Pennsylvania, New York, and Maryland during his years in the Big East. Then, when West Virginia moved to the Big 12, he kept those pipelines open and continued to attract great talent. What seem like “old-school” tactics today, Carey never shied away from holding players accountable and never settled for excuses or lack of effort. He demanded a strong work ethic from every person associated with his program. Carey was quoted once as saying, “I believe you make it as simple as you can and whatever you do, you do it well.”
In 2017, West Virginia entered the Big 12 Tournament as the No. 6 seed. In the first two rounds, they knocked off Oklahoma and Texas and were the heavy underdog heading into the finals against Baylor, the No. 1 seed. All-Big 12 player Tynice Martin was unstoppable in those three games. The Mountaineer defense was relentless, forcing turnovers and bad shots and paving the way to a championship. With a 77-66 victory, West Virginia claimed their first Big 12 Tournament title.
I was working that year as the sideline reporter for the tournament’s television broadcasts and spent many timeouts that week listening to Carey’s huddles. He was no-nonsense, kept his instructions simple and demanded that whoever was on the court give 120% max effort.
With less than four minutes to go in the championship game, the Mountaineers were hanging onto a slim lead over Baylor. Carey had a quote for the ages during that media timeout: ‘I know you are tired, but I don’t care! You can sleep on the plane so let’s finish this thing!’
The smile on Carey’s face was permanent for hours after the buzzer sounded while his players celebrated in a shower of confetti and championship T-shirts. I can only imagine how exhausted and happy that plane ride really was back to Morgantown that night.
In times of victory (447 of them at West Virginia) or defeat, Carey would praise those who deserved it the most. He would recognize his players, staff and/or his opponents. He was always one to promote his league (Big East or Big 12), knowing that it would benefit his program one way or another. This season the Mountaineers were 15-15, a far cry from their pre-season Top 25 rankings by many publications. But even in the downtimes, Carey would not settle for less than maximum effort. No matter what, West Virginia would play hard and defend.
The administration has announced a national search will begin immediately to find the next head coach at West Virginia. That person will be filling big shoes, worn for 21 years by a man of integrity, determination, accountability, and true work ethic. Mike Carey has been one of my favorite people in women’s basketball for a long time now because of those qualities. He always knew who he was and what his program was about. He worked tirelessly to raise the game’s profile across the country. For that, the women’s basketball community should be grateful.
I hope the time he has now in retirement with his family and grandchildren brings a permanent smile to his face. Just like he had that championship night in 2017.
Written by Missy Heidrick
I am a former shooting guard at Kansas State and spent almost 20 years working in Higher Education and Division 1 athletics. I am currently a basketball analyst for television and radio, contributing correspondent at The Next, WBB Naismith Award board of selectors member and run my own consulting business. I am a proud mother of two and wife to a patient husband who is almost as big of a sports junkie as I am!