A month before LeBron James drove a Hummer to school and started modeling $400 ''throwback'' jerseys, a coach in Texas offered $1 to any player on his team who took a charge in a game.
''One kid got good at it and probably made himself $11 or $12,'' former Denison High coach Earl Carson chuckled. ''I think 10 other kids got a dollar each.
''The good news is I didn't pay anybody until the season was over and I've since collected all the money back, so at least their eligibility won't be a problem. The bad news is my administration felt it was something they couldn't live with so I'm out of a job.''
Both James and Carson tripped over the eligibility line, but their falls couldn't have turned out much more different.
James wound up sitting out a few games, but barely skipped a beat. He returned to the Akron (Ohio) St. Vincent-St. Mary lineup in plenty of time to claim a third Ohio state title in four years and probably spent Tuesday auditioning interior designers to furnish the mansion he'll build shortly after becoming the NBA's top draft choice in June. Carson, meanwhile, was just beginning what could be a long and difficult search for a new job.
Three weeks ago, without lawyers or friends in high places, Carson went before the school board in Denison, a town of 22,000 near the Texas-Oklahoma border and birthplace of President Eisenhower, and resigned over the $23 payout.
The board accepted, even though the coach was well liked by players and their parents during his nine years there, and compiled a 324-251 record, including playoff berths in four of the past five years.
''Now, of course, I wish I'd just kept the money in my pocket. But it sure served its purpose at the time,'' Carson said. ''It got those kids thinking about playing defense by moving their feet a little.''
Though Carson told his players he was resigning the next day, most people in town knew little about the matter until Sunday, when the local newspaper ran a story with some of the details. The more they learned about it, the more they wondered whether Carson was hung out to dry.
He certainly was -- and it almost certainly had less to do with the dollar bills Carson handed out at the end of this season than some of the toes he stepped on along the way.
''It doesn't matter if he paid those kids $1 or $1,000,'' Denison High athletic director Bob Brown insisted Tuesday. ''Rules and regulations govern every aspect of life. That's just the way it is.''
Anybody searching for the heavy in this story could do worse than to focus on Brown, who doubles as Denison's football coach.
He hired Carson in 1993 after the previous coach failed to get the fighting Yellow Jackets into the playoffs five straight years, and said Tuesday: ''Earl has done everything I've ever asked of him. But after this, we all felt, him included, like it was in his best interest to resign.''
Brown won't say much else, but he told the Herald Democrat last week that rumors Carson was forced out because he was planning to report rules violation in the football program were ''nonsense.''
''There just shouldn't even be any credibility to that,'' Brown said. ''There has been no rules violations by the football program or Bob Brown.''
Denison superintendent Henry Scott said Tuesday, ''There's more to this than meets the eye,'' but then refused to detail any problems with Carson beyond the pay-per-play offer.
''Sometimes, you get comfortable in a position and you don't think about the consequences of your actions as a coach,'' Scott added cryptically, ''or an administrator or superintendent, for that matter.''
As soon as Brown learned of the payouts to Denison's players, he filed a report with the University Interscholastic League, which governs prep sports in Texas. Then, he was told to bring the matter before an executive committee made up of representatives from the five other schools in Denison's district.
That group convened Wednesday and publicly reprimanded Carson. That effectively ended the matter without it being referred back to the UIL. Although it was the only punishment handed out, Carson had already decided not to fight for his job.
''What's the point?'' he asked. ''I've always been of the opinion that once you're not wanted somewhere, whatever the reason, it's time to move on.''
Carson told the newspaper word got back to him that Brown ''suspects me of turning him in for rules violations, which I didn't do.''
He still wants to coach somewhere, though, and last season's finish -- the Yellow Jackets won 12 of their last 18 games after a 3-10 start -- suggests he can still do the job.
''I've got to move on,'' Carson said. ''This is not like the college guys that have due process clauses in their contracts where they get paid no matter what. I've got bills.''
Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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