Carol Mitchell has spent every day of her 29-year coaching career with the Gibbs softball program.
After playing for Gibbs from 1983 to 1987, Mitchell returned after graduating from Carson-Newman to assist her former coach, and she has never even considered leaving.
“It’s the community I grew up in, so I’m comfortable there,” she said. “It’s a pretty close-knit community, although it is growing, and it just it just feels like home. With softball, softball is one thing that we’ve always been known for. “
Mitchell has one of the most decorated resumes of any softball coach in Tennessee. She has led the Eagles to five state championships, four state runner-up finishes, and has missed the state tournament just twice in 28 seasons as head coach. She has 974 career wins.
She will receive the Knox News Lifetime Achievement Award at the Knoxville Area High School Sports Awards presented by Farm Bureau Health Plans of Tennessee on Thursday at the Tennessee Theatre.
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Building a winning tradition
The reputation of Gibbs softball was established during Mitchell’s time as a player under former coach Dennis Ray. The team won consecutive state championships in 1983 and 1984, and added two more in 1986 and 1987. When she returned to Gibbs in 1992, it was as Ray’s assistant for a season before he left the program in her hands.
In 1993, Mitchell’s first season as coach, the team had one returning varsity player from the previous year and just 11 girls on the roster. Though the Eagles still reached the state tournament in both 1992 and 1993, they finished with a losing record. Those first two seasons are the only losing seasons of Mitchell’s career.
The struggles didn’t last long, though. Mitchell won her first state title in 1998 and added two more in 1999 and 2000. Most recently, the Eagles finished runners-up to Lexington in the 2022 Class 3A state championship.
Mitchell has carried the lessons from her early days into the way she runs the current Gibbs softball program. Though the team’s history looms large over each new class, Mitchell doesn’t emphasize wins or losses — she didn’t even know her team’s 2022 record until after the season.
“When I first started, I was so focused on trying to win and what did we need to do to win, but as I’ve moved through the years, it’s more about just developing the players,” she said. “We never talk about our record, because the record is not the important thing. It’s about how you’re progressing fundamentally through your season.”
Making an impact
After nearly three decades, Mitchell said every district championship, sectional win and state title still feels just as exciting as the first, because she draws joy from watching her players succeed. She said one of her most memorable teams was the 2021 squad that finished third at the state tournament.
“I was probably more proud of that team than I was of the state championship teams, because we got the maximum amount of everything out of that team,” Mitchell said. “For us to come in third was like a championship for us. Each team has its own little things that you really remember.”
Unique challenges have come with coaching high school girls over the years — Mitchell said the rise in social media is one of the biggest — but she said the time commitment and difficult moments are all worth it when she hears from former players that her lessons paid off.
“I have kids that will text me years later and say, ‘I was applying for this job or I’ve got this job and my manager says that I work harder than everybody else, and I learned that playing for you,’ ” Mitchell said. “When you get those little messages back or when they come to the field to see you and just say, ‘thank you, Coach,’ that’s why you do it.”
Gracie Palmer, a Lincoln Memorial softball signee, attends Berean Christian School but joined Gibbs softball her freshman year because Berean did not have a team. When the TSSAA established separate public and private school divisions in 2019-20, Palmer appealed to the TSSAA to continue playing for Mitchell at Gibbs.
“Many times, women don’t get seen as very good coaches, but Coach Mitchell has just proven herself like over and over to be a really good coach,” Palmer said. “I love playing for her. I’ve grown up playing for men and I have just as much respect for her as I do for any other guy that I’ve played for.”
Next year will mark Mitchell’s 30th year at Gibbs, and though she would like to retire from teaching math at the high school in the near future, she doesn’t feel ready to walk away from her softball program any time soon.
“It really has just flown by,” Mitchell said. “I would love to retire from teaching, but I can’t see myself giving up softball. I think I’ll be ready at some point, but it’s definitely not right now. I’ll know when it’s time, but there’s no end in sight.”
This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: Gibbs softball coach Carol Mitchell gets Lifetime Achievement Award