By Dave Wagner: CNJ sports writer
When Don Carthel left the coaching ranks in 1991 after seven seasons at Eastern New Mexico University, it probably should have been obvious that it wasn’t out of his blood.
His heart has never left the Lone Star Conference, either.
A native of Dimmitt, Texas, and a resident of Friona, Carthel has never been far-removed from the LSC.
He was a finalist for the West Texas A&M job in 2001, but the school opted for Ronnie Jones — a move Carthel admits left him “broken-hearted.”
He never really strayed from the conference, though, serving as a volunteer assistant at Abilene Christian for three seasons where he joined his son Colby, the Wildcats’ current recruiting coordinator and defensive line coach and a linebacker in the late 1990s at Angelo State.
He’s also coached for several years in the Division II Cactus Bowl all-star game, hosted by LSC member Texas A&M-Kingsville.
In spring 2004, Carthel became the coach of the indoor Amarillo Dusters in the Intense Football League. But when WT struggled in its three seasons under Jones, he jumped at the chance to get back into the college game and was named the school’s 26th head football coach in April.
To this point, it couldn’t have gone much better. The Buffaloes are off to a 6-0 start, averaging 47.8 points a game and ranked 16th in NCAA Division II.
“It’s exciting, but I was excited at Angelo when Colby was there,” Carthel said as the Buffs prepared for tonight’s LSC South Division battle against Eastern New Mexico University.
“I’m shocked — we’re playing way over our heads, and we’ve been really lucky. We’re playing hard, but we’re fortunate to be where we are.”
With his son in the conference, he’s continued to see a lot of games. That helped minimize the adjustment over the 14 years since he was at ENMU.
“That’s how I was able to keep in the loop,” Carthel said. “I’ve been able to stay up on the conference.
“I’m surprised as heck and happy as heck (with his team’s start). I’m having a good time, and the community has really responded well.”
ENMU coach and one-time WT assistant Mark Ribaudo said Carthel hasn’t lost anything from his days with the Hounds.
“Donnie’s had a profound impact,” Ribaudo said. “He’s got everybody heading in the same direction on that team.
“He’s got a vision for that team. He knows where he wants to go, and he knows how to get there.”
Ribaudo said the Buffs’ prolific run-and-shoot offense, averaging around 45 passes a game, is among the best he’s seen in his 14 seasons in the conference.
While the Buffs had talent in recent years under Jones, Carthel and his staff have been able to put it together, Ribaudo said.
“They did a good job of recruiting before (in Jones’ regime),” he said. “Donnie has come in and just added to it.”
Carthel acknowledges that, with Eastern the opponent and a crowd of more than 20,000 expected for WT’s homecoming, tonight’s game has special meaning.
“It’s always fun to compete against friends, and I’ve got many old friends in Portales and on the (Eastern) coaching staff,” he said. “It’ll be pretty neat playing in front of this kind of crowd. I know our kids will enjoy it, and I think Eastern’s kids will too.”