One of the best moves of my career was to come to Salt Lake Community College. I remember the first game (in the Lifetime Activities Center); I was stressing. You could hear people underneath the bleachers putting in the last nuts and bolts as we were warming up and throwing the ball up and the game was starting. It's been a tremendous journey. —Norma Carr, SLCC athletic director

TAYLORSVILLE — Norma Carr has always been a fighter.

Throughout her 45-year career as a teacher, coach and administrator, she has built a reputation of being fierce and steadfast.

She bucked systems, broke down walls, forced hands and fought every step of the way for her student-athletes — both male and female, athletically and academically, in high school and college and across decades of a drastically changing landscape.

On July 31, Carr will officially retire.

She is stepping away from her current post as athletic director of Salt Lake Community College to experience life outside the gymnasium. She is leaving a position she has held for 25 years, a position she entered into as the first woman to ever oversee both men's and women's athletic programs inside the state of Utah.

Still, without her there, the facilities she built and the programs she fought for will continue on in her honor.

"One of the best moves of my career was to come to Salt Lake Community College," Carr said at her retirement party in June. She was speaking, and clearing her throat to muffle the emotion in her voice, from a podium placed in the middle of the basketball court at the Lifetime Activities Center at the SLCC Redwood Campus. It is a beautiful building, it houses numerous championship banners, and Carr built it.

"I remember the first game (in the Lifetime Activities Center); I was stressing," she said. "You could hear people underneath the bleachers putting in the last nuts and bolts as we were warming up and throwing the ball up and the game was starting.

"It's been a tremendous journey."

No sports for girls

Carr first showed signs of going against the grain as a child when she stepped in to coach her younger sister's team. In the pre-Title IX era of the 1960s, girls rarely had any opportunities to play sports, let alone receive actual coaching. But Carr taught what she knew, and she enjoyed it.

Her desire to be involved in athletics grew when she reached college. She participated in five different sports — softball, basketball, volleyball, tennis and archery — before graduating from BYU in 1969. The scenery surrounding women's collegiate sports at that time was entirely different from what it is today.

"We would travel on a bus and sometimes we would pick up the University of Utah and Weber State," Carr said. "We would go and play all in one weekend on what we called ‘play days.’ ”

The school paid some of the athletes' expenses, like transportation and hotel bills, but the players covered everything else. On top of that, they not only played but refereed the events as well.

"Everybody took refereeing classes and got rated," Carr said. She carried that skill with her and ultimately became the first woman to officiate boys varsity high school basketball games.

Carr ultimately graduated from BYU with her teaching degree and entered into her career at Davis High. While there, she taught physical education, physiology and health while serving as adviser over the pep club and cheerleaders.

There were no sports for girls.

Carr began to fight again.

"Some of us got together in the Davis District and were going to play a play day in volleyball," she said. "The day before the play day, we got slips of paper in our box."

The note reminded Carr of the opportunities girls had to participate: "Girls can be cheerleaders, they can do pep club, they can play intramurals, they can be D-ettes (dance), but they cannot play an interscholastic sport."

She approached her principal, who knew about the play day, and the two of them turned to the district office.

"Their answer was, ‘well, it’s been a rule since 1904 …’ with no rationale," Carr said. "So we just did it anyway. We bucked the system and did it anyway."

In the years to follow, Carr became a major player in getting more and more girls high school sports sanctioned by the Utah High School Activities Association. The process, she said, was both extremely difficult and bitter.

"When we sat in the High School Association meetings and fought for women’s rights to have athletics, it turned into yelling, ugly, awful battles," she said. "You’d just come home exhausted."

She would then return to work to face tension with many male colleagues.

"They felt like I was stealing their gyms and their spaces and a little bit of money for athletics," Carr said. "Even then, there were times when there were ugly things said to me. They saw you taking away rather than adding and making things stronger."

After six years, in 1975, she was ready to move on. Carr was given an opportunity to coach at the college level, a goal she had been working toward, and wanted a fresh start. Still, she did not exit the high school scene without leaving one final mark.

In spite of all the work she and others had done, high school basketball was still not an option for girls. It was viewed as a masculine sport.

"I went to the Society of Superintendents and I pled the case for basketball," Carr said. "They forced the High School Association to make it a sport. I never coached it or had it in my high school, but my parting shot was to get it sanctioned."

Start from scratch

Carr left Davis High and went on to spend 14 years at the University of Utah, where she became the first woman to coach Division I women's sports at the school.

She spent a season as the assistant basketball coach, two as the head volleyball coach, the remainder of her time at Utah as the head softball coach, where she coached Mary Kay Amicone, the current Weber State softball coach.

"She always showed great confidence in me as a player and as a coach," said Amicone, who later worked for Carr at SLCC. "When the opportunity came to be the head softball coach here (at SLCC), I jumped on board because Norma was the perfect administrator for me."

Carr spent two years as the assistant women's athletic director and earned her master's degree while working at Utah. That certification prepared her to be an administrator and put her in a position to throw her hat in the ring when the job opened at SLCC.

"All the stars aligned," Carr said. "I never thought in a million years they would ever hire me, a woman, to be an AD over a program of both men’s and women’s sports in Utah. Lo and behold, they took the leap and hired me."

Her first 10 years there saw more fighting.

She replaced an individual who did not have a history in sports administration and had been working part time. She inherited part-time coaches, programs on probation, inappropriate expenses, and players who had been taken to prison following a game and their luggage left in her new office.

"I just boxed everything up and said 'before my time,’ ” Carr said. "I started from scratch."

Still, she was met with dissent from those on her staff. Things were said, rumors were spread, and misperceptions were formed across campus. She was accused of reverse discrimination, of depriving her male athletes, when she was constantly working to give everything she could to all of her programs.

It wasn't until she gained allies with the hiring of Cynthia Bioteau, Ph.D., the former president of SLCC, and Deneece Huftalin, Ph.D., who served as the vice president of student services and is currently the interim president, that the tide fully shifted.

"They appreciated me and they vocalized that appreciation, and they vocalized it across campus," Carr said. "People finally started learning more about me and what I was about and the stuff women on this campus were doing, and they started changing their tune."

Through it all, Carr never thought of giving up. She had goals for SLCC and intended to see them through.

Student-centered philosophy

When she arrived at SLCC in 1989, there were just two programs, men's and women's basketball. She has since added women's volleyball, softball and baseball. All five sports have been competitive both in conference and nationally, including a come-from-behind national title for the men's basketball team in 2009.

All of Carr's teams now have full-time head coaches and assistants, the new Lifetime Activities Center has doubled as the home of the 4A and 5A girls high school state basketball tournaments, and she built Bruin Softball Field and Bruin Baseball's Cate Field.

Carr is stepping down with some unfinished business. Cate Field does not have support facilities like a score booth, restrooms or concessions, and she would have liked to have brought on additional sports, such as men's and women's soccer, at some point.

But overall, she is proud of what she and her team have accomplished over the last two decades. Most notably that she always fought for the student-athlete.

"Our program was never built on 'we win at all costs,’ ” she said. Instead, Carr held a student-centered philosophy: her athletes needed to be prepared academically to move onto the next level, whether or not they chose to move on athletically.

"I was very concerned that we had the best possible advice, direction, aid so they were academically ready," she said. "I would fight to the death for the rights of a student, particularly academically."

Over the years, her work has not gone unnoticed.

In 2013, Carr was given the Pioneers of Progress Award by the Days of ’47 Board of Directors and, in 2012, was awarded the Young Women’s Christian Association Leadership Award.

She has been inducted into the University of Utah Crimson Club Hall of Fame, the Utah Softball Hall of Fame, the Utah Coaches of Merit Hall of Fame, the UHSAA Officials Hall of Fame and the UHSAA “Circle of Fame.”

Most notably: In 2004, she was the only woman named as one of the 25 most influential people in Utah sports and in 2009, Carr was named the National Administrator of the Year.

"I see the vision she created here and I go, 'I can do it,’ ” Amicone said. "She knows how to build something. Norma has always been a role model to me."

Carr has been a role model to many throughout her 45 years, particularly to women with interests in athletics. Many of those individuals gathered in the Lifetime Activities Center for her retirement party in June to thank her for all of her fighting.

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On that day, before officially stepping down, before turning all of her attention toward cultivating her gardens and traveling the country in her new motor home, there was one more banner to hang in the building she built.

"We unveil this banner," said Dave Jones, the master of ceremonies, "not for a championship but, this time, for a loss."

sthomas@desnews.com

Sarah Thomas earned a degree in Mathematics from the University of Utah and is currently pursuing an MBA at Westminster College. She has been covering sports for the Deseret News since 2008.