Georgia State’s Bill Curry has played or coached in many of temples of football during his career as a player and coach at Georgia Tech, coach at Alabama and Kentucky, and as a commentator. Curry is retiring from coaching after the season.
On Saturday he will lead the Panthers to Tennessee’s Neyland Stadium. Near the Tennessee River, Neyland seats more than 102,000 making it one of the biggest stadiums – for college, pros or otherwise – in the world.
Neyland, then known as Shields-Watkins Field, was where Curry played his first college road game when he was on Georgia Tech’s freshman team. Curry remembers all of the schoolchildren were let out early for the game.
“They didn’t like us,” he said. “They threw things at us.”
It was also the only game he was thrown out of.
Curry thought one of the Volunteers hit Tech’s quarterback late when they were trying to run out the clock. So, Curry went after the player. After the team returned to Atlanta, Tech coach Bobby Dodd, who didn’t make the trip to Knoxville, told Curry that he wasn’t going to do that again.
It didn’t dampen his love for Rocky Top.
“I have a lot of affection for Neyland, not because we were good there, but because it’s such a great place,” Curry said.
Here are some of Curry’s other favorites (in no particular order):
Meeting Mike the Tiger was a heck of a way to be introduced to Death Valley.
As Curry and the rest of his Georgia Tech teammates left the locker room for that game in 1961, there was an angry Mike the Tiger waiting in his cage, flanked by a man with a cattle prod and a loudspeaker sitting nearby.
Curry tries to imitate the roar he heard pouring out of the cage and from the nearby loudspeaker.
“We took the field like this,” Curry said, pantomiming edging along a wall. “We were a bunch of Southern boys. I had never seen a chimpanzee before and this was a real tiger.”
Curry said it was the first time he can remember the Tech team being intimidated in an opponent stadium.
It got worse.
Tech was inside the 10-yard line when LSU coach Paul Dietzel called a timeout. LSU’s fans put on their Cooley Hats because the “Chinese Bandits,” the nickname for LSU’s second-team defense, were about to run onto the field.
Dietzel turned to the stands and raised his arms.
“It was like the heavens came down,” Curry said. “We had loud stadiums at Auburn and Alabama but it was nothing like that.”
Tech didn’t score on that drive. It lost 10-0.
“There’s just something about it,” Curry said. “It has to be a night game.”
Curry said The Swamp, formally known as Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, is another ear-splitting stadium.
“The people know how to get on your case,” he said. “Mostly it’s in good fun, mostly.
“But they can get in your head.”
Curry likes the Big House not because of the noise, but because of the tradition.
The stadium rises out, rather than up, which doesn’t make it as loud as Death Valley or The Swamp.
Curry played there with the Baltimore Colts for an exhibition game in 1971 on the day author George Plimpton played four plays with the Colts against the Lions to research his book, “Mad Ducks and Bears.”
But his friendship with Plimpton isn’t why Michigan Stadium is one of his favorites.
“It’s just really classy,” he said. “What the school stands for and [Bo] Schembechler and Lloyd Carr and all those guys who were special in my background and helping me.”
It’s not just Touchdown Jesus and it’s not just the Fighting Irish.
Curry likes Notre Dame Stadium because when he was a kid, the only coaches show he could watch growing up in College Park on Sunday was Notre Dame’s.
Curry called the experience of coaching there in 1981 as incredible, describing how the crowds are almost on top of the field.
“You are afraid someone is going to run into the trombone player,” he said.
Curry said walking across the campus, there are shrines and grottoes to various saints.
Though Protestant, he said he has great reverence for the Catholic traditions.
“All of that is very moving to me,” he said.
Curry said Bryant-Denny is a great place to be if you are coaching the Tide.
“You don’t want to go there under any other circumstances,” he said.
He said the stadium and its fans provide such a competitive advantage.
“You can take an ordinary guy and put him in a crimson jersey and he turns into Superman on a Saturday afternoon,” he said.
Curry said it was a privilege to walk the same stadium as Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant.
There are so many reasons Curry said he didn’t like playing at Wrigley Field when he was in the NFL: the nine-yard deep end zone just a few feet from the famous brick wall, the refrigerator-sized locker room, the chicken wire that surrounded the field, allowing the fans to pour whiskey on the players.
But the biggest reason had nothing to do with the stadium.
“Maybe it’s because I knew Dick Butkus was going to be out there,” he said.
And the fans made it fun.
“The Chicago crowd really loves the Packers,” he said sarcastically. “We learned new words.”