This isn’t the story about a fledgling football program going into Tuscaloosa. It’s the story of an old football coach, a grandfather, finding perspective in his late 60s. It’s the story of a wake-up call that 34 moves and four teams and six coaching jobs and even a brick through the second-floor office window never provided.
“This literally has been the highlight of my career,” Bill Curry said.
He is standing on a practice field that once was a dumping ground in a scarred patch of downtown. In front of him, a MARTA train rushes past on an elevated track. Behind him, a gutted brick building that once housed some homeless people is slowly being transformed into a field house.
This is Curry’s Eden.
“To be with a group of young people, most of whom have been told they’re not good enough, and show them how to succeed and have a meaningful life – I haven’t felt like this in a long time,” he said. “I wish I was mature enough to have the same objectives as I did before. But I didn’t. I was caught up in the winning.”
Georgia State closes its inaugural football season Thursday night at Alabama, the campus Curry left 21 years ago after basically being told he wasn’t wanted.
The coach wanted to give his wide-eyed players something they wouldn’t forget. Let’s just hope that after this game, they can still remember the evening.
He will tell you this season has been a great awakening for him. He has been allowed to create a blueprint for a program. He has built it from the abandoned ground up. He has coached young men on the field and guided them off of it, without being pulled into a corner by the obnoxious, check-writing, booster buddy of the program who suddenly wants to call plays.
There has been a purity to this job that you seldom find in college athletics.
Georgia State has afforded Curry, at the age of 68, an opportunity to satisfy the same competitive instincts that drove him when he played for Vince Lombardi.
But more than all that, Curry will tell you this venture has changed him. He has grown up. In his previous coaching life, he was as consumed and obsessed as any of them. It wore on his family, to the extent that he said his wife, Carolyn, all but threw him out of the house one evening.
“I remember going home one night in Tuscaloosa and after dinner Carolyn said, ‘Just go back to the office,’” Curry said. “It was very uncharacteristic of her to be so cruel and cold like that. I was stunned. I said, ‘But I’m here,’ and she said, ‘No, you’re not. You’re sitting over there making recruiting calls. You might as well be at the office. You say you’re coming home. You’re not home. I know it. The children know it. Just go back to the office.’ So I hung up the phone.”
After pausing to collect his emotions, he added: “There were too many nights. Too many days. Our son nailed me about 10 years ago. He said, ‘Look, dad, there was one thing we always knew. As long as your team won, it was OK to be happy at our house.’ That broke my heart. I knew it was true.”
It’s different now. Game days are more like family reunions. Carolyn Curry even arranged for their two grown children, spouses and five grand children to gather on the field with him at the Georgia Dome before the Panthers’ first game against Shorter. They all posed with Curry for a picture.
It will be their Christmas card.
A similar scene wasn’t going to happen in Tuscaloosa. Whereas Curry is celebrated at Georgia State, he often was vilified at Alabama.
Losing to Auburn three straight years didn’t help his cause. But he always was going to be viewed as an outsider there — a non-Bama guy from Georgia Tech. Even an SEC championship and two SEC coach of the year awards weren’t going to change that. So he left.
School officials made it clear they didn’t want him. The contract Curry was offered after the 1989 SEC title season did not include a raise and it stripped him of power to hire and fire assistants.
Curry: “The contract said, ‘We’d rather have somebody else as the football coach.’”
His attorney’s thought was to tear up the contract and throw it their faces. Curry’s response: “I said we’re not going to do that. Just tell them respectfully thank you but our choice is to move on.” And he left for Kentucky.
Curry is over it. He said the last time he got bitter was “when Vince Lombardi got rid of me. It didn’t occur to me that maybe I wasn’t a good football player. When I got into coaching, I made up my mind that if somebody didn’t want me, I’d just go somewhere else.”
But he acknowledges some family members remain bitter about the Alabama experience. That includes the evening in 1988 when a brick was thrown through his office window following a 22-12, Homecoming loss to Mississippi, a game in which the Tide failed to complete a pass. Curry discovered the brick and broken glass the next day when he arrived to tape his weekly coach’s show.
Curry joked, “My first thought was, if the quarterback had been as accurate as the guy who threw the brick, we wouldn’t be discussing this.”
He regrets not keeping the brick as a reminder.
“For some reason nobody took credit for it,” he said. “I would’ve thought there’d be a thousand people wanting to be recognized.”
When Georgia State suffered its first loss to Lambuth this season, nobody threw a brick, “except maybe me,” he cracked.
His desire to win has always burned. But his job carries a sense of pure enjoyment and satisfaction that wasn’t present when he left Tuscaloosa. It’s not exactly a homecoming Thursday night. But 21 years later, he has something to celebrate.