(UPDATED 11:42 p.m.)
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — A program born this year (and coming off a win over Lamar) was facing a program that has been kicking since 1892 (and coming off a national championship).
One online sports book posted a mutant point spread of 57½.
Then there was the Alabama fan who, walking down Paul W. Bryant Drive toward the stadium, turned to his friends and asked, “Is Georgia State in Atlanta?”
As college football games go, Georgia State vs. Alabama created little in the way of drama or suspense Thursday night — except maybe for those who feared the scoreboard might blow up.
In the end, the evening went pretty much as expected. Bill Curry returned to Tuscaloosa. Nobody threw a brick this time, it just felt like it on the scoreboard: Alabama won 63-7.
The Panthers, after games against the likes of Shorter, Lambuth and Morehead State, completed their first season in one of college football’s most historic stadiums and received an historic clubbing.
They’ll always have the memories. Some of the memories will just take several weeks to heal.
Curry said his players were “overwhelmed” by the moment, commenting, “We thought we were ready, but then we ran smack into reality.”
Of course, when the season was over, he told his players another story, as he has done so often since he first brought this group of players together. This one was about his first day as undersized center in Green Bay Packers training camp, when he went against Ray Nitschke, the future Hall of Famer.
“On the first play of the first day he broke my face mask and my nose and he knocked me out,” Curry said. “I had to make a decision. Do I want to hit this guy again or do I want to go home? And I decided to hit him again and again until I could play like him. I never became as good as Ray Nitschke but I became the best player Bill Curry could be. I told them: All we expect from you is to get off the ground and hit him again.”
The lopsided result notwithstanding, could a coach possibly have better words for a first-year team?
There’s no reason for to second-guess Curry’s decision to come here, nor any reason to second-guess the program’s future. First seasons are about pouring a foundation, establishing direction and trying to show people that you know what you’re doing. Curry accomplished all of that. The team went 6-5. It drew over 30,000 fans to the Georgia Dome for its inaugural game and is well into construction projects for new facilities.
Curry: “We have a team. We have a record. We have a winning record.”
Still, maybe next time when the Panthers want to test themselves against an SEC program, they can start slowly. Vanderbilt, maybe.
The players didn’t seem to mind taking the beating. “Everything we learned from this game — personally, I know now what I have to do to get to that next level,” defensive end Kalan Jenkins said. “I know why they’re 1-A and we’re 1-AA but it’s going to make us better. It was definitely worth it. I don’t regret playing this game at all.”
Curry isn’t going anywhere. His contract is for two more seasons. This venture has rejuvenated him. The 68-year-old felt no less competitive Thursday at Bryant-Denny Stadium than he was 30 years earlier, when he brought his first Georgia Tech team to Alabama.
He said, “It felt very strange,” being back in Tuscaloosa. “It was strange looking across the field and seeing the other players in crimson.”
Everybody projected a cartoon on the scoreboard. But there was Curry, standing on the field, looking around and checking wind direction. He gazed up at the flags on the top levels of the stadium and the ribbons on top of the goal posts to see which direction they were flying.
You never knew. Maybe this game would come down to a field goal.
Laugh if you want, but the man lives for game day, and he lives for teaching.
In a sobering moment the other day, Curry said: “When you get to be my age, let’s just be blunt about it: A lot of my buddies are dead or they don’t recognize us or they’re institutionalized because of our head trauma. I was a multiple-concussion guy [in playing days], and every time I forget a phone number or something my wife has to say, ‘You’re OK.’”
Some parts of Thursday, he’d like to forget. His team was simply overmatched. Alabama’s offensive line outweighed Georgia’s State’s defensive front by an average of 37 pounds. Size, speed, talent — the two sides weren’t close. The Tide easily drove to touchdowns on their first two possessions. The Panthers threw interceptions on two of their first three.
It was 42-0 before State’s Albert Wilson created a memory for himself and the program — a 97-yard kickoff return to get them on the board. It healed the pain of his previous kickoff return: a fumble that was forced by the Alabama kicker (leading to a touchdown).
By halftime, the Tide had run for two touchdowns, thrown for two and scored two others on returns following an interception and a blocked punt. There would be film for everybody to watch.
The Panthers finished with 165 yards in offense and five turnovers. But enough about the numbers. Curry knew the potential for disaster existed. This wasn’t about that.
“One of my favorite sayings is: ‘A ship is safe in port, but that is not the purpose of a ship,’” he said the other day. “Until you get into the high seas and the wind and the hurricanes, you don’t know what your ship is made of.”
And then this: “There will be some moments when I review this video when I’ll be able to say to a young lineman, ‘You knocked an Alabama player down. Look what you can do. I’m excited about that. It’s an adventure.”
It has been just that.
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