Bill Curry asked that Cheryl Levick, Georgia State’s athletic director, not refer to him Wednesday as a legend. Having played under Bobby Dodd, Vince Lombardi and Don Shula, Curry is sensitive about the word and its usage. And there is, ahem, the issue of whether it actually applies.
Bill Curry’s career record is 92-118-4. He has had seven winning seasons in the 19 he has worked at Georgia Tech, Alabama, Kentucky and now Georgia State. He announced Wednesday that the season ahead will be his last as a coach. It will not, he hopes, be his last as a person of influence, and that’s the good news. If there’s such a thing as a legendary voice of reason, Bill Curry is it.
This correspondent met Curry 28 years ago, just after he gave a speech to a Yellow Jacket booster club proclaiming that his Tech team “will drive the cheaters to their knees.” Fans of rival schools were outraged. The AJC columnist Lewis Grizzard, an admitted and ardent Georgia fan, demanded that Curry name names or hush his mouth.
On May 15, 1984, Curry spoke these words in defense of his oratory: “I’d like to see responsible people in all programs get involved and start asking questions. Are players being pushed to go to class in tough majors? Are they being recruited illegally? Are they being fed steroids? … There’s a vast silent majority out there on a lot of issues. We’ve all been guilty about watching something happen. That’s the power of inertia. We don’t want to rock the boat — maybe it’ll go away. But it’s a funny thing about bad things: They don’t seem to go away.”
On Aug. 15, 2012, the day he announced his impending retirement as coach, Curry spoke of the “incredible quandary” facing schools regarding the scope and place of collegiate football. He mentioned “dollars and foolishness.” He said: “I’d like to be part of the solution.”
There are those, it must be noted, who have long considered Curry a raging hypocrite. If he’d won as big at Alabama as the Bear had, they insist, he wouldn’t be complaining about systemic excesses. (For the record, three of Curry’s winning seasons were the years he spent coaching the Tide, and in 1989 he led Alabama to a share of the SEC title. Then, tired of fighting his own athletic department, he left for Kentucky.)
Asked Wednesday if we speak too little about those excesses and too much about winning games, Curry said: “Absolutely, and that’s a question you ought to ask every chance you get. If you complain about it [as a coach], it sounds like you’re making excuses. But somebody needs to address it. The college presidents really need to take a look at their value system.”
And there’s the reason it’s tempting to refer to a 69-year-old coach with a losing record as a legend. Curry has been good for college football because he has never been afraid to mention the bad. His teams have waxed and waned — the 1985 Tech team that finished 9-2-1 was expertly coached; the 1994 Kentucky team that went 1-10 was just wretched — but his principles have not.
Why is he retiring? In part because of his five grandchildren. “Of Super Bowl rings and jet airplanes and flying all over the place and honors and trophies,” Curry said, “the one thing that is highly touted but not overrated is grandchildren.”
Then this: “I thought it was the right thing to do [as a younger coach] to work 90 hours a week, and I missed my children growing up. I’m not going to do that again.”
Curry worked, and continues to work, the 80- and 90-hour weeks because it’s what football coaches do, but somebody needs to ask: Is working 80- and 90-hour weeks something anyone should do? Curry is one guy, maybe the only guy of such eminence, who’ll pose the question. As much as he has meant to his players at previous stops, as much as he has done from lifting Georgia State from a program without even a chinstrap to the Sun Belt and FBS status, his greatest purpose has been as a conscience.
He’s a smart man who’s not easily cowed, and sometimes that gets him into trouble. Take the 1984 speech. Curry revealed Wednesday that he took the podium that night having just read an impassioned letter from a Georgia fan saying that Tech would never ever beat the Bulldogs. “I turned into that offensive center who had to block Ray Nitschke by slamming into him,” he said. “Carolyn [his wife] tried to warn me, but I spoke in anger.”
History records that Curry’s Jackets beat Georgia 35-18 in Sanford Stadium six months later, and by December the Bulldogs would be under NCAA investigation. (Curry insists he didn’t rat out his rival.) Even so, he still regrets the speech. “The last thing we need is some idiot saying we’re going to bring the cheaters to their knees,” he said.
Right about many things, he’s wrong about this. College football already has enough Nick Sabans and Urban Meyers and Lane Kiffins. Now more than ever, the sport needs Bill Currys.
By Mark Bradley