Through thin glasses, Bill Curry could see a room half-filled with media members, each holding a camera or voice recorder and sitting in comfortable seats that were nonexistent five years ago.
He voiced his unwavering appreciation. He glowed from his makeshift stage. Housed in the still-shimmering Georgia State football practice facility, is Bill Curry’s career twilight, but also his self-described coaching culmination. It’s a lifestyle he could never escape — not that he ever wanted to — even after a decade of working among the media types who now hang on his every word for stories and sound bites.
So, sitting in a black suit complemented by a tie that color coordinates with his surroundings, Curry still remains the coach, a spitting image of past mentors. Even dressed in that regal suit at the team’s second annual Media Days gathering, he could not lose one simple accessory, even at the bidding of his public relations team.
“Allison told me one thing [before taking the stage]. She said, ‘Take that whistle off,'” said Curry, who will turn 70 during the 2012 season.
In his book, “Ten Men You Meet in the Huddle,” Curry wrote at length about whistles, or rather The Whistle, his former Georgia Tech coach Bobby Dodd, a legend whose lessons never strayed far during Curry’s stints at Georgia Tech, Alabama and Kentucky. Dodd still has a stifling presence in Atlanta. The Yellow Jackets’ stadium bears his name. The Georgia State program bears many of his principles.
As the Panthers go through the transition process of joining the Sun Belt Conference in college football’s highest league, the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS), that mentality still resonates. In a sporting world of realignment and perennial change, Bill Curry’s program, while appreciatively swept up into the rising tide of potential TV contracts and scholarship increases, remains steadfast on the interior.
The Panthers sat through seminar after seminar this offseason: on addiction and suicide, on guns and gangs, on sexual misconduct and academic dishonesty. Georgia State will, in due time, attempt to contend for championships at the highest level of collegiate athletics, but Curry’s values remain the same.
“When you put this whistle on, it’s not just a game. You’re dealing with young lives, and maybe in a more profound way than any of us realize,” he said.
And so the leader leads his men, whistle around his neck, off into a season with little consequence.
Another familiar face heads in a similar direction.
Eight coaches have led the University of Alabama since the retirement (and subsequent passing) of Paul “Bear” Bryant. Dennis Franchione, now the head coach at Texas State, is one of them.
Franchione’s team will also make the leap to the Sun Belt in 2013, giving the league two former Crimson Tide coaches patrolling the sidelines, a coincidence that is not lost on either man or conference commissioner Karl Benson. That carries weight, particularly in the regions Sun Belt teams participate. But while Curry raised a fledgling program from nothing beginning in 2008 — “[We] dressed in the locker room that some members of the athletic staff wouldn’t go in, and I don’t blame them,” he said — Franchione re-inherited an established program.
“Our situation was so much different than Georgia State in that they started from scratch. We have had football here for 100 years, we’ve won two national championships with [former coach] Jim Wacker back in the early ’80s. There is some tradition and pride here,” said Franchione, who also coached at TCU, Texas A&M and New Mexico.
The 61-year-old Kansas native led Texas State (then known as Southwest Texas State) during the 1990 and 1991 seasons before taking the New Mexico job. He and his wife, Kim, felt that stay was too short. So he returned to lead the Bobcats to the college football promised land, the FBS.
Texas State will join the Western Athletic Conference in 2012, their first season in the FBS, before immediately moving to the Sun Belt. Unlike Georgia State, which will compete without postseason opportunities in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) this season as part of the Colonial Athletic Association, the Bobcats will hope to contend immediately for bowl games and, as the plan goes, national recognition.
“There are growing pains with that. We’re getting the quantity right now,” Franchione said of his increase in available scholarships from 63 to 85 as part of the divisional upgrade. “Now we need to make sure that we continue to upgrade the quality of the quantity. This is a process, it’s not gonna happen overnight.”
Growing pains. Process. Not overnight.
Therein lies the undeniable link to Alabama for both men. Curry and Franchione have both been given opportunities to mold programs in their own image, ones running parallel to their visions and morals, and, more importantly, given the time that they were never truly afforded in the scrutinizing light of Alabama football. The Crimson Tide is too monumental, too historically significant, for major rebuilding projects.
Both coaches posted 10-win seasons in their final years with Alabama. Curry, who, as a Dodd prodigy, never felt welcomed, bolted for Kentucky in 1990. Franchione was dealt the recruiting violations and sanctions of his predecessor and left for Texas A&M in 2003.
Alabama is a destination job in this sport — no coach simply leaves Tuscaloosa without cause.
But perhaps that impetus for departure is identical to the one that roped Curry and Franchione back into the coaching world: The chance to build, the contingency to shape.
Curry reached out to many former colleagues when he started the Panthers program, notably former Miami Hurricanes coach Howard Schnellenberger, who started the Florida Atlantic program from nothing.
That’s Curry: Still learning, still studying the lessons from his past under Dodd and athletic director Dr. Homer Rice or calling Schnellenberger for a lecture on positive attitude by listening to him call the Texas Longhorns “soft” right after losing 56-3.
He even planned to phone a fellow former Alabama coach, but circumstances changed.
“I would love to have picked [Franchione’s] brain,” Curry said. “I actually intended to call him but we both got elevated and now we’re in the same league so I can’t be asking him questions like, ‘Hey, do you wanna help us?'”
But how much longer will he search out such help? His five-year contract ends after this season.
Georgia State athletic director, Cheryl L. Levick, has said contract extensions have been proposed, but that her football team’s headman wants to coach out the season before deciding on his future terms — or retirement. He still remains true to those values that carried him this far.
And, for an architect, it’s a complicated decision. Did Curry build the Panthers’ program up from muddy practice fields infested with kudzu and broken glass only to walk away before the pinnacle is reached? His team will not be allowed to play in the FCS postseason in 2012. As a transitional member of the Sun Belt, the Panthers will be postseason ineligible in 2013 as well.
It’s a situation that is equally stringent on his players — the first collection of four-year players in program history — especially the upperclassmen who will not be able to finish their careers vying for championships.
“It’s hard because you look for something to play for,” junior running back Donald Russell, a Kentucky transfer, said. “I just told the team, ‘Even though we’re not playing for a title or playoffs, we still can make a statement to show that next year when we come into the Sun Belt we are serious, we are ready for this conference.”
Curry, in special contribution to ESPN.com during his media years, once talked about what he labels the Fellowship of the Miserable mentality — “It functions much like a cancer, and can destroy the entire organism if allowed to grow,” he wrote — and how it can decimate a program.
Well, his players appear to have caught on. They, essentially, are playing for nothing but pride, improvement and momentum the next two seasons, and yet, they all say things like, “for the good of the program.” Georgia State players have formed the Fellowship of the Possible, for no apparent reason other than the guys lined up beside them — and their coach.
Franchione expressed similar optimism for his Texas State program.
It’s contagious when you’re in the midst of construction; the end result perseveres as a glorious mystery.
The future Sun Belt members, led by the former SEC stalwarts, are nothing if not hopeful.