Curry returns at age 67 to start up new program

Bill Curry hasn’t been on the sideline for a college game since

1996, so excuse the ol’ coach if it takes him a few plays – maybe

even a few games – to get up to speed.

”I’m trying to remember everything I can,” the 67-year-old

Curry said. ”I hope it’s enough to knock the rust off so I don’t

do too many embarrassing things.”

He’s still got a few tricks up his sleeve, though.

With a sly grin, he won’t reveal the starting quarterback for

his new team at Georgia State until the offense runs on the field

for the first time. And he’s brought in some big names to chat up

his players, such as former teammate and Pro Football Hall of Famer

Willie Davis, who stopped by a few days ago to give the Panthers a

pep talk.

Now, it’s time to see if all that chicanery and inspiration will

pay off. On Thursday night, Curry leads the Panthers onto the field

for their inaugural game against Shorter.

”This means a lot to me. This means lot more than I thought it

would. This is my hometown,” he said. ”I have an emotional

attachment to these streets. I know that sounds weird, but it’s the

truth.”

When Curry was let go by Kentucky 14 years ago, he seemed at the

end of the line in a career than began at Georgia Tech, his alma

mater, and included a highly contentious stint at Alabama, where he

was never fully accepted trying to fill Bear Bryant’s shoes.

But along came another school, right down the road from Georgia

Tech and about six blocks away from the old Rich’s department store

where his father once worked, starting up a football program of its

own. When Georgia State called, asking if he might be interested in

coaching again, Curry jumped at the chance.

He has stayed familiar with the college game after leaving

Kentucky, working 11 seasons as an ESPN analyst. He believes that

experience made it easier to step back into coaching after so long

away.

”I was right in the middle of a lot of great programs,” Curry

said. ”I sat in the room with Tom Brady before his first start at

Michigan, when nobody thought he would be the starter. As soon as

Brady left the room, I knew he could be something special.

”I learned from all that. I hope it makes me a better football

coach. I know it made me a better person.”

Even though he’s now in his late 60s, Curry still has that same

passion for teaching young men that he brought to his first

coaching job at Georgia Tech, way back in 1980.

He’ll go on and on about how football is the greatest team sport

there is, the one where everyone has to work together on every

play. Even if 10 guys get it right, he’ll point out, one guy going

the wrong way can mess the whole thing up.

Mark Hogan was certainly impressed with Curry’s vigor. He wanted

to play for the man who had coached Hogan’s father at Georgia Tech,

so much so that he was Georgia State’s first – and, for a while,

only – player. He worked out on his own in the early days of the

program before the Panthers signed their first full recruiting

class.

”He cares about his players. He’s a man of integrity. He’s

knows what he’s doing. He’s got a lot of experience,” Hogan said.

”He told me the other day, ‘If I wasn’t so enthused about this, I

wouldn’t be here.”’

In some ways, Curry comes across as more preacher than coach, a

deeply religious man who talks as much about hope and redemption as

he does blitzes and running plays. To his critics over the years,

this surely sounds familiar – they always thought he was much more

impressive in front of the cameras than he was on the field.

Only six times in his 17 years at Georgia Tech, Alabama and

Kentucky did Curry’s teams finish with a winning record. Even his

best season – in 1989, Alabama went 10-2 and shared the

Southeastern Conference championship – didn’t end well. Hopes of a

perfect season crashed with a third straight loss to rival Auburn.

When school officials tried to strip away some of Curry’s power in

a new contract, he left for Kentucky and failed to produce a

winning record in seven seasons.

All that’s in the past now.

Curry and his players see a chance to leave a lasting legacy at

school that has largely ignored its athletic programs. More than

4,000 season tickets have been sold for a team that will play a

step below the big time in the NCAA’s Football Championship

Subdivision.

A crowd of up to 20,000 is expected for the historic first game

at the cavernous Georgia Dome, also home to the NFL’s Atlanta

Falcons.

”We know we’re going to playing in the same place where NFL

players have played,” linebacker Jake Muasau said. ”That triggers

something in your mind. I you want to be an NFL player, you better

start playing line one.”

Curry promises an entertaining show, even if takes a while to

knock the rust off.

”It’ll be fun to watch us,” he said. ”We’re not asking people

to come to downtown Atlanta to see a team that will run it into the

line and hope to hang in the game. No, there will be none of

that.”