Prior to placing the capstone on a career rich in character-building and idealism, there is one thing best understood about Bill Curry.
Winning mattered, too.
Before he was a nagging conscience of college football, before his mid-80s declaration that his Georgia Tech team would “drive the cheaters to their knees,” he was growing up in College Park as Bill Sr.’s son. And when you were in the company of the elder Curry, a man as unyielding as the weights he lifted competitively, you did everything with intense desire to be the best.
Curry, too, was the lineman who sampled victory in Super Bowls I and V with Green Bay and Baltimore, and very much enjoyed the taste.
And when he didn’t win, it hurt like blazes.
“Look, this is America, we play to win,” he said. “If you play football and get your college degree and you don’t learn how to win – you’ve been cheated. Just as surely as if you win a bunch of games and you don’t get your degree.
“You got to win – it’s not even fun if you don’t win. It’s a nightmare.”
The days have dwindled to a precious three on a 20-year coaching career that defies easy assaying. Curry has breathed life into his Georgia Tech alma mater, been an unhappy outsider at Alabama, tried to convert Kentuckians to a less spherical ball and grew a program from the asphalt of Georgia State. At 70, he will retire Saturday after the Panthers final game of the season at Maine.
Normally, high up in the legacy-writing process, you cite some one-sided career record and let the numbers herald the man. Curry enters his last hurrah with a 93-127-4 lifetime ledger.
Yes, he had some splendid moments: His 1980 Tech team played No. 1-ranked Notre Dame to a 3-3- tie; his 1984 and ’85 teams recorded huge victories over Georgia; his 1989 Alabama team won an SEC title. The final classes he signed at Georgia Tech and Alabama both would go on to help win national titles for another coach. But, often saddled with building/rebuilding projects, Curry would endure more losing seasons (11) than winning ones (7).
The Curry record demands context. His has been a quixotic career, taking on difficult assignments (even at Alabama, where he was never fully accepted because he had the nerve to go to college elsewhere). “I’m so glad you’re not a mountain climber,” his wife Carolyn tells him, “or we’d live at Mt. Everest.’”
Georgia State, the largely commuter school without the first shoulderpad when Curry arrived, may have been the ultimate challenge. No one expected the Panthers to be world beaters, but the victory total, as well as home attendance, has declined significantly since the inaugural season of 2010. Still, said Curry, “The fact is we haven’t been tilting at windmills. We have established a basis for our program. We have a system of priorities, a value system. We have a facility now, a conference schedule.
“Georgia State football is going to be a great success — just later than I thought.”
Curry’s numbers also must be supplemented by his message, the one that cynics have poked at for as long as Curry has been preaching integrity in academics and recruiting.
“I tell you what, the wins he had he got to keep. He never had to vacate any (because of NCAA violations),” said John Dewberry, the Atlanta developer who was Curry’s one-time quarterback at Georgia Tech.
“We jump right to wins and losses, certainly that is one of the ultimate accountabilities,” said Mark Hogan, a player on Curry’s Black Watch defense at Tech in the ‘80s. His son, Mark, was Curry’s first signee at Georgia State. “But I think you have to look at the legacy he has left with his players, with what they’ve done and how they’ve been successful in life. I’d be willing to bet you that his legacy in that area far exceeds many others who have great win-loss records.”
His last act was to provide GSU’s start-up program with a sense of purpose. Prominent on the walls of the Panthers practice facility that rose between the gold capitol dome and an elevated set of MARTA tracks is a guiding sentiment put there by Curry. It is in Latin: “Magnanimitas.” It means greatness of spirit.
In his unique – for a football coach – way of speaking, he would refer to establishing a right-minded football program at Georgia State as a “sacred obligation.”
Curry long ago played for a man who made famous the quote, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”
Vince Lombardi was misconstrued, Curry said. “We knew what he meant by that: The will to win is the most important thing. Later he regretted the misinterpretation.”
Winning was not the only thing with Curry. In fact, his farewell season will go down as one of the most victory starved ones of his life. The Panthers are 1-9 on the way to Orono, Me.
“I thought, ‘OK, I’ll get in this job and it won’t hurt as bad to lose because I’m mature now,” Curry said. “But I think it hurts worse.
“I’m not unhappy. I don’t look back with misery. I love the relationships and the real rewards that come from such an intense relationship with young people. It is so intense to be a part of this thing where we are in exhaustion, we’re smashing, we’re being smashed. Moments like that crystalize in your memory and they never leave. If I see a guy who played linebacker for us 30 years ago, there’s an instant kinship that doesn’t exist in many places. So many wonderful rewards.
“But I’m not going to tell you I wouldn’t have liked to have won more games.”
CURRY’S COACHING RECORD
Georgia Tech (31-43-4)
Georgia State (10-22)
2012: 1-9 (one game remaining)
HOW CURRY MADE A DIFFERENCE
Mike Riddle, Georgia State offensive line coach, played for Curry at Kentucky 1995-96: “He made me want to coach. You learn so much from playing football for him. There’s the quote that football is life marked off in 100 yards. No matter what happens, what the situation is, no matter the obstacles, you got to continue to fight. It’s never over until you quit.”
Mark Hogan, retired banker living in Charlotte, safety at Georgia Tech (1983-85) whose son was Curry’s first recruit at Georgia State: “I remember thinking (after Curry vowed to bring the cheaters in college football ‘to their knees’) why is he doing that? We need to sneak up on these guys; we don’t need to give them any fodder for their bulletin boards. But he saw something in us that we hadn’t quite seen in ourselves. We went out and backed it up.
“I knew playing for Coach Curry, my son would be looked at not as a just player but as a person, and I knew the lessons that would be instilled in him. I had great comfort in that.”
Michael Davis, current center at Georgia State: “As much as he wants to make us great football players, he wants to make us men, first and foremost. …The things he’s teaching us are priceless, things that will stick with me for the rest of my life. You’re going to face adversity in football; it’s a matter of how you rebound from those things. That’s one of the biggest lessons he’s taught us.”
Can Georgia State send Curry out with a victory? We chronicle his final game against Maine.