Bill Curry has snapped an oblate spheroid to Bart Starr at Green Bay.
And to Johnny Unitas at Baltimore. Played in Super Bowl games with them both. And at the age of 68, had come to that point in life that called for a graceful retirement. Unless, of course, he chose to take a page out of the career of Joe Paterno. So it was the latter.
He had known the crowning and the belaboring of a football career when the call came. It wasn’t demanded of him, but it was too tempting to turn down — and no, he wasn’t too old. Georgia State University had football on its mind, but that was about it. No practice facility, no stadium, its campus hemmed in by a metropolis, nothing to build on but a gnawing urge. And would he like to be their coach?
Curry had seen football from all sides, from high school at College Park, to Georgia Tech, 10 years among the professionals, then coaching on both levels, then broadcasting, and a brief taste of retirement.
He had known coaching as an assistant at Green Bay, then top dog at Georgia Tech, at Alabama and at Kentucky, where the first and only time in his life he came to know the bitter taste of being fired.
Oh, he knows about losing. In his first two seasons at Georgia Tech his teams won only two of their first 22 games. The one tie, though, was a shocker. Notre Dame came to Grant Field ranked No. 1 in the nation, and had to kick a field goal in the closing minutes to get out of town even.
OK, so cut to the chase. Here we were standing on the practice field, in an area that might have been the setting for “The Longest Yard,” that prison football movie. A foreboding fence, wrapped in green plastic, an ancient stone building that will eventually become an equipment facility, and above one side of the field, a virtually empty MARTA train oozed by. Practice was breaking up and Curry’s charges were making for the buses that would take them back to their inner-city campus.
This was Bill Curry’s last coaching gig, and a lot of us were interested in knowing why — why this, why here? Especially when on April 9 the plum of the schedule was announced. On Nov. 18, Curry and his band of hopefuls would play Alabama in Tuscaloosa, upon which and one of his close friends sputtered, “You really ARE nuts, aren’t you?”
He turned on that incandescent smile and said, “Years from now, everyone of them is going to remember it. Most of these fellows came here because they expect to play, and those that won’t will remember their experience for years to come.
“But the trying never ceases. They try and try and try, and I know they’re not going to make it, and some of them think they’re going to be drafted. Honestly. But you don’t rob them of their dream.”
If there is one star among them, his name is Star Jackson, and that’s his birth name. He is a transfer from Alabama, and knows he wouldn’t see the light of day with Greg McElroy ahead of him. Curry had seen him in the Alabama spring game, and came away impressed.
“In my view he was the best quarterback,” he said.
Jackson came from Florida and made a connection with one of the GSU assistants, a friend from high school.
“We’re not going to hand it to you,” Curry told him, “you’ll have to earn it.”
Ninety-nine Georgia State Panthers, dressed in Panther Blue, finished their day and trudged to their buses. Curry, under a broad-brimmed rancher’s hat, looked after them and turned philosophical.
“Most of the stuff we worry about doesn’t matter,” he said. “This is the different kind of player than we’re used to. You wonder why some of them are out here. I try to encourage them, or in some cases discourage them.”
He has found encouragement in places he never expected.
Old Tech teammates and friends have pitched in, and his wife, Carolyn. She is a Georgia State alum, and you might say they are in this together. Heaven knows what to expect of it, and they’ll get their first taste Sept. 2.
That’s the day they draw the curtain on Georgia State football in the Georgia Dome. Shorter College, in Rome, becomes their first guest, and there may be 7,000 or 17,000 in the stands, but whatever the number, to Bill Curry it will be more historic than the day he snapped the first ball to Bart Starr.
Furman Bisher is one of the deans of American sports writing. The longtime Atlanta sports journalist is a member of the Georgia and Atlanta Sports Halls of Fame and in addition to his newspaper writing has authored multiple books on major figures like Hank Aaron and Arnold Palmer. He writes periodic columns for the Daily Post.