Bill Curry and The Pursuit of Greatness
Bill Curry reached the apex of the college football world when he became the head coach at Alabama in 1987. Three years later, he resigned. Now he understands the true meaning of victory.
Bill Curry arrived at the hospital dressed in humility. He walked into the room where the old man was lying and knelt down by his bedside. Curry reached for his left hand because his right arm was full of IVs. Addled with shame, Curry looked into his eyes and recognized the cold gaze that once looked back at him so austerely. The old man’s body had changed, emaciated, but his eyes were the same as Curry had remembered when he first saw him. But much time had passed and hurtful words had been said. The old man was dying, and Curry hoped that somehow, this once-severed relationship could be salvaged. More than that, he hoped the old man could find it within to forgive him for the comments he’d made so publicly, so angrily. So when Curry knelt, he knelt in disgrace. And hoped it wasn’t too late.
ATLANTA — On a cold January day in 1990, Bill Curry stood before his Alabama team with tears in his eyes. A meeting had been called to announce that Curry would no longer be the coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide, and Curry was full of emotion. Just off a 10-2 season, signs were pointing to Curry as the architect to refurbish the Alabama program back to its natural powerhouse state. Had Alabama beaten Miami in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1, it could have made a case for a national championship. That’s how close Curry’s team had been. Six days later, he was gone.
December negotiations between the Alabama administration and their increasingly disgruntled head coach had been combustible, and when Curry was offered a new contract — with restrictions but no raise — his agent, Robert Fraley, was furious. Curry still had two years left on his existing contract, and he could have easily stayed with those terms. But when the Alabama power brokers essentially checked on their hand, a message was sent that Curry interpreted as, you are not fully welcomed or valued here. He knew then that it was time to go.
Besides, Curry could see the strains of coaching at Alabama wearing on his family. He was rarely at home. His wife, Carolyn, had grown weary of the hyper-expectant fan base, the barrage of criticism that arrived with all the passivity of S.W.A.T. team. So Curry did the one thing that was anathema to him: He decided to call it quits.
Inside the team meeting room, a hushed sea of crimson sat before him as he began:
“My presence here is a deterrent to you having the best experience you can have,” he told the team. “You know very well what my priorities are. For you to have a great academic experience and to have you ready for the real world …”
Then Curry paused and looked out over his team. Looked into their souls. He knew it was the last time he would see them together.
For a man who had poured his entire being into a program, for the hundred-hour weeks, the dewy mornings and cold nights, the recruiting visits to unknown homes, the speeches, the glad-handing, the games, this was a difficult moment. And it all seemed so sudden. Curry had been hired only three years previous, and this was not the way it was supposed to end.
But it had.
“… but I also want you to win a national championship. I see it in your heart. And we should have done it this year, but we didn’t. And that’s not your fault. That’s my fault. But you will. And that’s a promise. But probably not with me here.”
Now it has been 27 years since Curry left Tuscaloosa as the head coach at Alabama, and in many ways he is trapped in a yesterday from which he can never escape. At most programs, his statistics would be looked upon pleasurably.
From 1987-89, Curry led Alabama to a 26-10 mark, competed in three bowl games, churned out five All-Americans, graduated players, and was undefeated in games held on the Third Saturday in October.
But most programs are not Alabama.
In the minds of many fans, Curry will be remembered more for never beating Auburn — an unpardonable sin — than never losing to Penn State. For at Alabama, the head coach’s job is adjudged by the Auburn crucible — alone.
Curry’s 3-year lease of the Alabama football program occurred during those odd in-between years, a wilderness time when Alabama was still recovering from the death of their liberator and waiting for his second triumphal return. In the end, Curry was not him. Hard as he tried, he could not meet the stringent demands of the manic fan base, nor reach the bar set by the 25-year reign of a Bear from Moro Bottom. This was an unprecedented rise that grew from mediocrity and captured six national championships and 14 Southeastern Conference crowns along the way, and for unfortunate successors, the Bryant years left a patina of amplified requirements that bordered on the impossible.
Consequently, when Curry took the reins, he was chasing a ghost.
To make matters worse, Alabama had, in 1987, botched an opportunity to pluck Alabama’s favorite son, Bobby Bowden, from Florida State. Curry was a relative unknown, a wild-card hire, so when he was announced as the second successor to Bryant, fans were a bit befuddled. To this day, Curry still lives under this “what if” cloud.
But not all were displeased with the effort, nor did they feel as though Curry had been treated fairly. “People say Coach Bryant would have rolled over in his grave because Alabama hired Bill Curry,” said Don Lindsey, a former Alabama defensive coordinator. “I say he would have rolled over in his grave because of the way Bill has been treated.”
Supporters retrospectively contend that without the foundation stacked by Curry, the House of Crimson would not have enjoyed the same success under Gene Stallings.
Curry’s last recruiting class of 1989 would eventually make good on his promise, bringing a title back to T-town from a 13-year wander. And if Stallings does not build on what Curry laid, Alabama never reaches the penthouse of the Saban years. This theory holds that Curry was a stabilizing force between two towers.
Curry left that year to become the head coach at Kentucky. Folks wondered why anyone would leave a place like Alabama to take over a program that hadn’t won an SEC title since Bear Bryant roamed the fields in a fedora. But sometimes dating the Cover Girl has its own set of challenges.
Curry’s post-Alabama life has included a series of interesting ventures. He spent seven choppy years at Kentucky before becoming an analyst and writer for ESPN. He was later named the Executive Director of Leadership Baylor at Baylor School in Chattanooga, TN. He penned a book. He reemerged as a coach in 2008 when he took the curious job of manning the upstart Georgia State team. He retired from coaching in 2012 and spends most of his time speaking and leading.
Now 75, and the once-embattled coach feels blessed and dissatisfied as he peers back at the pages of his life from a sky rise in downtown Atlanta. His sporting life imbued with access to greatness, there is a deep passion, a whispering lust, in his voice with each recollection of the events — and the people — who shaped him.
For Young Boy, Football ‘A Powerful Medicine’
William Alexander Curry was born on Oct. 21, 1942 in College Park, Georgia. His father, a weightlifting, boxing, and gymnastics coach at Georgia Military Academy, was a hard man who served up the principles of discipline and self-belief to his impressionable son. Conversely, his mother brought a softer edge to the family.
“Mom’s wonderful, gentle presence offset pop’s hyper-competitiveness,” Curry reflected. The oldest of three children, Bill doted on his younger sisters, Linda, four years his junior, and Deborah, the baby of the family.
At a young age, Curry reluctantly took a job sacking groceries at a local supermarket. Thus commenced a working life that eventually led to the zenith of sport, but also a hard understanding that he did not want to sack groceries for a living. Because the Georgia radios were filled with the crack of Mickey Mantle’s bat, Bill’s first true love was baseball, but two experiences would eventually become the catalysts for a football career. The first was watching the 1958 NFL Championship game with his father. The game, considered by many to be the contest that forced the pendulum swing of the nation’s attention to the pro game, featured the Baltimore Colts and New York Giants at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx on Dec. 28, 1958. The Colts boasted a young quarterback named Unitas and a splendid receiver named Raymond Berry, while Frank Gifford and Pat Summerall starred for the Giants.
“That was powerful medicine,” Curry says of the game.
The second was a chance encounter with a gaggle of rowdy 8-year-olds at a camp for children. When Curry was 15, his high school coach asked him to serve as a day camp counselor in the summertime. “The kids ran around and played softball, went swimming, and all that,” Curry said. “I really didn’t want to do that either, but they were going to pay me this incredible amount of 15 dollars per week, which was more than I could make sacking groceries. So I took the job for all the wrong reasons. But within two weeks, I knew what I was going to do with my life, ’cause I loved those kids.”
Curry dreamed of playing for the New York Yankees, but figured he had a better chance of making it in football. “Well, you better start working out,” his father insisted. So Curry funneled his concentration into becoming a college football player, hit the books and the weights, and eventually snagged a scholarship to nearby Georgia Tech after he graduated from College Park High School.
Tech was like Oz to Bill, and Coach Bobby Dodd was the Wizard. Dodd, a former disciple of Tennessee’s Robert Neyland, had skippered the Ramblin’ Wreck since 1945 and won a national championship in ’52. So that by the time Curry arrived, Dodd was legend.
From 1962 to 1964, Curry played center for the Yellow Jackets and went to class religiously, as if attendance was part of his holy rites. Initially Curry was not a very good player and was further disillusioned when an assistant coach suggested he would never play, but through hard work and tenacity, he eventually made team captain. These were not the glory years of the fifties, but Georgia Tech enjoyed respectable 7-3-1, 7-3, and 7-3 campaigns during Curry’s tenure in Atlanta. The highlight was the 1962 game versus Alabama at Grant Field, a raucous, low scoring affair that saw Tech emerge victorious, 7-6. Paul “Bear” Bryant wore a helmet onto the field to protect him from batteries hurled from the stands.
Academics were priority No. 1 at the Georgia Institute of Technology, as players would often have to attend a physics or chemistry class on Saturday morning before suiting up to play the titans of the SEC. Dodd’s philosophy was the anti-Bryant; he was a clean-cut, impeccably-dressed academic who believed the cerebral aspects of the game could overcome long practices and the more talented behemoths on the other side of the field.
In Dodd’s mind, victory could be achieved by intelligence and finesse. But his greatness, Curry believes, was his empathy for players coupled with his brilliance on game day. “It was his capacity for us to believe we knew how he felt. And he did, and he cared,” Curry said. “And for those of us who were not academically up to snuff, he cajoled us, loved us, and booted us when necessary into doing the work academically. I believe Coach Bryant was the one who touted him as the greatest game day coach he ever competed against.”
As Curry’s time at Tech was coming to a close, he approached Dodd and informed him that he had a desire to go into coaching at the end of his playing career. Expecting Dodd — himself a host of the parasitic disease of college athletics — to be ecstatic, he was instead dumfounded. “He said, ‘That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard in my life. You have a degree from Georgia Tech. I want you to run an airline or something. But if you insist on this madness, in 10 years you come back and tell me you still want to be a coach,’” Curry recalls Dodd saying.
At the time, the burgeoning conflict in Vietnam left young adults such as Curry uncertain, if not wary, of their futures. Curry had an ROTC background and fully expected to be drafted. But Uncle Sam did not call him.
The Green Bay Packers did.
Fear and Loathing in Green Bay
Bill Curry once said that he never forgave Vince Lombardi for not being Bobby Dodd.
On the day Lombardi called, Curry was drafted in the 20th round (279th overall pick) of the 1964 NFL Draft. Curry reported to the Packers’ training camp at St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wis., in late summer of the following year.
Arriving on a Saturday, Curry participated in his first intrasquad scrimmage and was heading to dinner when he felt a presence beside him. Noticing it was Bart Starr, the Packers quarterback, Curry cautiously introduced himself.
“Mr. Starr,” Curry said.
“Bart …” Starr said. “Call me Bart.”
Starr had detested his rookie season because of the way first-years were treated and always made it a point to ingratiate himself with the new members of the fold, making them feel like they belong.
“I’m going to walk over with you,” Starr told Curry. “By the way, I don’t know what your faith is, but Cherry and I have a great preacher at our Methodist church. If you’d like to go to church with us tomorrow and eat Sunday dinner with us, we’d love to have you.”
“Yes sir,” Curry said.
That night, Curry tossed in his cot, unable to sleep. Around seven o’clock in morning, he received a knock at his door. Figuring it was one of the guys, Curry stumbled up and swung open the door. To his surprise, he stared into the smiling grill of none other than Vince Lombardi.
“I almost passed out,” Curry reflects.
“Look, we’ve got a little extra time this morning,” Lombardi said. “I don’t know if you were planning on going to services.”
“Yes, I’m going with the Starrs,” Curry said.
“We’ll finish up before then,” Lombardi offered. “But let’s sit down for a while.”
Curry was taken aback by this initial demonstration of grace. The two men sat down and Lombardi proceeded to draw up the entire Packer offense on a yellow legal pad.
But the initial polish applied by Lombardi would soon decompose in the mind of his young center, as Curry could not relate to the Brooklynite’s all-business, foul-mouthed, chewy brand of football.
“He twalked like this heeah,” Curry says, his voice twisting into impersonation. “He’s from Brooklyn. Ya religion, ya family, and the Green-Bay-Packahs! That’s awl you’ll think about while ya here! Those will be ya priorities!”
“… and as soon as he got to the practice field, he got very confused about the order of the priorities,” Curry added.
Curry was so aghast at Lombardi’s language and his seemingly oxymoronic life that he approached Starr for the low-down. He remembers the conversation thusly:
“Bart, somebody said coach goes to church every day. Ain’t no way. People don’t go to church every day …”
“No, he’s a Catholic. He goes to Mass every morning. He’s very devout, Bill.”
“With all that profanity?”
“Well, you’re going to realize after working for this man for about three weeks he needs to go to church every day.”
Despite Curry’s lingering doubts, he fought his way into the starting rotation alongside Forrest Gregg, Bob Skoronski, Jerry Kramer and Fuzzy Thurston, boulders of flesh that comprised one of the greatest offensive lines in the history of pro football. In 1965, the Packers won the NFC championship, and in ’66, Super Bowl I.
If the Packers were famous for one play, it was the famous “Packer Sweep,” a hell-for-leather, meticulous trademarked production, the physics of which were baked into the minds of the players and which Lombardi reveled in teaching.
Indeed, the first play Lombardi drew on the yellow legal pad was the Sweep. “It wasn’t second nature. It was first nature,” Curry says of the mechanics of the Sweep. “We ran (the play) over and over and over. I can still draw it exactly like he did and I can make all the calls. Now since that day, I’ve been involved with probably 10 other offenses. I can’t draw any of them. So what was Lombardi really? He was a great physics teacher. The thing that characterizes great teachers is that you remember everything they said because they had a way of saying it that was so arresting you couldn’t forget it.”
Curry says that Lombardi had the gift of “utter and consuming focus.” Of course, Curry is speaking of internal focus, but Lombardi held such a dominating presence that when he walked into a room, the dynamics of the room changed. The air was swallowed up by a singleness of purpose: Win. Win. Win.
“And if you seemed to deviate from that, it was your ass,” Curry said. “It was embarrassing. By design, in front of the group. Hard. Not publicly! He never criticized people publicly. But before the group. And it didn’t matter who you were, either. If it was one of those All-Pros … ‘you think you’re All-Pro? You’re the worst guard in the National Football League.’ It was tough sledding.”
Curry was also struck by Lombardi’s absolute refusal to tolerate racial prejudice in any form. “He had been discriminated against because of the vowel at the end of his name,” Curry said of Lombardi. “If you said one racist remark in that training camp — wheet! You were gone.”
Before joining the Packers, Curry had not shared the huddle with an African-American player; Dodd’s Georgia Tech teams were brainy, athletic and Caucasian. And while many of the Southern college football teams would not integrate until the early 1970s, Lombardi’s teams of the 1960s had more African-American players than most other NFL teams. Greats like Herb Adderley, Willie Davis, Willie Wood, Bob Jeter and Lionel Aldridge stocked the roster. As America was piloting skies of racial turbulence, the Packers demonstrated how persons of a different race could, not just get along, but achieve excellence in the process.
“So there was this bond on that team and nobody could crack it,” Curry said. “Lombardi knew exactly what he was doing.”
But it would take years for Curry to come to this conclusion. Though Curry had been Lombardi’s starting center, after the 1966 season one of the players whose contract Lombardi refused to protect was Bill Curry. Now a free agent, Curry was picked up by the New Orleans Saints, and before he knew it, his time in Green Bay was over.
The Call That Changed it All
As he was prepping for New Orleans, he received an unusual call. The voice on the other end was claiming to be Don Shula, head coach of the Baltimore Colts. Curry, still wallowing in self-pity, thought it was a joke. “I almost said something smart,” Curry recalls. “But I said, ‘Yes sir, Coach.’ He said, ‘Look, we’re thinking about making a trade here and I want to speak to you because I have a specific idea about you.”
Curry then realized this … thank the Lord I didn’t pop off on him … was indeed Don Shula.
Shula continued, as Curry relates the story: “I know you were a starter last year, but if I trade for you, what I’m going to want from you is to play on all the special teams because I like the way you do special teams. I just want to know if you’d be happy with that.’”
“Coach, I would crawl to Baltimore, Maryland, to play for you,’” Curry told him.
Curry had played both ways in a one-platoon system at Georgia Tech, and Shula, a special teams guru, saw Curry as a player who could be used in a variety of situations. Curry was thrilled at this opportunity and prepared his family for a move to Baltimore.
“Shula almost single-handedly revived my self-esteem,” Curry said. “He basically saved my career.”
But the Era of Good Feelings seemed to be threatened in Curry’s first game with Baltimore. Against Atlanta, an 80-yard punt return for the Colts was called back because Curry was flagged for a clip. An incensed Shula ran onto the field, grabbed Curry, and shot a spray of expletives in his face. “In the NFL, if somebody crosses that white line, there aren’t any sacred cows out there,” Curry remembered. “So I screamed right back in his face because I didn’t think I’d clipped.”
That following Tuesday, Curry was watching game film with the Colts team when an assistant coach, John Sandusky, replayed the event on the projector.
“Curry is that a clip?” Sandusky asked menacingly.
“Might be,” Curry said.
“Well, let me make a suggestion to you,” Sandusky said. “The next time you make a decision to dog cuss the head coach on national TV, you make sure it’s not a clip.”
I understand I’m going to have a one-game career with the Baltimore Colts, Curry thought to himself.
So Curry, sated with contrition, went to Shula to apologize. When Curry found him, Shula pulled him aside in the equipment room.
“Coach, I was completely out of line,” Curry told Shula. “I should not have raised my voice to you. But you did cross the white line and I didn’t think I had clipped.”
“I kinda like that,” he said mercifully. “Just don’t clip the guy.”
Inspired by Shula’s demeanor, Curry played even harder than before.
By the end of 1968, the Colts arrived at Super Bowl III with a 14-1 record and were heavy favorites over the 12-3 New York Jets. Prior to the game, reporters caught Jets quarterback Joe Namath sunning himself at the Galt Ocean Mile hotel in Ft. Lauderdale. Later, during a Q&A at the Miami Touchdown Club, Namath was angered by an inebriated fan who had crept into the back of the press conference and was hurling unfavorable predictions at the Jets’ star.
“We’re going to win the game!” Namath shot back.
At the time, Curry laughed at his friend—and the now-famous guarantee. Joe being Joe. But Curry didn’t always hold a high opinion of the quarterback. In 1964, Namath had hobbled onto the field as the Alabama quarterback and knifed open the belly of the Georgia Tech defense like it was fine cuisine. “It was 0-0 with 1:42 left in the half. At halftime, it was 14-0,” Curry said. “I didn’t like him.”
But a chance meeting at the Senior Bowl left Curry with a much different impression of the darkly handsome gunslinger from Beaver Falls, Pa. Curry and Namath were working on the center-quarterback exchange, and within five minutes, the two men became bosom buddies.
Now in Super Bowl III, Curry faced off against his friend, this time with much higher stakes. In the end, the Jets emerged victorious, 16-7, in one of the greatest upsets in sports history. The game, and the guarantee, cemented Namath’s legacy. “That thing was a nightmare,” Curry said, speaking of the game. “But nobody on our team was angry at Joe Namath. We had a great team, but just didn’t finish.”
We’re counting down the #NFLTop10 Super Bowls of all time! #10 on our list features Broadway Joe putting on a show in SB III.
Check daily to see which other Super Bowls made our list!@nyjets #JetUp@RealJoeNamath pic.twitter.com/7OHaualKkw
— NFL Films (@NFLFilms) January 26, 2018
Curry points out that in the final analysis most fans don’t remember the Colts owning the Jets for the next four years straight and achieving Valhalla: a win in Super Bowl V over the Dallas Cowboys.
Curry played for the Colts for six seasons (1967-72), three under Shula and the remainder under Don McCafferty, both of whom were Paul Brown disciples. Shula’s training camps, Curry says, were much more difficult than those of Lombardi.
“It was like a gut-check every day,” Curry recalls. “Six weeks of two-a-days, pads twice a day. Lombardi’s training camp was shorts in the morning and pads in the afternoon. It was hard, but he made it a point of having the really hard stuff for the last ten days. Shula’s lasted six weeks.”
If Lombardi was known for his singular focus, Curry remembers Shula’s loyalty above all else. “His greatest attribute was his sense of commitment from him to you, and to the team,” Curry said. “He took a bunch of no-names, and once he believed in you, he would never give up on you. We played our butts off for him. That’s why he won more games than anyone in the history of the NFL.”
Before joining the Colts, Curry had snapped the ball to Georgia Tech’s Billy Lothridge, who came in second behind Roger Staubach in the Heisman voting in 1963; to the aforementioned Namath, who was his teammate at the Senior Bowl; and Starr, who would win 5 NFL Championships before retiring in 1971. But perhaps the greatest quarterback to receive a snap from Curry was John Constantine Unitas, the granite-faced leader of the Colts from 1956-72.
“It was like being in the huddle with … God,” Curry says of playing with Unitas.
After watching his idol from afar in the 1958 NFL Championship Game, Curry by 1968 was Unitas’ starting center. “We would do anything to keep them off of him,” Curry said. Them meaning anyone.
Curry now breaks from his narrative, leaps up and walks over to a picture hanging on the wall in his office. “See here,” Curry says, pointing to a black-and-white photograph of Unitas (19) throwing the ball. In front of him is a grunting Colts center, whose helmet is snapped back because KC’s Jerry Mays drinks Quaker State and eats quarterbacks for breakfast.
“I’m getting my ass knocked off,” Curry says frankly, his mind trailing off to a long-ago world. An era of rough, bull-nosed football. A hard, cold, severe, fingers-broken game. A time of Ed “Too Tall” Jones, Bob Lilly, Merlin Olsen, and Chuck Howley. But by far the toughest customer on the block was Chicago’s Dick Butkus, whom Deacon Jones once described as a “well-conditioned animal.”
As he is scanning his portfolio of images, Curry says without hesitation that Butkus was the toughest guy he ever tried to block.
“You couldn’t tell what he was going to do because I don’t think he knew what he was going to do,” Curry said.
After the 1972 season, Curry was shipped to the Houston Oilers, led by head coach Sid Gillman. Curry spent one year in Houston before ending his career with the Los Angeles Rams and head coach Chuck Knox. By 1974, his ten years were up, and Curry had no intentions of leaving the gridiron anytime soon.
It was time to go see Bobby Dodd.
Bill Curry, Coach
Curry insisted on the madness.
“So I knocked on his door and said, ‘Coach, the 10 years are up,’” Curry said. “(Coach Dodd) said, ‘Well, you’re crazy.’”
Bill Curry, remembering the words of wisdom from Bobby Dodd
By 1976, Dodd had retired from coaching and was finishing up his twenty-six year term as athletic director. One of the last images of his administration was watching his former pupil nab his first coaching job under Georgia Tech head coach Pepper Rodgers.
Curry spent one year at Tech before reuniting with Starr — who was now the head dog in Green Bay — as the offensive line coach for the Packers.
In 1980 Curry returned to Georgia Tech for his third liaison with the school —
this time, as the head coach. The first two years were woeful, one-win seasons, but a victory over second-ranked Alabama in the 1981 opener had teeth.
Curry eventually turned the Yellow Jackets into winners, enjoying a 6-5 crusade in his third year. His best year at Tech was, unquestionably, 1985, when the team went 9-2-1 and won the Hall of Fame Classic over George Perles’s Michigan State Spartans. But the waters remained undulant, as a 3-8 season in 1983 and a 5-5-1 season in 1986 caused Tech to be suffocated with instability.
So when Curry landed the Alabama job in 1987, he was shocked.
It would have all made sense if Coach Bryant had his hand in the hiring. Bryant and Curry hit it off after the Coaches All-American game in the 1960s, and from time to time, Bryant would take Curry to Alabama alumni meetings, and write notes of encouragement to him. “If he’d have been around, I would have thought, OK, Coach Bryant sort of pushed this thing,” Curry said. “But under the circumstances, that was not the case obviously. So I was surprised to be considered.”
Joab (pronounced “Jo-Ab”) Thomas, University of Alabama president, prior to the hiring had outlined three priorities for the new coach: “First and foremost, we wanted people who had unquestioned integrity. Second, we wanted people who would assist in the continuing efforts to improve academic records for our student athletes, and third, we wanted to win.”
Curry, 44 at the time, certainly fit the bill with respect to the first two. Coaching-and playing-wise, he had a good pedigree, dangling from the trees of Dodd, Lombardi, Shula and Starr. He was smart, well spoken, and good-looking. What was not to like?
Ever intrigued by the Alabama “mystique,” Curry arrived on campus with high hopes. Early on, he quelled the critics with a 24-13 win over 11th-ranked Penn State in State College, Pa. in only his second game. But losses to Florida on Sept. 19 and Memphis State on Oct. 10 left a rancid aftertaste. Curry finished the year at 7-5, losing his last three games to a Murderer’s Row of Notre Dame, Auburn and Michigan. In all but the Notre Dame game, Alabama was competitive, and with a roster of young talent that included Bobby Humphrey, Derrick Thomas, Pierre Goode, Howard Cross, John Mangum, Kermit Kendrick, Gene Jelks and Lee Ozmint, there was tremendous prospect for the future. Humphrey rushed for over 1,200 yards and was one of the premier backs in the SEC. Thomas was a manchild at linebacker.
The additions of Kevin Turner, Lamonde Russell, Prince Wimbley and Keith McCants helped the Crimson Tide to ascend to greater heights in Curry’s second season. That year, Alabama went 9-3 and won a hard fought Sun Bowl over Army, 29-28. The three demerits were to Ole Miss and LSU in Tuscaloosa, and Auburn in Birmingham. Wins over Penn State, Tennessee and Texas A&M were bright spots on the calendar — enough to keep the Alabama faithful relatively satisfied.
So when Curry approached the 1989 season, the program was ravenous for a championship. Looming was the first-ever Iron Bowl game held at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn, and Curry would have to overcome this massive hurdle to get his initial win over Alabama’s arch nemesis.
The Tide rolled through the regular season like a flaming tire through a scrapyard, as back-to-back wins versus No. 6 Tennessee and No. 14 Penn State made for a great October. The Penn State game was memorable for a couple of reasons. First, the Thomas Rayam block to seal the win inspired a Daniel Moore tribute, and the second was Joe Paterno’s reaction after the game. “He came out and shook my hand and put his hand on my head and said ‘I’m so happy for you,’” Curry remembered. “And he meant it. I thought, dear God please teach me. Because when I was in his shoes, I never did that.”
Though Alabama was undefeated heading into the Iron Bowl, the Auburn program had pulled up even with Alabama for the first time in many decades. By 1989, Pat Dye, Auburn’s head coach, was searching for his fourth SEC title since he had taken over the program in 1981. He was 2-0 against Curry.
Dye had claimed that stealing the Iron Bowl away from the clutches of Legion Field was like the crumbling of the Berlin Wall, and the hype surrounding the game reached feverish proportions. In the end, Auburn emerged victorious, 30-20, in one of the biggest games ever played in the history of the rivalry.
‘Bama was now 10-1 and slated to play 10-1 Miami — which was fresh off a 27-10 throttling of Notre Dame — in the Sugar Bowl. The Tide lost, 33-25, and Miami claimed the national title, its third of the decade.
Then Curry called the team meeting.
A Life in Review
So what does Bill Curry think about Alabama now? How does he review his coaching life?
First, he realizes the idolatry of an obsession with winning. He realizes the fleeting value of rings, trophies, and awards. “All those other things are temporal. And yes I was obsessed with them,” Curry said. “I was highly competitive, I was highly selfish with my time. I worked 100 hours a week and I thought that was heroic. It is not. It was stupid. I was not with Carolyn when I should have been. I was down at that office because I was by golly going to show the Crimson Tide folks that nobody could outwork us. I let all of that ego stuff get in the way of what really matters.”
Curry is not at peace with his career, but not because he didn’t achieve more wins. He is not at peace because until the end, he did not find balance. “If I had it to do over, I would do it differently. I was trying to do all those things and I thought it was noble. My priorities should have been family first and then football,” Curry said.
But the question remains, Is it possible to maintain balance and satisfy the demands of an obsessed fan base?
“You have to work your butt off,” Curry said. “My contention is you can win and win big at a place like Alabama without sacrificing your family. There has to be a way to pay attention to the people who are counting on you to love them. And ironically, I think I would have won more. I think my head would have been clearer. I would spend a lot more time with those little people and with Carolyn. I’m just fortunate I got forgiven.”
Yes, pictures of Alabama are hung on his walls. Yes, he still thinks about coaching at Alabama. Yes, he is proud that he was once the leader of that storied program. But he does not suffer from the same myopia of his critics. He has discovered that this life offers more important things than Alabama football.
As unconventional as his route may have been to the edge of enlightenment, Curry seems to be standing on a higher emotional and spiritual plain. Sure, the temptation toward regret will leave its residue, rear its menacing head, but in the process Curry’s focus has been channeled. He understands that life’s true value is found in relationships, not in wins and losses. It’s found in people. Thus he finds value in attending his grandson’s football games. In being present with his family. In sharing important life lessons around a campfire with a group of impressionable adolescents.
Pete Wellborn, an Atlanta attorney and former player at Georgia Tech, holds the utmost admiration for his former coach. “As a human being, Bill has touched countless lives,” Wellborn said. “To the thousands of athletes whom he has coached, Bill has been a mentor, advisor, father figure, role model, philanthropist, and, in short, pretty much every other descriptive term one can think of that describes a person who improves and enriches the lives of everyone he touches. In short, to be around Bill is to become a better person.”
Regardless of what critics might think of Bill Curry as a coach, Curry is a success in life. In addition to being a two-time Pro Bowl selectee while in Baltimore, he has written two books, One More July and Ten Men You Meet in the Huddle, the second title being praised by author Pat Conroy as the best book ever written about the NFL.
He is a successful husband, a motivational speaker, a loving father and grandfather, and, most important, a Christian.
“You can achieve the highest of the high in this world, and completely blow the life to come,” Curry said. “Each of us is going to face the question, ‘What did you do with what I gave you?’ Are we going to show him our championship rings? I have five of them. Not only does He not care about the championships or awards, they’re not even on the list. For him, it’s about how much did you love. I gave you two children and thousands of student athletes. Where are they? Did you love them with all your heart? Did you let them know every day?
“No I was busy. I had to work on goal line. My son would say, ‘Dad you weren’t there.’ I’m so sorry. And he’s forgiven me and we’re fine now. I fail by myself
— every time. But in Christ, we can make a difference in people’s lives.”
Let’s Go See Vin
Bob Long was a teammate of Curry’s in Green Bay, and a good friend. In the summer of 1970, Long telephoned because he knew Curry was in Washington with the NFL Player’s Association. And he knew that Vince Lombardi was dying.
Lombardi had agreed to become the coach of the Washington Redskins in 1969, but before he could coach a game, his health began to fail. Now Long sensed that if Curry did not make peace with this situation, it would haunt him the rest of his life.
“(Bob) said ‘You and I are going to see coach at the hospital — tomorrow. I said, ‘No, we’re not,’” Curry recalls. “I said, ‘First of all, they wouldn’t let me in — and I don’t blame ’em. And second, I’m not going to do it.’ He said, ‘let me tell you something. I know where you are, and if I have to drag your big butt out of that hotel room, you’re going to go with me and we’re going to light a candle for coach. Bob was Catholic. He said, ‘I’ll explain.’ And then we’re going to go in that hospital and you’re going to walk in and see him.’”
Forced by the honor of being a teammate, Curry relented. When Curry arrived on Lombardi’s hospital floor, the elevator door opened and he saw Lombardi’s wife, Marie, standing with Redskins quarterback Sonny Jurgensen. Thinking Marie would not speak to him, instead she met him and embraced him.
“Come on,” Marie said. “Let’s go see Vin.’”
Four years had passed since Lombardi refused to protect his center. Curry, who had been vocal in his criticisms of his former coach, now approached the bed with regret. As he kneeled and clutched his fading coach’s hand, he stammered and stuttered. Searching for the right words.
“I have said some things I shouldn’t have,” Curry said to the old man. “I was misquoted on some of them, but others I did say and I was wrong and I’m sorry and I came here today to tell you that you meant a lot to my life.”
The old man looked Curry in the eyes and squeezed his hand. “You could mean a lot to my life if you’ll pray for me,” Lombardi said.
Curry promised that he would. Then he told his coach good-bye and left the room.
Vince Lombardi’s candle went out in September 1970. Forty-seven years later, Curry cannot stop thinking about the impact Lombardi made on his life.
“So what did the great man do to the terrified sinner?” Curry reflects. “He’d forgiven me when I least deserved it. And I’m very sure that’s what’s our faith is about. In the end, as it turns out, he was true to his priorities. He did place his faith first. And he forced me to place my faith first.
And I hope I can be the same when it’s my turn.”
Cover photo courtesy of University of Alabama Athletics/Bryant Museum.