ATLANTA -- It is possibly the only Division I college football program without a full-time athletic director, practice fields and located on the ninth floor of a bank building. To be precise, that would be one floor above a Planned Parenthood office.
On second thought take the "possibly" out of it.
This is Bill Curry's world at the moment and it is a strange one. The 66-year-old conscience of college football agreed to become the first football coach at Georgia State last summer despite all of the above. Mostly, it is a program on paper only. Only one of the 26 players signed in the first recruiting class last month is on campus.
|Bill Curry and his new team haven't lost yet -- because their first game comes in 2010. (Provided to CBSSports.com)|
"Now," he said, "we have to raise the money in this difficult economy."
The program turned 10 (months) on Tuesday with the offices still in the Citizens Trust Bank Building on Piedmont Ave. There is one of those digital clocks that counts down the days until Georgia State's first game (500-something). Given all that, all you can do is trust the former Kentucky, Georgia Tech and Alabama coach and hold on for the ride. Yeah, it's going to be a bumpy one. South Florida, Florida Atlantic, Western Kentucky and Boise State all have been successful in recent years with start-ups or transitioning I-A programs. But what school -- an urban, commuter school at that -- would create a football program from scratch in this economy?
In this case, there is no turning back. A student fee increase was overwhelmingly approved in late 2007 --- $85 per student will help raise approximately $5.5 million that will help fund the program. Now add the fact that the idea germinated in downtown Atlanta, in the Deep South, in the middle of the SEC and all of it begins to make sense. Just a little, but it begins to make sense.
"That's the first answer," Curry said sitting in his modest office that looks out on some downtown high rises and the bank's parking lot. "It is simply a part of the culture that's not unlike a state religion. It's probably not totally rational. But there is a very rational component."
Rational in that maybe, someday, folks will flock downtown for something other than the Hawks, Thrashers, Falcons, the SEC football championship game and SEC basketball tournament. That's because the Panthers will debut in Division I-AA in 2010 playing in the 71,000-seat Georgia Dome. While that conjures up an image of a few marbles rattling around Grand Central Station, in order to be big time you have to first look like it.
The plan is to eventually join the Colonial Athletic Association in 2012, one of the strongest I-AA leagues. After that ...
"I think it would be a bad mistake to look down the road too early," Curry said.
There are more loony business models than banking on the South's love of football to make an eventual rise to Division I-A.
"They showed me all the athletic facilities," said the school's first scholarship player, Mark Hogan Jr., whose father played for Curry at Georgia Tech. "They laid out the plans for what is going to happen here. Obviously we're still about 18 months away from kickoff. You have to trust what the coaches are saying."
What the coaches are saying is that the plan can't fail. They're saying it's OK for the entire first recruiting class to redshirt. What choice is there for a start-up? They're saying Georgia State is tapping into 100,000 graduates who live in the Atlanta area. They're investing in more CEO and CFO Georgia State alums in the Atlanta area than Georgia Tech and Georgia combined. They're counting on a growing enrollment of 28,000, which is larger than eight SEC schools.
The drawings of the practice fields and new football offices are big time. Defensive coordinator John Thompson stared out the window at the I-75/85 Downtown Connector and told a friend, "Looking at all the rush hour traffic, you see a lot of cars. I'm also looking at a whole lot of great football players."
|Curry got a snapper and punter at tryouts in October. (Provided to CBSSports.com)|
"We're not recruiting the Percy Harvins of this world," he said. "We're saying this, 'If you're going to an established program, you're going to be redshirted almost certainly. You're going to be holding (blocking) bags and simulating the other team's offense and defense and getting the daylights knocked out of you.
"With us you're going to be coached by the varsity coaches. You're going to be first or second string because that's all we have. Their eyes light up."
Credit Carolyn Curry. At least credit her for the Bill Curry part. The former cable network analyst had gotten feelers from time to time during his 11 years on the air, but never acted upon them. Life was good. If his coaching career was going to end with his last job at Kentucky in 1996 that would be OK.
"I promised we wouldn't move," said Curry, an Atlanta native. "I gave up my idea of coaching one more time."
Then Mary McElroy called -- out of nowhere. Curry figured the Georgia State AD was sounding him out as a consultant. Former Falcons' coach Dan Reeves already had worked with the school for two years in launching the program. Curry was just another voice on the phone offering advice.
"I know some terrific young coaches," he told McElroy.
"I'm not interested in them," McElroy said. "I'm interested in you."
The veteran coach was shocked. Catch-his-breath shocked. Another job, in his lap, if only Carolyn would sign off. The issue of taking another job had become somewhat of a running joke in the household over the years.
"I would never dissuade you," she had been telling her husband. "I'll miss you -- but you go right ahead."
But after 32 moves, Carolyn was OK with this one. For starters, it didn't require a 33rd move. Her father had gone to night school at Georgia State. Carolyn followed, taking 14 years to complete her master's and Ph.D.
People would ask her about her major and she would say, "10:40." After dropping off the kids at school and driving downtown, "whatever the history department is offering at 10:40 a.m., that's what I take."
Georgia State immediately had football credibility. Everybody knows Bill Curry from playing, coaching and/or commentating. In his 10 pro seasons, he played for Vince Lombardi and on three NFL champions. As a coach he had the highest winning percentage at Alabama (at the time) since Bear Bryant. The man is spiritual, cerebral, even literary. His 2008 book, Ten Men You Meet in the Huddle is the study of the profession, the game and the man.
No wonder after it made him coach, Georgia State made Curry a Distinguished Executive Fellow. When McElroy was fired in December there was no question who would take over. Curry was made interim athletic director.
One floor above that Planned Parenthood office, more before the first game is played, a few blocks from those future practice fields, the interview ends. Curry has to get back to recruiting. After a coaching career that has spanned three decades, he isn't done yet.
One of his first public speaking engagements came as a 12-year-old on a school field trip. He had stage fright that day and failed miserably.
"It happened at Georgia State," Curry said.
Out of that experience came one of the finest speakers, one of the finest persons, in any profession.
"While I was (on TV), almost every week somebody said to me, 'Do you miss it?' Curry said. "Almost every time I said, 'I miss my players, I miss my staff. I miss the camaraderie.'"
Now it's happening again at Georgia State.