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Curry's football journey ends in defeat, but wins, losses were never the point

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The pull of coaching led Curry to take the head job at Georgia State three seasons ago. (Getty Images)  
The pull of coaching led Curry to take the head job at Georgia State three seasons ago. (Getty Images)  

The moment didn't really draw a lot of headlines. Things that happen in remote villages like Orono, Maine, usually don't make the evening news.

But Saturday night one of the truly good men in college football called it a career.

History will record that Bill Curry, 70, coached his final game when Maine defeated Georgia State 51-7. Curry, who had announced his retirement, finished his 20-year head coaching career with a record of 93-128-4.

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But the sheer numbers are cold. They lack context and don't reflect the passion that was behind them, regardless of what column in which they happen to fall. They don't tell you how much Curry has meant to a sport he loves and will always love. They don't tell you how many lives he touched and how many boys who lacked direction became men under his watch.

It has been a football life in the truest sense of the word. Curry was an undersized lineman from College Park, Ga., a suburb of Atlanta. His grandparents lived in Athens in the shadow of Georgia's Sanford Stadium. On Saturdays he would sit on their porch and watch people go to and from the games.

"I wasn't old enough to completely understand how important college football was to people," Curry told me several years ago. "But what I remember is that when people left the stadium and headed back to their cars, they were either very happy or very sad. What I eventually learned was that in the South, college football was not just a game. It's who we are."

Curry thought he might be headed to the University of Georgia some 75 miles away. He also visited Clemson, about two hours away. Both venues were too far from home. Because home was the one thing that Bill Curry loved more than football.

In the sixth grade Curry told his father that he was going to marry Carolyn Newton. His father told Curry that it just might be the smartest decision he would ever make. When it came time for college she went to Agnes Scott in Atlanta. So he went to Georgia Tech to play for the legendary Bobby Dodd. Curry was told by more than one friend and more than one teacher that he would not be able to cut it at Georgia Tech -- either athletically or academically.

And thus Curry began a 50-year journey of proving people wrong.

"I wasn't a gifted student and frankly I was lazy," Curry said. "At Georgia Tech I had a Freshman Chemistry course at 8 a.m. and I really didn't see the sense in that. So I didn't go."

What Curry had yet to grasp was that Dodd, by his own admission a poor student, had become obsessive about his players earning a degree from Georgia Tech. When players cut class they were immediately ordered to join assistant coach Dick Inman at 6 a.m. at Grant Field.

"He ran me up and down those stadium steps until I threw up," said Curry. "And I suddenly discovered that I really liked Freshman Chemistry."

When Curry left Georgia Tech he gave professional football a try. Again, they said he wouldn't make it in the rough and tumble world that was the NFL of the 1960s. But when Bart Starr of the Green Bay Packers lined up under center in the first Super Bowl, he took the snap from Bill Curry. He played in two more Super Bowls for the Baltimore Colts, snapping the ball to Johnny Unitas. He played for three Hall of Fame coaches: Dodd, Vince Lombardi and Don Shula. He played in the NFL for 10 seasons.

"How could you not learn about leadership and character and all the things that matter by being around those men?" Curry asked.

After pro football, Curry decided to get into coaching. After one year at Georgia Tech and three more as an assistant with the Green Bay Packers, Curry was named head coach at his alma mater in 1980. Curry's timing was awful. Georgia, the in-state rival, had just signed a kid named Herschel Walker. Vince Dooley's Bulldogs were about to go on the best four-year run (43-4-1, three SEC championships, one national championship) in school history.

Curry was undaunted even after a combined record of 2-19-1 in his first two seasons. He kept working. His Georgia Tech teams beat Georgia in consecutive years in 1984-85. In 1985 he was named the ACC Coach of the Year. In 1987 Alabama gave him the coaching opportunity of a lifetime. Ray Perkins was going back to the NFL after four seasons as the successor to Bear Bryant.

It was not a popular hire in some Alabama circles because Curry went to Georgia Tech. Dodd and Bryant, once friends, began a feud after an on-field incident in 1961. They later made up but the fan bases never forgot.

Curry was told he would never be successful at Alabama. Again, Curry pressed on. In 1988, Alabama lost an infamous Homecoming game to Ole Miss and somebody threw a brick through the plate glass window in his office. Curry pressed on.

In 1989, Curry led Alabama to a 10-0 start and a No. 2 national ranking. But on Dec. 2, 1989, Alabama played at Auburn's Jordan-Hare Stadium for the first time in history (since 1948 the rivalry had been played at Birmingham's Legion Field). A victory would give Alabama an undisputed SEC championship and a berth in the Sugar Bowl with a shot at the national championship.

Auburn won the game 30-20. Then Alabama lost in the Sugar Bowl (33-25) to Miami, which was declared national champion.

After the season it was clear to Curry that no matter how many games he won, he would never get the full support of Alabama's fans. So when the opportunity came to become the head coach at Kentucky and work for C.M. Newton, he took it. But he never regretted his decision to coach at Alabama.

"The wonderful thing about that place is that the kids who put on that uniform understand how important it is to play for the University of Alabama," said Curry. "You're going to get everything they have."

Curry coached for seven seasons at Kentucky and then gave television a try. Always a great communicator, Curry was a natural in his 10 seasons at ESPN. He could have called it career right there but was intrigued when the opportunity came in 2009 to build the Georgia State program from the ground up.

Carolyn Curry earned both her Master's and Ph.D. from Georgia State, located in downtown Atlanta. Without having to move, which Carolyn made clear was not an option, Bill Curry could find out if he had one more big push left in him. It made no sense for a man his age to resume 80-hour work weeks. So what did Curry do when common sense said to say no? He went for it.

"I'm so glad you're not a mountain climber," the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Carolyn Curry once told her husband. "Or we'd live at Mt. Everest."

In three seasons he wished he had won more games. But in that short span of time Georgia State has gone from no football program, to an FCS independent, to a member of the Colonial Athletic Association and next season will be a member of the FBS Sun Belt Conference.

Curry doesn't know what he is going to do next. He has five grandchildren and he hasn't seen them nearly enough. But this much we know. Bill Curry is going to do something. And he's going to do it full speed ahead. There simply isn't another way.

Watch The Tony Barnhart Show on Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET on The CBS Sports Network.


Tony Barnhart is in his fifth season as a contributor to CBSSports.com. He is a college football analyst for CBS Sports and The CBS Sports Network. Prior to joining CBS he was the national college football writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 24 years. He has written five books on college football.
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