Georgia Tech coach uses football to teach life's larger lessons. Bill Curry takes firm but caring control of his athletic classroom
Bill Curry is an educator in coach's clothing. His official title is ``head football coach, Georgia Institute of Technology,'' but he doesn't like to accept the narrow definitions often attached to the job.
``I think of a coach as an educator if he's doing it right,'' he says. ``The wonderful thing about a coach is that he has a youngster in the most intense moments, when he's fatigued, when he's at the height of his self-esteem, after a touchdown, after a devastating loss.
``He will remember things that happen in that crucible, in those moments, more vividly than almost anything else in his life, and what you say to him right then can have a major impact.''
Sometimes, of course, a coach is called upon to teach some pretty tough lessons. That's the situation Curry found himself in last year, when, in the days leading up to Georgia Tech's appearance in the All-American Bowl in Birmingham, Ala., three players missed the team's curfew.
Under the circumstances, some coaches might have looked the other way, especially considering that senior John Dewberry, Tech's starting quarterback, was one of the violators. Suspend your key offensive player? In his last collegiate game?
If that seemed unthinkable, even suicidal for the team, Curry nonetheless felt a responsibility to take the difficult disciplinary step.
``It was painful, but there really wasn't any choice,'' he states. ``You need to be thoughtful about the rules you set, because somebody is going to let you enforce one of them sooner or later.''
And standing his ground this time was important to the integrity of the program he has spent the last seven years rebuilding. He asks parents to entrust their boys to him, and here certainly was an opportunity to show their trust is well placed.
``When I come into your home recruiting and say I'm going to look after your son for four or five years, I have to live up to that,'' he explains. ``And that doesn't mean letting him go off on his own in a strange city.''
His decision to enforce the curfew elicited some critical telegrams, including at least one that claimed the action would cost Tech the game.
In fact, it didn't. Instead, sophomore Todd Rampley, who had thrown only two passes all season, quarterbacked the team and helped rally it to a come-from-behind 17-14 win over Michigan State. The victory was Georgia Tech's first in a bowl game in 13 years and capped a 9-2-1 season.
Many people were as impressed by Curry's unwavering position as they were pleased with the happy ending. He received about a thousand letters that basically said, ``Gee, that was wonderful,'' including one from Indiana basketball coach Bobby Knight. ``He doesn't know me, I've never met him, but that meant a lot to me,'' Curry says.
Winning the game painted everything in a more positive light, and served to enhance the image of the Yellow Jackets coach. ``I wouldn't have been quite as brilliant if we had lost. That was overdone. And it would have been overdone either way; I knew that going in. I was just following a system, giving them [the players] some structure to their lives. Love and discipline are the same.''
And love, of the deepest, caring, unconditional variety, is something Curry feels brings results in football, as well as any other endeavor.
``One thing all child psychologists agree on in child rearing, teaching, or coaching,'' he explains, ``is that a person who is loved, learns to love. They disagree on everything else, whether to be strict or lax or whatever, but they do agree that great results come when human beings know they are loved and accepted, not tolerated. Nobody wants to be just tolerated.''
Curry's philosophical streak may partly stem from studying theology after graduating from Georgia Tech in the mid-1960s. ``I went to theology school with all the answers and left with none,'' he confesses. He continues to look for the answers, though, and feels he learned much from playing under three great coaches -- Bobby Dodd at Georgia Tech, and, in the pros, Vince Lombardi at Green Bay and Don Shula at Baltimore.
A two-time Pro Bowl center, he played on three championship teams and, before retiring in 1975, served as the president of the NFL Players Association.
He returned to his alma mater in Atlanta as an assistant coach in 1976, worked in the same capacity at Green Bay from 1977 to 1979, and then replaced Pepper Rodgers as the Yellow Jackets' coach in 1980.
A humbling lesson awaited him. ``All my life I played on one great team after another. I was spoiled,'' he observes. ``My ego said that when Curry shows up, winning is automatic.''
Reviving the school's faded football tradition, however, proved no easy chore. His first two teams were a combined 2-19-1. This was an embarrassment for a coach who had arrived like a knight en route to Camelot. Athletic excellence without academic compromise didn't seem to be working at first. Curry sensed he was at practically at the end of his rope when things began to turn around. The squad went 6-5 in 1982, sank back to 3-8 the next season, and finished 6-4-1 in '84. Last year, of course, brought the most glowing results yet.
With serious graduation losses, Tech may be hard pressed to keep the winning momentum going. Furman tied the Jackets in the opener, but they broke into the win column last week by beating Virginia. This Saturday comes a big test against Clemson, a pre-season pick to win the Atlantic Coast Conference.