Bill Curry: ‘A Class Act’

John Heisman, Bobby Dodd, William Alexander and Bobby Ross are four coaches who will always be named among Tech’s most influential. However, there is another coach who deserves the same honor. Bill Curry was a student in Industrial Management (class of 1964) and a player under Bobby Dodd as well as head football coach from 1980-1986. His seven-year record of 31-43-4 may not be the best record for a Tech coach, but he was influential to the school in other ways.

Playing Career

Curry details the bulk of his playing career in his new book, Ten Men You Meet in the Huddle. “The book is a labor of love. As I went around the country…friends, especially my wife and George Plimpton, began to harass me and say, ‘you have to write these things down, people love these stories.’ The book is a story of the great human beings I ran across, mostly in the NFL. My dad, my high school coach and Coach Dodd are in the book,” Curry said.

Curry started his career in his hometown of College Park, Ga. He spent falls playing football in order to stay in shape for baseball season. Bill Padgett, Curry’s high school football coach, taught him the meaning of putting on a football uniform every day for practice and the importance of growing up through the game. Curry’s mind set changed from baseball to football when he watched the 1958 NFL Championship between the then-Baltimore Colts and New York Giants. The Colts, led by quarterback Johnny Unitas, defeated the Giants in the first sudden death overtime game in NFL history.

Soon after that, against the emphatic wishes of his high school guidance counselor, Curry decided to attend Tech and play for the legendary Coach Dodd. “My mom got the idea that I was intrigued with [Coach Bobby Dodd] and she knew that if I went anywhere other than Tech I would never go to class because I was not interested in school,” Curry said.

At Tech, Curry learned the importance of going to class very quickly. “I cut one chemistry class the second week of school. The next Wednesday morning they had me at Grant Field running up and down the stadium steps…I decided that chemistry at eight in the morning was a wonderful thing,” Curry said.

Through four years at Tech, Curry was part of four straight winning teams. While Curry played regularly as a center and a linebacker, he did not get a chance to start until his junior season (his fourth year at Tech).

Curry graduated and was drafted by the Green Bay Packers. He would make the opening day roster for the Packers in 1965 playing for another legendary coach: Vince Lombardi. Curry played alongside several Hall of Famers on those Packers teams, including quarterback Bart Starr, linebacker Ray Nitschke, cornerback Herb Adderly and defensive end Willie Davis.

“Willie Davis adopted me, a great, great man. He took me under his wing, showed me how to practice and taught me how to behave. Lombardi was the antithesis of Bobby Dodd and I hated his guts. I never forgave Vince Lombardi for not being Bobby Dodd,” Curry said.

After the first Super Bowl, Curry was claimed by the expansion Saints before being traded to the Baltimore Colts, where he played for famed coach Don Shula. Shula is known for having the only undefeated season in NFL history with the 1972 Miami Dolphins.

After one season on defense, Curry moved back to offense as the center, playing alongside quarterback Johnny Unitas, the man who inspired his career. The Colts went to two Super Bowls and won Super Bowl V. “I got to be on some great teams,” Curry said.

After Robert Irsay became the Colts’ owner, he and General Manager Joe Thomas summarily split the team up. “Ownership is everything in the NFL. I spent a lot of years in the NFL and the owner makes it or breaks it,” Curry said.

Thomas benched Unitas and traded him to the Chargers. After hearing of Curry’s remarks about him at the Pro Bowl that year, Thomas sent him on the fast track out of Baltimore and on the way to the Houston Oilers. Curry stayed one season with them and another with the St. Louis Rams before ending his playing career.

Coaching Career

In 1980, Tech hired Curry as head coach. “Bill Curry was such a natural fit for Georgia Tech; I thought he would coach there for the rest of his life…he was very popular at Tech,” said former Tech basketball coach Bobby Cremins.

Despite a great opportunity for Coach Curry, he could not have come to Tech at a worse time. Football attendance was down, basketball excitement was low and baseball was just as bad. “Fiscally, morally, intellectually, academically and socially, we were bankrupt in every way. If it weren’t for Homer Rice, Dr. Joseph Petit and Kim King we might be Division III today….Dr. Petit and I went around and literally begged the students to increase the athletic fee $15 per quarter just to pay the bills. No one was coming to the games except Georgia people and Clemson people,” Curry said.

However, a turnaround in Tech sports was on its way. Former baseball coach Jim Morris won the ACC in his fourth year, Cremins won the regular season and tournament title for basketball in his fourth year and Curry won nine games his fifth year and made his only bowl game with the Jackets.

A good deal of camaraderie developed between the coaches, whose teams were all going through the rebuilding process. “Coach Curry and I were friends. We dressed in the same locker room. We always talked and had a couple of football players that played baseball,” Morris said.

“We were in a major rebuilding situation and Bill treated me great. He was always on my side, helped me in recruiting. Bill Curry is a class act,” Cremins said.

The first two seasons were the toughest for Curry in 1980 and 1981. “It was an incredible nightmare when we were 2-19-1. Eighty-hour weeks and 90-hour weeks seemed to be the only way to work,” Curry said.

In addition, the Jackets’ schedule was ranked one of the toughest in the nation in 1980. “Our out-of-conference schedule was Alabama, Auburn, Tennessee, Georgia, Florida and Notre Dame. It was the toughest schedule in America,” Curry said.

“His first Georgia game was the year they won the national championship; it couldn’t have come at a worse time,” said AJC writer Thomas Stinson.

Still, the 1982 season showed promise for the young Jackets. Led by tailback Robert Lavette, the Jackets finished the season 6-5 and brought fans and recruits back to The Flats. “Lavette was the first big player that Curry signed and recruited. That was off of the 1980 season when they won one game,” Stinson said.

1984 was a turning point for the Jackets. Lavette, quarterback John Dewberry and tight end Ken Whisenhunt led the Jackets to a 6-4-1 record and Curry’s first win over UGA. “Whisenhunt was essentially not recruited. He was one of the first guys that Curry was able to talk to. Curry signed him and he ended up being the best player in that class. Dewberry was a transfer from Georgia…they wanted him to play wide receiver,” Stinson said.

In 1985, defensive back Cleve Pounds and linebackers Ted Roof and Pat Swilling were the first all-conference defensive players for Curry. “Ted Roof was an All-ACC linebacker. Curry went to visit him at his house and talked to him for 10 minutes…Pat Swilling was a good player up in Toccoa County. When he got on campus he was terrific,” Stinson said. Tech finished 9-2-1 that year, beating Georgia and making Curry’s only bowl game: the former Hall of Fame Classic (now the Outback Bowl), in which the Jackets defeated Michigan State. “He worked hard at it. The last two years he had showed Tech that they could win and toe the line academically,” Stinson said.

Curry finished 5-5-1 in the former Jacket’s last season as head coach at Tech. Curry took a job with Alabama the following year and enjoyed three winning seasons with them. The Crimson Tide went 7-5, 9-3 and 10-2 with a share of the SEC championship his final season.

Despite his success there, Curry decided Alabama was going a different direction than he expected and left the position to coach at Kentucky. He was right to do so: in 2002, Alabama was hit with 10 major violations of NCAA policy, all stemming from illegal decisions related to boosters, student-athletes and monetary gifts.

Unfortunately, Kentucky was not the best situation for Curry. The program never took off while he was there. Curry’s best season was a 6-5 in 1993 with a trip to the Peach Bowl. Curry lost to Clemson 13-14 in the game and stepped down after the 1996 season.

Post Coaching Career

Curry continued to work in football after his days as a coach at Kentucky. In 1997, Curry signed on with ESPN as a football analyst. The field was different for Curry since he was able to see the game from a journalist’s point of view for the first time.

In 2008, Curry accepted the head coaching position at Georgia State with their new football team.

There are some parallels between his current job and his first head coaching job. Both situations are building ones, in which Coach Curry has had to start from the ground up. Both are overshadowed by UGA, and State will take as much time to build as Tech did to rebuild. But with the right recruits and right people, Curry hopes to model GSU after the University of South Florida’s success.

Bill Curry may not have won a national championship, but it is hard to ignore Curry as an integral part of Tech history.

His example continues to inspire today. “Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it,” Curry said, quoting Goethe.

Between playing, coaching and analyzing, Curry has done just that.