A Coaching Legend

This particular spring week, the glass entrance at John Curtis Christian School in River Ridge seemed to serve as a revolving door for the who's who of college football coaches.

This particular spring week, the glass entrance at John Curtis Christian School in River Ridge seemed to serve as a revolving door for the who's who of college football coaches.


Pete Carroll of Southern Cal strolled in on Tuesday; Houston Nutt of Arkansas went through on Wednesday; Les Miles of LSU was there on Thursday. Fitted in between the heavy hitters was an assistant from Nebraska.


They all wanted to talk to J.T. Curtis, head coach of the Patriots, the most successful football coach in Louisiana prep history and the son of the school's founder, about a couple of his players – the latest in a long string of prospects Curtis has prepared for the next level: Joe McKnight, a receiver/running back who is projected as the No. 1 prospect in the state next season, and John English, a major-league defensive lineman.


"These guys have drawn a lot of interest,'' Curtis said with a wry smile. "And they'll each make some coach's life a lot easier.''


Both seem to have open minds about where they'll spend their college years, but one thing is almost certain: when they decide, the commitment will be as close to iron-clad as a verbal vow can be.

"I drive that home to these kids,'' Curtis said, "that their word is their bond, and that, once you make that decision, it is a personal responsibility to live up to it.''


As a college player, Curtis often hosted prospects on their recruiting visits.


"By nature I'm kind of a listener,'' he said. "You learn a lot by listening and it was easy to pick out those guys who had their priorities in the right place and those who didn't. I learned early the kinds of guys I would want my teams and those I wouldn't want on my teams. I'm not going to tolerate kids who change their minds with the wind. Those kind of kids don't play here.''


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Ears perk up when Curtis speaks. He speaks with authority.


The man has been coaching football for 36 of his 59 years, all with the Patriots in a phenomenal run. He has coached 20 state championship teams and compiled a 429-48-6 record. That's winning nine of every 10 games he's coached over almost four decades. And think about this: his career record is "dragged down'' by his first season, when the 1969 Patriots went 0-10.


It was a winding road from where he started to the top of the prep mountain.


"Mainly what I stress is hard work and focus on the mission on hand,'' the still youthful looking Curtis said. "I really don't know what else we've done.''


A lot of coaches work their teams and themselves hard, though. Pressed on the subject, Curtis suspects part of his success may have been forged in hard times. Those would come after some exceptionally good times.


The first All-State player from East Jefferson High, Curtis, a defensive tackle, was recruited locally in 1964 by Tulane and some smaller schools. Then-Warrior coach Bob Whitman sent film of Curtis to Arkansas, piquing the interest of a young Razorback assistant by the name of Barry Switzer. He called Whitman back and said he was interested, and Curtis had a scholarship to a major-major program.


In fact, that's where Curtis was, a non-playing freshman on the sidelines, in one of LSU's greatest moments, a stunning 14-7 upset of Arkansas in the 1966 Cotton Bowl.


"Going to Arkansas was one of the best decisions I ever made,'' Curtis said, "because (Coach and Athletic Director) Frank Broyles was running one of the best programs in America at Arkansas, top of the line in every way, and done with absolute integrity. Coach Broyles was light-years ahead of everyone else. Seeing how it was done at Arkansas stayed with me and I tried to emulate their operating style later when I was starting my own program.''


As good as things were in Fayetteville, though, something was missing: Lydia, his fiancee', a co-ed at Louisiana College. Curtis decided to transfer, marry Lydia, and play for the Wildcats. It was a bitter-sweet decision: good on the personal level, not so good on a football level.


"It was the complete opposite of Arkansas,'' Curtis sighed. "Louisiana College didn't run a very good program. We didn't win a game in my senior season.''


The small Baptist school soon afterward dropped the sport.


Then came a fateful call from his father, the school's headmaster and its former football coach. He told J.T. he needed him to come home and take over the team. The nine hours J.T. needed for graduation could be made up in the summer, the senior Curtis said in making his plea.


"We were newly-weds and this was a good way to start our life together,'' Curtis said.

Plus, it was a foot in the coaching door, where Curtis wanted to be ever since he played for his life-long role-models Whitman and then-assistant Hoss Memtas at EJ. "I was beginning to think maybe I'd sell insurance as a career,'' he said of his life's major turn.


At first things weren't so rosy at John Curtis Christian School.


"On my first day of spring practice, I was ready to scrutinize everything,'' he recalled. "I had 38 notebooks ready to be filled up – and six kids showed up. I still held a practice, but it obviously was a limited one.''


By the time the season rolled around Curtis had enough players for two strings that played both offense and defense. The Patriots not only went winless, they scored just two touchdowns all season long.


And his boss, headmaster and former coach John Curtis, was on the sidelines watching every woeful minute of J.T.'s longest season.


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There were problems – severe problems – to solve, and Curtis went about it, installing an off-season program of weight-lifting, cajoling likely-looking athletes walking the school's halls to try out for the team, trying to swell the Patriots' numbers and quality of athlete all at the same time.


He recalled: "This is how we measured success in those days: We had 36 kids out in the spring, 18 on each side for our spring game. That was a major step forward.''

That season the Patriots made the state playoffs for the first time. In 1975 the Patriots won the first of their state championships.


Soon college coaches began buzzing about, trying to lure some of those well-schooled Curtis players. At first they were from regional schools. Later some of the Patriots drew attention from Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon.


 "Greg DuBroc (a defensive lineman who went to LSU in the late ‘70s) was our first ‘national recruit,' a kid that schools like Stanford, Notre Dame and Texas wanted,'' Curtis said. "Then came Reggie Dupard (a running back who went to Southern Methodist), and later Jonathan Wells (a running back who attended Ohio State), and others. Joe McKnight and John English are those kind of players.''


                                                          *     *     *


Of course, Curtis started out with one big advantage. He knew his boss, his daddy, wasn't going to fire him.


"No, he wouldn't,'' Curtis said, "not for the won-loss record. But he did expect something, and I wouldn't be the coach long if I didn't adhere to his expectations. They also became the foundation of our success.''


The coaching tenants of the elder Curtis included: Working constantly to improve the team (whether it was reflected in wins and losses was irrelevant); Representing the school and its Christian values properly and in every instance; Treating the players and kids at school with the utmost respect.


Curtis said, "I really think if there is a secret to what we've done, it might be what my father expected of us – and it really had nothing to do with victories on the football field.''


Those were just the by-product of a much larger picture.




Marty Mule' can be reached at MJM981@Bellsouth.net.

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