Jack Curtice is a natural man. He spends a lot of time dinkin' around and he calls people "kokomos" for no particular reason. Dinkin' around includes every human activity from coaching football to playing golf to talking at banquets, and Curtice is very adept at dinkin' around. He is a warm, pleasant kokomo who coaches football at the University of Utah and who knows more people in Salt Lake City then Brigham Young ever did. He has a wide-happy face with a wide-happy smile, and his small blue eyes twinkle like small blue match flames behind horn-rim glasses. He has a wide, sturdy build which reflects his days as a quarterback at Transylvania College, and, unless you have extraordinarily powerful hands or a large measure of fortitude, you are likely to regret shaking hands with him since it is roughly the equivalent of shaking hands with a bear trap. The crushing salute does not reflect any sadistic tendency in Jack Curtice; it is just that he likes almost everyone very much and takes this way to show it.
Curtice is a happy, free-wheeling, albeit very capable, football coach. He likes his football players even more than he likes other people, and he treats them with a mixture of stern admonition, fatherly kindness and small-boy humor. He identifies himself with them almost completely, and he suffers as much with the problems of a fourth-string guard as with those of his first-string quarterback.
Early this season a massive youngster named Tony Polychronis, who is a sophomore guard, retired to the privacy of a, small, spreading bush on the edge of the Utah practice field, where he lay down in lonesome 19-year-old sorrow and cried. Curtice, who misses nothing in practice and certainly is attuned to the mental and physical well-being of 240-pound guards, saw the boy and walked over to him.
Trouble for a kokomo
"Hey, kokomo," he said softly. "What's troublin' you?"
Polychronis heaved his chunky body around and peered tearfully up through the leaves at the coach.
"I'm tired out and my legs have quit on me and I'm letting the team down, sir," he blubbered.
Curtice crawled under the bush.
"I'm tired too, kokomo," he said. "My legs quit a long time ago, and I guess I've let the team down a dozen times. Move over, I'm gonna cry too."
Pretty soon Curtice and Polychronis crawled out from under the bush and started dinkin' around on the practice field again. Now Polychronis' legs are in such good condition he can do a front flip, which is a rare and unusual accomplishment for a 240-pound guard and even, occasionally, a useful one.
Curtice has been at the University of Utah since 1950, when he quit as head coach at Texas Western after two successive Sun Bowls.
"I figured there wasn't much left for me to accomplish there," he said. "I liked this country and I liked Ike Armstrong, who was the athletic director here when I was hired. When he called me the first time, I told him I didn't think I wanted the job. Then I got to thinkin' about it and I decided it was a pretty good challenge and I called him the next day and said I would take it."
Curtice installed the wide-open, hell-for-leather offense which has been his trademark since he started coaching 27 years ago in Kentucky.
"We operate on the theory of always threatening a pass with the possibility of a run," he said the other day on the Utah practice field. "Most split-T teams threaten to run with the possibility of a pass. Football that way's not much fun."
He walked back out to his players. They were running through one of the intricate pass patterns Curtice likes, and Curtice stopped them.
"A bandy-legged ol' feller like you never should let anyone get to him," he said to a linebacker. "You got arms hang down to your knees. When you go in there go in crash!"
He turned to a halfback.
"And you, when you get through the hole. Don't run out there like a mule in a 20-acre pasture. Look for friends."
Curtice considers his players gentlemen. He insists that they wear a coat and tie when the team travels and that they always address him as sir. "Our motto is 'Be conspicuous by being inconspicuous,' " Curtice, who is fond of mottoes, says.
Two small boys in little league football uniforms watched Curtice from the sidelines. "He don't like nothin'," one of them observed sagely. "He liked us. He saw us play and said so," the other replied. "Aw, I didn't see him out there," said the first.
Curtice walked back to the sidelines and did an exaggerated doubletake when he saw the youngsters.
"All right, gentlemen," he said very sternly. "There is no reason why you can't report on time like every one else. Take 20 laps apiece."
The boys scrambled to their feet.
"But..." said the smaller of the two.
"Now!" said Curtice, and the little one began to trot around the field. The older boy said, "We're little leaguers, sir."
Curtice grinned and whistled at the youngster trotting away.
"I'm sorry, gentlemen," he said. "I felt sure you were on my team."
The youngsters trudged away thankfully, and Curtice returned to watching his practice.
"I'm offense-minded," he said with relish. "Now this team has good speed and agility. We can go wide and we can pass. We hit for long scores. We're not a ball-controlled team, but we can play ball control when we want to. And we can do it passing, not hitting for four yards in a cloud of dust like the split-T teams. We can do it on quick passes—sidelines and hooks. We got a fine passer in Lee Grosscup, and Stuart Vaughan, he's a great receiver. He's got tremendous hands and a great knack of getting loose. And he's got quickness and balance."
This was the last practice Curtice called before his game with Brigham Young. He gave the team the next day—Friday—off. Thursday night he took his family to dinner at the sumptuous Fort Douglas Club and to a play at the university theater afterward. He enjoyed the play thoroughly (Witness for the Prosecution, with Basil Rathbone).
Curtice, however, is far from indigent. In addition to his substantial salary as head coach at Utah, he makes some 200 speeches a year at banquets, luncheon clubs, quarterback clubs and coaching clinics. He is an engaging, hilarious speaker.
"I've never written a speech in my life," he said the other day. "I just talk from my heart, and I got a big mouth, too. I just sort of dink around up there."
A recent Curtice week went something like this: Monday noon, a talk at the Salt Lake City quarterback club; Tuesday evening, ditto at a banquet for the University of Wisconsin in Madison; Wednesday, back to Salt Lake City for a weekly half-hour television show Curtice operates; Thursday, Las Vegas, New Mexico, for another banquet speech; Friday noon, a speech for a little league group in Philadelphia.
At the Salt Lake quarterback club luncheons, Curtice is very frank. In his first speech he told the members, "Win or lose, I'll be happy to meet with you every Monday. You can ask the questions, and if I don't know the answers I'll make some up."
He has been true to his pledge, both to appear and to make up the answers if he didn't know them. Two years ago, his Utes lost two games they should have won, then won one they should have lost.
"How come?" someone asked Jack at the Monday session.
"Well, gentlemen," Curtice began in the Kentucky drawl which gets broader on occasions like these, "that coach over in Colorado is a married man with a family. His team wasn't doing good and we saved his job for him. And the feller over in Wyoming is a married man, and he was on a spot following Bowden Wyatt in there. We saved that man's job, too."
Curtice stopped and peered delightedly at the audience. What about last week, someone asked. Utah had just beaten Colorado A&M after the Ags clinched the Skyline championship.
Save Pappy's job
"Well, sir," Curtice answered, "I said to my boys: 'You saved a man's job two weeks ago and you saved another man's job last week. Now go on out there and save one more man. This time save old Pappy Jack.' "
Saturday morning before Utah's game with Brigham Young, Curtice was relaxed as few coaches are so close to game time. He went out to watch his youngest son Jimmy quarterback a little league football team. The youngster completed two long passes, blocked well and came up like a determined, angry mouse to tackle on defense. Later in the day, talking to Jimmy, Curtice asked him about some of his quarterback calls.
"Well, sir," said Jimmy, who is a chunky smaller edition of his father, "one time, some guy stuck his thumb in my eye and I couldn't see so good. I didn't want to go out so I went on. I called a play but I couldn't see and I handed the ball to the wrong guy and he run 30 yards and I still couldn't see too good. I handed off to the wrong guy again and we scored."
"Shows the value of coaching," said Curtice gravely.
By game time Saturday night, Curtice was a little quieter, but still relaxed. He is a very knowledgeable coach and easily one of the most competent architects of football offense in the nation. His team was well prepared and Curtice seemed confident. Utah scored quickly on a tackle-eligible pass—a bit of legerdemain which allowed a 225-pound tackle named Evert Jones to catch a pass for the first touchdown of his life. Curtice, who is a tremendous showman on the sidelines, was quiet this night. His team was winning easily and he did not, as he has in the past, swoon dramatically over any of the officials' decisions or throw his big hat on the ground and jump on it or hurl himself on the ground. He watched Brigham Young unlimber a passing attack of its own and sent in an end to replace a sophomore who had been lax in pass coverage. In the seven years he has been at Utah, Curtice has changed the face of football in the Skyline Conference. Now all the teams play wide-open, pass-conscious football, and Curtice often is confronted with his own plays run at him by opposing coaches. Curtice enjoys the wholehearted respect of the coaching fraternity: he is a member of the Board of Trustees of the American Football Coaches Association, a member of the NCAA Rules Committee and, this year, head coach of the West team in the annual East-West Shrine game.
After the Brigham Young game, Curtice circulated among the sweating, boisterous youngsters in the dressing room. "Where's Slick Jones?" he hollered, looking for the tackle who had scored the first touchdown. Jones, a ponderous, beefy youngster, pushed through the players. "How's about making me an end, sir?" he asked. "Kokomo, you may be a halfback next week," Curtice said.
Later, in the lobby of the Hotel Utah, he accepted congratulations from dozens of well-wishers. Then, for the first time, his habitual good humor gave way for a moment.
A fan, hand outstretched, walked up to him. "I wouldn't have shaken hands with you last week [Utah lost]," he said, "but after tonight I will."
Curtice looked frosty.
"Mister," he said coldly, "I don't know what you do or how well you do it, so I'm not so sure I want to shake hands with you." He walked away.
The Skyline title could be decided when Utah plays Wyoming, although both, possibly looking ahead too far, were upset Saturday. Utah lost 12-7 to Denver; Wyoming was tied by Brigham Young 0-0. Wyoming, on the passing of Larry Zowada, has the kind of go-for-broke offense Curtice uses. Blame it on Cactus Jack Curtice.
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