The scene feels oddly familiar, and yet it probably isn't unfolding quite this way anywhere else in America. College football players are practicing on a field in the heart of Atlanta. The grass is still damp from dew, the sun rises over the city's skyline. An elevated train rolls by overhead, its horn blaring encouragement.
The quarterback takes the snap. Behind him Bill Curry, the football coach of Georgia State, watches closely. He looks the way a casting director would want a coach to look: tall and lean, with the distinctive walk of an old athlete. He wears a Panama hat and carries a megaphone. (Who carries a megaphone anymore?) His nose is bent slightly. That happened in his playing days, probably when he tried to block Ray Nitschke as the starting center for four Super Bowl teams.
The quarterback throws downfield; there's a tangle of arms, a crash of shoulder pads, and the football bounces away. "Stop! Stop! Stop!" Curry shouts through the megaphone, and everything stops. He focuses hard on his defensive back. "You are not going to want to hear this," he says. "But I want you to listen to me and listen carefully."
He pauses for a beat. "That," Curry says, "was a great play. Do you hear me? That was a great defensive play."
Later: "That young man lacks confidence. He needs confidence. It's our job to give him confidence. Not for football. For life."
Don't we want more Bill Currys in college football? Don't we need more? Every day another conference breaks apart, another scandal hits campus, another dismal graduation rate is reported, and perhaps the most decent man in the game coaches at an FCS program that he started just a year ago. Last time out, his guys lost to Houston 56--0.
He will turn 69 this month, and still he coaches. Why? Well, what should college football be about? Shouldn't it be about more than winning? More than money? Is college football for fans and for turning out NFL players—or can it also help teach young men how to strive and handle adversity? Somewhere along the way we just stopped asking. Of course, college football is about winning and big money and fans and the NFL. Who is naive enough to even argue?
Curry still dares to be naive. How could he not? Football has taught him everything. He learned the importance of education while playing for the legendary Georgia Tech coach Bobby Dodd. The first time Curry skipped a class, Dodd had him run the stadium stairs until he threw up multiple times. He never skipped another.
He learned about forgiveness from Vince Lombardi. Curry played for Lombardi in Green Bay and thoroughly hated the man. He said so publicly. But when Lombardi was close to death, Curry visited Lombardi and asked for forgiveness. He learned about hard work while going through Baltimore coach Don Shula's practices. He learned about the transformative power of the game when he coached at Alabama from 1987 through '89. "You could take a guy that looked like you or me and put him in a crimson jersey on Saturday," Curry says. "And he would play like Superman."
Sure, he's seen the harsh side of college football. He had bricks thrown through his office window in Tuscaloosa. When he coached after that at Kentucky, his wife, Carolyn, was sent out of town by the FBI after what was deemed a credible death threat. He, like all coaches, has been savaged after losses.
But, as he says, "anything worth doing is hard." And so he coaches, far from the spotlight. His graduation rate has always been among the best in America. He won the Amos Alonzo Stagg Award from the American Football Coaches Association in 2007 for "advancement of the best interests in football," and he still teaches life through the game. "I do not claim any moral status beyond anybody else," Curry says, "but I didn't want some guy to come see me and say, 'Coach, I played for you 25 years ago. You're the only male adult role model I ever had in my life. The IRS has taken my house now, thanks to you, because you taught me it was O.K. to cut corners.'"
Curry has no illusions that what he does at Georgia State will change college football's culture—"It's like a peashooter against a battleship"—but that doesn't matter; his faith is in this game. Curry was close friends with the writer George Plimpton, who died in 2003. They got to know each other best during a drive from Louisville to the Packers' training camp in 1975, which resulted in the book One More July. Plimpton had played pro football in several of his participatory journalism projects, and Curry always remembers a funny exchange they had once as they came off the field together. "'You're all mentally ill,' " Curry, in a pitch-perfect impression, recalls Plimpton saying, " 'You're deranged. All of you... . I have never felt such palpable hatred in all my life.'"
Even though Plimpton loved football, he loved to tweak his friend. Curry would counter that Plimpton was not seeing hatred; he was simply looking at healthy competition. They poked at each other often. Plimpton would say, "Football's no good, Bill. There's too much hate."
And Curry would say, "There's a lot of love, too, George. You just have to believe in it."
BILL CURRY KNOWS WHAT HE DOES AT GEORGIA STATE IS OUT ON THE FRINGES, BUT HE STILL HAS FAITH THAT COLLEGE FOOTBALL CAN DO MORE THAN MAKE MONEY AND TURN OUT NFL PLAYERS.