Feb. 28, 2017
Jon Cooper | The Good Word –
There are a lot of stairs at Bobby Dodd Stadium.
Bill Curry got to know them all as a freshman back in 1962, when it was still known as Grant Field.
It was all because of a choice he made.
He’d decided that an 8 a.m. Saturday morning chemistry class was a little bit too early, so he chose to skip it. “Who’d notice?” he thought.
He didn’t count on head coach Bobby Dodd, who put Curry’s name on the locker room bulletin board. Curry got to learn a hard lesson by running the stairs of Tech’s football stadium for about 40 minutes.
He never cut another class.
“From then on I thought, ‘Saturday 8 a.m. class is a beautiful thing,’” he said, with a laugh.
The lesson learned that day and thereafter was one of many Curry related on Monday night at LeCraw Auditorium. The auditorium was packed with Georgia Tech student-athletes, listening to Curry delivering the Total Person Program’s spring semester keynote speech.
The recurring theme was choosing correctly between the pain of discipline, in this case, his 40 minutes on the stairs, or the pain of regret, something he said “never goes away.”
Curry, now 74, told the student-athletes about his transformation from a lazy 17-year-old, who was told by friends and even his high school guidance counselor that he “wasn’t smart enough to attend Georgia Tech,” into a man who was told — again by friends — that he was “too smart to play pro football.”
Curry would play 10 seasons in the NFL, including two formative ones for Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers, where he’d prove his toughness and tested his resolve by taking the punishment of future Hall of Famer Ray Nitschke — something that didn’t necessarily go well but taught him to never quit and learn to be “The best Bill Curry I could be.”
Following his playing career, which also saw stints with the Baltimore Colts (where he won an NFL Championship, played in two Super Bowls and won Super Bowl V), Houston Oilers and Los Angeles Rams, he’d return to his alma mater, serving as the head coach at Georgia Tech from 1980-86. He went on to also coach at Alabama, Kentucky and Georgia State.
“I grew from a very immature, very lazy 17-year-old, who couldn’t understand nor appreciate what I was being offered — this opportunity to come here,” Curry said. “But as I grew to learn that discipline was the right path, I walked across the stage to collect that diploma. I understood that I had been blessed with one of the great opportunities of a lifetime and I’ve spent the rest of my life with the mission of sharing that with young people and that is such a privilege. So that’s what was going on tonight.
“It hasn’t diminished,” he added. “If anything, it’s increased because the world has become more complex, with more opportunities for foolishness and more misinformation being disseminated. So these young people learn to think for themselves. It’s such a priceless thing. Then learning to relate to each other, regardless of differences. That’s what sport teaches.”
His return to Tech as a coach allowed him to become an ambassador for Dr. Homer Rice’s ground-breaking Total Person Program.
Curry, remembered how he, then-head basketball Coach Bobby Cremins and then-head baseball coach Jim Morris were the first to teach Total Person at the behest — often a strong one — of Dr. Rice.
He recalled once telling Rice he was too busy getting the team ready for the season, something that did not fly with Dr. Rice, who issued an ultimatum to teach Total Person.
“(Dr. Rice) disciplined me a lot. Some of the worst chewings-out I ever got were during that time from him and Coach Dodd, who would walk in my office and chew me out,” Curry said, with a laugh. “I had some great mentors. It wasn’t fun but it was very helpful.”
The meat of Curry’s message on Monday night emphasized his “Six Characteristics of Champions”:
• Champions Show Up!
• Have Singleness of Purpose!
• Are Selfish!
• Are Tough!
• Are Smart and Prepared!
• Never Quit!
The student-athletes hung on every word — be they current student-athletes or alumni. Two of the most prominent former student-athletes stood in the back of room — athletics director Todd Stansbury and football defensive coordinator Ted Roof. They were Georgia Tech teammates under Curry from 1982-84 and hearing him instantly returned them to the early days of their coach implementing Total Person.
“It does take you back. You realize how fortunate you were as a player to have somebody like [Curry] leading you as an 18-year-old, 19-year-old,” said Stansbury. “At the time, you have really no idea the impact that he’s actually making. It turns out that, in my case, every step of my career and every step of my life, I can trace back to the lessons that I learned in his classroom, which were on the field and in meetings like this.
“The discipline and the expectation, that’s the thing that I think about the most,” he added. “His expectations of us were so much greater than we had for ourselves at the time. He saw in us potential that we didn’t even know we had. So, here we are, what, 35 years later? To see how far I’ve come from those days, yet, as soon I see him up there speaking, it takes me right back.”
“I’ve heard him speak before, [first] about 35 years ago, but every time I hear him speak, it’s a great message. It’s inspirational,” said Roof. “He’s always ‘Coach,’ so you remember those days. That’s the relationship you know but now it’s a lot more that that. He’s a friend and he’s always been a mentor to a lot of us. He’s a guy that we love and respect.
“I think when you first start off maybe you may not realize the value of the lessons that (Total Person) teaches you,” Roof added. “But the more you get into it and, at times, the more you’re away from it, the more you realize how important it really is and what a plan of success it really is. It was started by Dr. Rice and now it’s being carried on by Todd Stansbury. It’s good because it works. It’s real.”
The speech made a real impression on current student-athletes, many of whom stopped to express their gratitude to and share words with Curry.
“This is my second time hearing him speak and, every time, I gain something new,” said senior defensive lineman and Student-Athlete Advisory Board member KeShun Freeman. “Just to hear his words here, the stories and everything, it encourages you. He kind of gives me another sense of pride to be part of the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets and to be a part of this community. My coach (Coach Roof) was coached by (Curry) and he was coached by Coach Bobby Dodd. Everyone is connected in some way. So that’s pretty cool. Stories like these and meeting people like that bring us together as brothers as well.”
“The biggest thing I heard him talk about was when he talked about greatness of spirit,” said senior forward and fellow SAAB member Rand Rowland. Rowland aspires to get into coaching, referring to “Magnanimitas,” another key talking point of Curry’s speech.
“I think, especially for my team at the point of the season we’re in, trying to fight for one of those last spots in the (NCAA) Tournament, just the way he talked about relying on the guy next to you and never giving up and just really digging into that champion deep inside you, that you build up over every day of hard work over the summer and using it now and strength in each other. I think that’s going to be big for our team this week and going into the (ACC) Tournament next week. I think what he said about having greatness of spirit, I think that is going to stick with me for quite some time.”
Curry finds that Georgia Tech student-athletes are special and being able to talk with them — be they first-time listeners or those he touched back in the ‘80s — is rewarding.
“I speak all over the country. I speak to all kinds of really smart groups of people,” Curry said. “I think — and I know I’m biased — young people who come to Georgia Tech are remarkable, unique young people and they’re ready for a very demanding challenge and they’re ready to listen if you offer something that’s decent. So that’s what I try to do.
“We all owe everything to Homer Rice,” Curry added. “The NCAA has literally adopted the Total Person Program. They call it something else — they call it the CHAMPS/Life Skills Program — but most schools across America are now using this plan and there’s a reason for that.”
Especially rewarding is seeing how Stansbury and Roof have grown and are now leading the future at Georgia Tech.
“I’m supposed to be big with words but I can’t tell you what a joy that is,” he said. “It is just so wonderful to have them here and to have them shepherding the next group and making sure that the right lessons are being imparted and that young people are being prepared for the real world. There’s just nothing like that.”
To the Tech family there’s no one like Curry.
“When he steps up there and he talks about what he’s been through, he’s too modest to talk about what he’s accomplished in his life but we all know that,” said Roof. “He’s a legend here at Georgia Tech and we’re very proud of him and very grateful that he was here to share with us tonight.”
“He just has an incredible ability to motivate and have you really look into yourself and really change the expectations that you have for yourself,” said Stansbury. “Not only does that happen on the field but it ends up transferring into almost everything that you do.
“When I was at Oregon State, I had him come out and speak to our student-athletes and coaches and administrators as well,” Stansbury continued. “So I feel extremely fortunate. You make a decision when you’re 17-, 18-years-old and you can have anybody, really, leading you. I just feel incredibly blessed that that’s who was leading me.”