Bill Curry’s got a big lump in his throat. The Georgia State University head football coach chokes back unexpected tears and tries to regroup.
“Wow,” he says. Silence fills the air for long periods before he eventually resumes speaking. “I know my father would be saying; suck it up, don’t be all teary-eyed, just get out there and do your job.”
Curry’s father, Bill, died last fall, preceded by his mother, Eleanor, around this time last summer. He struggles with the image of Georgia State’s first-ever football team, dressed in blue and white uniforms, taking the field at the Georgia Dome Sept. 2 against Shorter College to great hype and hope… and his parents won’t be there to see it. “Now that you bring it up…. I can be very emotional about it. I’ll be better prepared when I do take the field, because at some point it would have certainly hit me hard.”
Curry, 67, who’s coached big shot programs the likes of Georgia Tech and Alabama, prepares for everything. The Panthers, still minus their own locker room, need every bit of his zealous attention to detail to fill seats, win over skeptics and notch some victories. “There’s a whole laundry list of things we don’t have but not one of them can keep us from winning. Not one.”
Transfer student and likely defensive starter at safety Brandon Jones spits out what everyone’s thinking. “My worst fear, honestly, is not having a good season.”
Jones, who played high school football at Southwest DeKalb, talks with his hands, rhythmically tapping his index fingers on a desk in the athletic department to make each point. “We get the talk around campus,” he says through nervous laughter, “that all the work they’re putting into the football team, they might be a bust.”
Jones gambles that won’t happen much the same way he risked coming to Georgia State in the first place. Much to his parents’ dismay, Jones walked away from a full football scholarship at tiny Mars Hill College in North Carolina with no guarantees he’d even make the Panthers’ football team. Forced to try out after his highlight reel failed to impress coaches, Jones has since become a full-scholarship player and one of the teams’ inspirational leaders.
Coach Curry is, of course, readied for the kind of talk Jones hears. “We know all the negative talk so we address it,” he says. “Ya’ll don’t have a chance. You’re going to hear it, but you’re not required to believe it,” he stressed to a team that will have to unseat the school’s golf program for big men on campus status.
You hear offensive lineman Ben Jacoby before you see him. Well, not him exactly, but the music of hip-hop artist Drake, as the amped up bass thumped through his Dr. Dre headphones.
Jacoby soared on the sport after a coaching change, personal problems and a degree of home sickness left him eager to leave his former school, Ball State. At his father’s urging, Jacoby decided to see what Georgia State had going for it. They had him at hello.
“You wouldn’t understand,” he says about how much pride he feels about being a part of something special. “From a guy who really didn’t think he wanted to play football anymore to a person that pushes himself for a goal of having a great first year program…if I didn’t absolutely love it I couldn’t do it.” And his folks won’t have to drive 12 hours from Buford, Ga. to Indiana to see their son’s reclaimed passion.
Dan Reeves, ranked 7th among NFL coaches for career wins, kept seeing articles about Georgia State that he felt sure were planted. “Every time I had a doctor’s appointment I look over and see an article about Georgia State.” The school, founded in 1913, wanted to hire Reeves as a consultant to help figure out if football had a prayer and how to pay for it. “A university that big and the students were missing out (on having a football team)…that got me interested,” he says.
Reeves worked for 14 months turning the expensive idea into a dream come true thanks to alumni fund raising efforts and a student fees. “Raising money was not one of my strengths,” he adds.
But, Reeves shudders and wonders aloud why the infant program would dare schedule a behemoth its final game of the inaugural season. The Panthers will face National Champions Alabama, where Curry worked as head coach from 1987 to 1989, in Tuscaloosa on Nov. 20. Bryant-Denny Stadium seats 100,000, and fans are rabid no matter what the caliber of an opponent. “At least you’ll know where you are (as a program),” Reeves notes.
Run, run and run some more … and, while you’re at it throw in weight lifting sessions four times a week, classes, study hall and 5:15 a.m. wake up calls for days on end. Seventy-five practices and the Georgia State Panthers have been a team with zero games played. But that will change Sept. 2.
Curry will be ready with headsets and sentiment about the loss of his beloved parents. “It will be the first time with them not being there, but in my view they will both be there.”
His throat is clear as day.
To get tickets and more information, visit www.georgiastatesports.com.
Pamela D. Oliver is a Poncey-Highland resident and sports reporter for FOX Sports.