ATLANTA — As a commuter train rumbled by, Bill Curry strolled around the practice field on a chilly Georgia morning, wearing a blue stocking cap and barking out instructions on his megaphone.
“Field goal team,” he instructed. “Be ready to kick.”
A few minutes later, the final practice of a football life spanning more than a half-century was done.
For Curry, there’s just one more game to go.
“It’s really hard to believe,” he said Thursday, before dabbing at his eyes with a handkerchief. “It went by fast.”
Curry, who has spent the past three years building a new program at Georgia State, will retire after Saturday’s game at Maine. This not the way he wanted to go out — the Panthers struggling mightily with a 1-9 record — but he was feeling a little better after his players lifted him off the ground at the end of the workout, giving him that sensation of a coach being carried away in triumph.
He announced his retirement before the season even began, expressing a desire to spend more time with his wife and family. He knew this day was coming but, still, it’s been weighing on him a bit as months turned to weeks, weeks turned to days.
“I couldn’t sleep last night. I woke up really early,” Curry said. “But I’ve been doing that every night for the last two of three weeks. I couldn’t help but count it down.”
At age 70, he has no regrets about stepping aside, other than the way he’s going out. Until now, Curry could always ward off the sting of failure by telling himself that there’s always the next game, the next season, the next job.
He doesn’t have that option anymore.
“I’ve had more than one of these experiences where we didn’t get the job done,” said Curry, whose coaching career was marred by more losses than wins (93-127-4). “What that does, as a rule, is drives you to do the next job better. All you get when you don’t win is that steely determination to do better. I’ll have to do better at something else. I don’t know what that is yet.”
Curry’s players know how much this game means to him. They desperately want to put one more victory on his record.
“He’s put in so much work, so much time, sacrificed so much, been so committed to all of us,” center Michael Davis said. “We all look up to him. He’s a great role model for all of us. He’s got a special place in all our hearts. It definitely means a lot to us to send him out with a win.”
This is Curry’s 58th year in football, and it’s ending not far from where it started. He grew up in suburban College Park, just down the road from the Panthers’ practice facility. His last practice was in shadows of downtown Atlanta, right beside the elevated tracks where MARTA trains carry commuters into and out of the city.
He played at nearby Georgia Tech, and would later return to coach there. His gridiron career took him to a victory in the first Super Bowl, where he started at center for Bart Starr and the Green Bay Packers. He moved on to Baltimore Colts, hiking the ball to Johnny Unitas, adding two more Super Bowls and another title to his resume.
His coaching career will mostly be remembered for a stint at Alabama in the 1980s, the break of a lifetime but one that ended with a rather ugly departure. While Curry guided the Crimson Tide to a share of a Southeastern Conference championship, he never beat its biggest rival, Auburn, and was never truly accepted by the fans in Tuscaloosa, who viewed him as an outsider, unworthy of filling the job once held by Bear Bryant.
Curry moved on to an SEC backwater, Kentucky, where he never won more than six games. It looked as though he was done as a coach after stepping down following the 1996 season. He moved into broadcasting, where his warm, thoughtful demeanor served him well during a decade-long stint with ESPN.
But he couldn’t resist one more chance to work the sideline. Georgia State, a school catering to commuters with little history of athletic success, launched a program in the Football Championship Subdivision and askedCurry to build it from scratch. He jumped at the opportunity, especially because it allowed him to keep the roots he had re-established in his hometown.
“I know how blessed I am,” Curry said. “I’m eternally grateful for having had this chance.”
The Panthers debuted with a surprising 6-5 mark in 2010, but they haven’t been able to follow up on that initial success, even while announcing a move to the Football Bowl Subdivision. They’ll be moving to the Sun Belt Conference next season.
After slumping to 3-8 last year, the Panthers really took a tumble this season. They opened with a 33-6 loss to South Carolina State at the Georgia Dome, and things really haven’t gotten much better. The only win came against Rhode Island, which hasn’t beaten anyone. Outside of that 41-7 triumph, Georgia State has been outscored 366-143, losing by an average margin of nearly 25 points a game.
“It really painful,” Curry said. “For anybody that’s a driven competitor — and nobody that does this is not a driven competitor — it’s embarrassing to go out and not be a winner. We all want to be winners.”
He’s got one more chance, then it’s on to retirement.
Curry said his immediate plans are to do anything and everything his wife, Carolyn, asks of him. He’s also looking forward to spending time with his five grandchildren. He vowed to “be at everything they do,” remembering a conversation with his son that helped persuade him to retire.
“He said, ‘Well, you missed our childhood, daddy. Are you going to do it again?’” the coach said. “That settled it.”
Still, he’ll miss the sort of moments he had Thursday. The daily grind of practice. The interactions with everyone from players and coaches to trainers and equipment managers. The giddy enthusiasm that erupted at the end of the day, when defensive lineman Theo Agnew and assistant coach Ricky Thomas broke into song and dance, egged on and encircled by Curry and the rest of the squad.
“This is what team sports should be,” Curry said, his eyes watering up. “I’m going to miss the guys. I’m going to miss them every day.”