After years away from the sidelines, Bill Curry wondered if he was ready to take on that challenge again.
The former coach at Georgia Tech, Alabama and Kentucky had been out of the business since 1996. That meant he had been away from the recruiting trail — not to mention the video room and the practice fields — for 12 years. There was a question, even of himself, if he still had the fire in his belly to make the constant recruiting visits.
“I worried about that,” he said.
It hasn’t taken long for the veteran coach — tapped last year to start Georgia State University’s football program from scratch — to rediscover his joy for the job.
“I love it. I love it now maybe more than I did before,” he said. “I don’t know why. I’m enjoying it so much.”
After a career in the NFL that included Super Bowl rings with the Green Bay Packers and the Baltimore Colts, Curry returned to his alma mater, Georgia Tech, as coach. He realized, in his travels throughout the state, that support for the Jackets football program had ebbed.
“When I first got back to Georgia Tech, things had gone way down,” he said. “Georgia was getting ready to win the national championship and they were really good.
“Every high school I went to, every single one, they said, ‘Bill, we want you to succeed and you’re a nice young man, but this is Bulldog country.’ I started wondering, ‘where the heck is Jacket country.’ There is none.”
But he’s finding support for Georgia State across the state and across existing college allegiances as he visits high schools on recruiting trips.
“There is Panther country,” he said. “There are a lot of people who went to Georgia or Tech or Clemson and they have Georgia State master’s. It has been heartwarming and shocking to me. It’s really indescribable. Guys are so excited about a new football program in our state. I did not expect that.”
The Panthers — who won’t play their first game until 2010 — signed 27 players in their initial signing class this February. Headlining the class was Henry County quarterback Drew Little, a highly-recruited prospect also recruited by Boston College and Florida State. Little already has taken the reins of the first group of Panthers players.
“Drew’s the leader,” Curry said. “He was the first one in state (to sign). I could not have been more surprised. He wants to be the bell cow.”
Curry’s first player to hit campus was Mark Hogan Jr. Hogan’s dad played for Curry at Tech in the 1980s. The elder Hogan played defensive back under Curry, fighting his way from walk-on to starter.
“Mark Hogan was a walk-on from Walton High who couldn’t run out of his shadow. I wouldn’t give him a scholarship because he was too slow,” Curry said. “Not only did he earn a scholarship, he became a starter. When he hit people, he broke their helmets. When he took an angle, he never got outrun, because he took such intelligent angles.”
But the younger Hogan has a chance to be a far better player, according to the coach.
“He called me from his position as senior vice president for Bank of America in charge of retail for the East Coast,” Curry said of Hogan Sr., “and he said, ‘I want you to take a look at my son, Mark Jr.’ I thought, ‘another slow safety named Hogan.’”
Watching the video of the younger Hogan, however, Curry became convinced quickly.
“He can fly. He plays like his daddy did, but he can run,” the coach said. “I called back and said, ‘Mark, are you sure this is your son?’”
Hogan came to campus in January, knowing that for several months, he’d be the only Panther football player working out.
“He said, ‘I’m going to be a one-man gang,’” Curry recalled.
With the next signing class, Curry wants to bring in a smaller class. That will allow him to build the future classes, instead of exhausting his scholarships in the first couple of years of the program.
“We would like to sign 12 or 15 the next time,” he said. “It would help us to be a better team out of the chute (to sign another large class), but it would kill us down the road.”
Curry’s optimistic about the level of student-athlete he’ll be able to attract in the future to Georgia State.
“High school football is better than ever in the state of Georgia,” he said, “and furthermore, the coaches are doing a better job than ever of getting their guys in the right classes and getting them ready for the college experience. If you want to play football at one of the top programs in the state of Georgia, you’ve got to do your academics now. It hasn’t always been like that.”
The Panthers have been accepted into the Colonial Athletic Association and their first season will conclude next Nov. 20 with a date against Alabama, where Curry was coach from 1987-89.
Georgia State will play its home games in the Georgia Dome. But Curry isn’t exactly chomping at the bit to start playing.
“Not at all,” he said. “We’ve got (424) days and several minutes, and we need every one of those minutes. I have not seen my team yet. I have not seen our headgear. I have not seen our practice fields. I don’t want to kick off against anybody.”