Some people are lucky enough to learn from legends. Bill Curry, a Georgia Tech graduate from College Park, played football for coaches who defined their profession — Bobby Dodd, Vince Lombardi and Don Shula. And as a center, he snapped the ball to pro quarterbacks who defined that leadership role — Bart Starr and Johnny Unitas.
After playing for teams that won two Super Bowls, Curry went on to coach college ball at Tech, Alabama and Kentucky before getting tapped to start and lead Georgia State University’s new football program in 2008. He hung up his whistle after last season, a truly disappointing one for Curry, who spent most of his career winning games.
Curry, 70, is now launching a speaking and consulting business based in Atlanta. He’s teamed up with a former Tech player and attorney, Pete Wellborn, and public relations consultant, Jeff Battcher, to launch Curry, Wellborn & Battcher. One focus will be helping college athletic directors comply with NCAA rules.
Curry, whose been outspoken about winning the right way, recalls key moments with the unique leaders he was fortunate to know.
Q: You had a falling out with Vince Lombardi. What happened?
A: Almost without exception, if I’m walking through an airport and someone recognizes me, within a couple of minutes the guy is going to ask me one thing: “What was he like? What was he reeeally like?” I don’t even have to ask who they’re talking about.
Lombardi was Catholic and he went to church every day. He needed to go to church. He would get in your face and scream these obscenities. At Georgia Tech, I had been accustomed to Bobby Dodd — the southern gentleman, brilliant, loving, caring, tough and demanding.
But Vince Lombardi was not the southern gentleman. I could never forgive him for not being Bobby Dodd. I was immature.
He would say, “I’m going to make you fear me.” I didn’t like the way he coached. But no one could argue with his success. We liked him quite a bit when the Super Bowl rings came in the mail.
I didn’t play very well during the 1966 season and blamed Lombardi. After that season, he did not protect me during the expansion draft. I got drafted by the New Orleans Saints and then traded to the Baltimore Colts. I was full of anger and resentment. Later, I was quoted saying that Lombardi was abusive and didn’t build relationships with us.
The next time I saw (former teammate) Paul Hornung, he wanted to fight. He said, “you trashed the old man.”
Q: You later reconciled with Lombardi. What happened? What did you learn?
A: When he was diagnosed with terminal colon cancer, I went to see him in the hospital. It was very emotional. His right arm had an IV in it, so he put out his left hand. His body was emaciated, but his eyes were the same and his grip was firm.
I stuttered and choked up. I said, “I’m so sorry. I said some things I shouldn’t have. I came here today to let you know you’ve meant a lot to my life.”
He said: “Well, you can mean a lot to my life if you’ll pray for me.” He maintained the grip.
So what does a great man do in a moment of truth? He validated every word he had said about priorities and where his heart really was. We both knew he was doing a lot more for me than he was doing for himself. I learned about forgiveness.
What he did for us (on the football field) was he made you dig down and find resources that you didn’t know you had. He made you produce. That was one of the keys to his greatness. And I had not allowed him to reach inside me, because I wasn’t going to permit it until that moment (in the hospital).
Q: You’ve seen different leadership styles from other highly successful coaches. What are key takeaways for leaders or prospective leaders in business or other arenas?
A: Every coach had a different method. For example, Bobby Dodd was a southern gentleman. But if you cut class, it was your butt. You’d run up and down those stadium steps until you couldn’t stand up.
Once, I cut chemistry at 8 a.m. About the 50th time up the stands, I was gagging and throwing up. I decided chemistry early in the morning was a marvelous thing. I never cut another class.
My football coach loved me too much to let me self-destruct. That was a huge message. I learned that there are two pains in life — the pain of discipline or the pain of regret. You choose. The pain of discipline — running up those stairs — lasts 30 minutes. The pain of regret — such as not graduating — lasts the rest of your life.
Don Shula’s great success came from his remarkable ability to spot talent that nobody else wanted — and then to stick with you, no matter what. He would keep giving you another chance at another position.
A great coach has the capacity to evaluate circumstances — this certainly translates to business — and to make whatever changes are necessary. I think any one of these great coaches would be dominant in any era because they would evolve. They would find a way (to win).
What I would say about the great coaches — and I do not put myself among them — is that they had an intuitive thing that other folks don’t have. They could sense what was going on with the group. They knew when to put the hammer down and they knew when to let up.
Also, all of them had absolute integrity. If you cheat and you end up with more points than the other team, you didn’t win. If you cheat on your IRS form and you become a billionaire, you’re a crook.
Q: As a center, you snapped the ball to two Hall of Fame quarterbacks — Johnny Unitas and Bart Starr — who were leaders on the field. What did you learn from them?
A: The gift of empathy and relationship. Before I ever snapped the ball to either one of them, they had both affected me.
When I got to the Green Bay Packers, Bart invited me and my wife to his church and Sunday dinner. Bart believes in building relationships with everyone.
People like that make an impact, and you want to follow them to hell and back. Us guys on the line would sooner die than to see somebody hit him.
With Unitas, on my first day with the Baltimore Colts in 1967, he’s whistling happily as we’re going to a (grueling) practice in the heat. I walked up and said: “What are you so happy about old man?”
He said: “You’re a long time dead. That means every day is important. If you don’t like doing what you’re doing today, you need to do something else. I love football practice.”
He practiced hard. I didn’t want to disappoint him. I practiced hard.
Q: You were tapped in 2008 to start and lead a football program at Georgia State. But you ended your coaching career this past season with a disappointing 1-10 record on the field, partially because you released eight players for academic or disciplinary issues. What happened?
A: I thought I’d be turning it over in much better winning shape than I did.
We don’t tolerate academic dishonesty. We won’t. It really hurt us in terms of losing talented players. They simply decided — after I told them not to cheat again or I’ll drop you — to do it anyhow.
That’s one of the many areas where I miscalculated. I didn’t know this generation as well as I should have. I don’t have any excuse for not knowing. The leader must understand there are no excuses.
There are a lot of mistakes. As a college coach, I’ve made all of them and invented some new ones. I’ve had results that were shockingly good and shockingly poor. It’s just like a business. It’s the business of building a team.
The product — every single person graduates, every single person learns to find his unique gift, to develop it and to give it to the team and the university.
None of it is super-human.
Curry’s remarks were edited for length and style.
WE GO BEYOND THE HEADLINES
Each week, Sunday Business Editor Henry Unger has a candid conversation with a local leader as part of our commitment to bring you insightful coverage of metro Atlanta’s business scene.