ATLANTA — Bill Curry still remembers the night in Baton Rouge, when his Alabama team had just blown out LSU to remain perfect on the season. The home fans had bolted for the parking lot, leaving only the crimson-clad contingent in the visiting section, celebrating and chanting “Roll, Tide, Roll!”
A friend of Curry’s, who also happened to be a member of the school’s athletic board, went up to another high-profile Alabama booster looking to savor the moment. “Isn’t this great?” he said. “It’s just like old times.”
The response: “I don’t care if Curry wins eight national championships. He will never be OUR coach.”
As it turned out, Curry coached only three more games at Alabama, his rocky three-year tenure ending abruptly after the 1989 season. He headed to Kentucky and was replaced by one of Bryant’s boys. Three years later, Gene Stallings guided the Crimson Tide to a national championship and the Curry era became just a footnote, one that most Bama fans preferred to forget.
Well, look who’s coming back to Tuscaloosa.
Curry will be on the opposite sideline Thursday night at Bryant-Denny Stadium, leading a brand new, next-division-down program that has played a grand total of 10 games. In a contest that takes audacity to a whole new level, Georgia State will be on the same field with the defending national champions, a program that has won more than 800 games, claimed 22 Southeastern Conference titles and sells out every game in it’s 101,000-seat home.
“To have the opportunity to play the defending champs, to see what they are like, to see how it feels, to see if you can knock them off the ball, to see if you can keep them from knocking you off the ball, to see if you can compete with them, even for a period of time, we want to see how that feels, and we want our players to experience it,” Curry said.
The backstory in all this, of course, is Curry’s time at Alabama from 1987-89. His hiring was a stunner: a coach who had a losing record at Georgia Tech and no ties to the Crimson Tide, given the keys to the storied program just four years after Bryant called it a career.
Not surprisingly, it didn’t go well. Curry posted a record that would be respectable at most places (26-10) but wasn’t nearly good enough at Alabama. He never was fully accepted by a large majority of the fickle fan base, and three straight losses to rival Auburn ensured that he wouldn’t last. When Kentucky sent out feelers after the Tide lost its final two games of the ‘89 season, Curry gave up the job of a lifetime to head to a school where football plays second fiddle to basketball.
In hindsight, Curry realizes he had to beat Auburn, no matter how many games he won against everyone else. He didn’t fully grasp that until it was too late.
“I had played in big rivalries, so I had assumed that I knew all about big rivalries,” he said this week. “You do not know nothing until you go to Alabama-Auburn, until you experience that. And I didn’t know. It would have helped a lot if I had paid attention to that earlier.”
If there were any bitter feelings at the time, they are long gone. Curry struggled at Kentucky, failing to finish better than .500 in seven seasons, and he was shown the door in 1996.
He settled into a career as a broadcaster, each passing year taking him farther away from returning to the sideline.
Georgia State, a downtown Atlanta campus with little athletic tradition and mostly commuters for a student body, decided to start a football program. The school called Curry and asked if he would be interested in building the program. He jumped at the chance to get back into coaching -- in his hometown, no less.
But that still begs the question: Why in the world schedule a game against Alabama in this inaugural season? Turns out, the Crimson Tide had an opening right before its traditional regular-season finale against Auburn. Georgia State needed the money -- a little more than $400,000 -- to help bolster its fledgling program.
The 68-year-old Curry would have preferred to wait a few more years before taking on the Tide, but this was the opportunity. Take it or leave it.
He took it. Heck, he even is planning to take his players to the Paul W. Bryant Museum in Tuscaloosa, hoping some of the lessons of a coaching great will rub off on his neophyte team.
“This is an opportunity for a big payday for a program like us,” Curry said. “We would not walk away from that.”
The bookmakers haven’t even bothered putting a line on the game. No. 10 Alabama (8-2) probably could run up the score as high as it wants, though the Tide likely will sparingly play its starters to ensure they are well rested for that game against second-ranked and unbeaten Auburn.
Roger Shultz, who played for Curry at Alabama, still talks to his former coach a couple of times per year and expects him to receive a warm reception in Tuscaloosa. Curry already has been back to Bryant-Denny Stadium while at Kentucky.
“Alabama people have kind of moved on,” Shultz said. “We’ve got Nick Saban.”
Curry is realistic about his team’s chances. After all, Georgia State (6-4) will face a top-level team for the first time, having opened its season against NAIA Shorter and mostly played schools in the level it will settle in after a two-year transition period, the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision.
“We know what could happen,” Curry said. “We’re not crazy.”
But he also has preached to his players -- and with Curry, most everything takes on a sermon-like tone -- that Georgia State actually could win Thursday night. He has told them of a game that occurred long before any of them were born, when he led Georgia Tech to its only win of the 1981 season: a 24-21 stunner over Bryant and a Crimson Tide team that was ranked second in the nation at the time.
“I’ve told them there are two differences in this game and that one,” Curry said. “The Tech team that I took over there was not as good as this Georgia State team, and the Alabama team that coach Bryant had was better than this Alabama team this year. Now, maybe it was a fluky win, because we were not very good. But it was still a win. These things happen.”
If the players have any doubts about Curry’s bravado, they’re not publicly showing it.
“I did not come to college to play football to lose,” offensive lineman Joseph Gilbert said. “I’ve seen crazier things happen.”
Shultz sees things a bit differently.
“They’re going to get their eyeballs beat out,” he said.