“It’s important to a lot of people. I’m not going to lie and say it’s not important. But there are two guys right behind me who are younger and they’re going to break the record. It’ll be nice to have it for a while but at the end of the day it’s not going to be what your legacy is.”
UMS-Wright coach Terry Curtis on the all-time wins record
By JIMMY WIGFIELD
Terry Curtis almost didn’t get the chance to become the winningest high school football coach of all time in Alabama.
He came within inches of being chopped to death by a riding mower when he was 26. Ten years later, two aspirin tablets may have saved his life just before a massive heart attack. Due to his inner clock — which has always seemed to tick perfectly even if his heart didn’t — the prescient Curtis stayed alive because the coronary occurred shortly after he walked himself into the emergency room.
After all that, he still toiled 16 years as an assistant coach before Shaw High School gave him a chance to blow his first whistle as the boss at age 38.
Twelve years later, he won his first state championship at UMS-Wright and set in motion a colossus of sustained greatness unseen in the chronicles of Alabama high school football recorded either on papyrus or digital video.
Bobby Farish, a longtime friend from Leroy, built Curtis a rectangular display case after he won his first state championship ring in 2001 but didn’t make it spacious enough.
“Dang Terry, I didn’t know you were going to win eight,” Farish told Curtis.
Such oversights are easily corrected.
“I can make him a bigger one,” Farish said. “I can make him a two-decker like I made for Danny Powell,” a hall of famer like Curtis who coached football and baseball and has a state championship ring for every finger.
There are hundreds of such rings being worn by Curtis’ players, most of whom got nowhere close to playing college football unless they got up a game on the front lawn of their dorm or fraternity house, a fact which contradicts the accusatory claims of recruiting made by rival schools.
“I used to hear it when I was at Alabama,” said former tight end Preston Dial, one of a handful of SEC-caliber players Curtis has coached at UMS-Wright. “They would call us ‘UMS-White’ and say we bought all the talent in town. I kind of laugh about it. We just had a bunch of 5-foot-10, 185-pound, well-coached dudes who wanted to win.”
The man chasing Curtis and his record of 348 career victories, Central-Clay coach Danny Horn, said Curtis excels in extracting championship essence from players of average physical ability, white or black.
“You can win by doing it the right way,” said Horn, who has 341 victories and, like Curtis, has coached 34 years and won eight state championships. “You don’t necessarily have to have the best athletes. I’ve got great respect for him.”
Horn and Curtis have never met on the field — and won’t unless their teams get deep into the playoffs — but Horn relishes the chance.
“I would enjoy it, coaching against him,” Horn said. “When you play his teams, you better come to play because you’re going to have to earn it.”
Horn, who turns 61 in May, said he doesn’t want Curtis, 72, to retire anytime soon but understands the sport’s demands.
“You look at me and you look at him and you’d think I was older,” Horn said. “Not many coaches stay in it as long as we have. I’d say 50 percent of the ones who start in coaching now don’t finish in it. I consider Terry a friend. I hope he goes as long as he wants to. It takes a toll on you, especially during the season. Now, the other day, I got home a little after 3 o’clock and I was totally bored. I’ll know when it’s time — when I dread coming up here and it becomes work.”
Fire remains despite the pain
Curtis — who became the state’s all-time winningest coach in 2022 and is 348-93 in 34 seasons — considered retiring but decided he isn’t tired of piling those numbers one atop the other.
“I don’t know how close I was to (retiring) but I get closer to it every year,” Curtis conceded. “It’s a young man’s game. I tried to come up with negative things, things I don’t enjoy doing any more, but the things having to do with the players and coaches and the weekend work, none of that is negative.
“It’s hard to quit something when you’ve got it in a pretty good situation. We’re still winning consistently and as long as that keeps up, we’ll be OK. I hope I don’t find out otherwise. And there are some facilities upgrades I want to be a part of and help make happen.”
Curtis’ wife, Jeanie, knows nothing but coaching will keep the fire stoked in his furnace.
“He loves it so much, I think he would do it from his sickbed if he had to,” she said.
As it is, Curtis plows through the daily pain from the mower accident which severed his kneecap 46 years ago and the heart attack is a distant though sobering memory.
While serving as an assistant coach at B.C. Rain, Curtis had a summer job cutting grass and one August he was riding a tractor at Maryvale Elementary School, dropped into a concealed washout around the flagpole, was thrown off and mauled.
“The mower went on its side and ran over my right leg and cut it, then it went up and started back at me again,” Curtis said. “I’m bleeding and trying to get away from it. They weren’t sure they were going to save the leg.”
Fortunately, someone in the school building saw the accident and called an ambulance. He underwent two surgeries performed by Dr. Ed Dyas, the former Auburn All-American.
“The pain never goes away,” Curtis said. “You live with it. Everybody wants me to get a knee replacement but I tell them it doesn’t hurt that bad yet.”
His heart attack at 36 was even more frightening.
Curtis, who at the time was the offensive coordinator at Murphy, his alma mater, told his wife he felt ill, went to the bathroom, then came out and told her to take him to the hospital.
“I found out later he had taken two aspirin and I heard a doctor say that was somewhat of a factor in saving his life because it thinned his blood,” Jeanie Curtis said. “I drove him to Knollwood and he wouldn’t let me park. He got out at the emergency entrance and took himself straight back. He didn’t even check in.”
The doctors in the ER — and the prayers coming from an automobile hundreds of miles away — wouldn’t let him check out.
“The next thing I know, they’re shocking me,” Curtis said.
In the meantime, his wife alerted Curtis’ parents, who were in North Carolina and rushed back to Mobile.
“One would drive and the other would be on the floorboard on their knees praying,” Jeanie Curtis said.
Those prayers have been answered a millionfold since then.
“February and March is when I go to see my heart doctor,” Curtis said. “I feel good.”
‘What do you think?’
Curtis feels good being the coach with more victories than anybody else but has put it into perspective, especially with Horn (341 wins) and Fyffe’s Paul Benefield (337) lurking within one good season of getting their fingertips on the record.
“It’s important to a lot of people,” Curtis said. “I’m not going to lie and say it’s not important. But there are two guys right behind me who are younger and they’re going to break the record. It’ll be nice to have it for a while but at the end of the day it’s not going to be what your legacy is.”
Curtis’ legacy is not only winning but developing young men, including other coaches who often call or visit the godfather for advice.
“He’s helped a lot of coaches when they’ve gone through a tough time, young coaches especially,” said longtime friend and former coach Jack Wood, the executive director of the Alabama Football Coaches Association. “He’s a heckuva football coach but an even better friend.”
Former Theodore coach Eric Collier said Curtis helped guide him past a horrible beginning to his career — he had six straight losing seasons — to become one of the state’s top coaches.
“I remember my first year at Alma Bryant as a head coach, we played Terry and we were a 6A and they were a 3A or 4A and they beat the fire out of us,” Collier said. “On Monday morning, I called him and said, ‘Terry, what you do think?’ And he said, ‘Eric, you don’t have an identity. You don’t know if you want to run the ball or throw it and your kids don’t either.’ I listened to that. I believed in running the football and playing good defense and playing clean. But Terry was the first coach to tell me I had to find an identity and that stuck with me.
“I’ve known him a long time and if there is something I’m not sure of, I’ll call Terry and ask, ‘What do you think?’ He is one of my mentors, someone I look up to. He’s always been a sounding board and he’ll tell me the truth, not just something I might want to hear. Terry is a mentor throughout the state and the Southeast and he’s well-respected not just for the wins but the way he handles himself and represents the game. I’ll always call him.”
Curtis helps because he said he wants to ensure coaches operate in a civil, friendly environment.
“A lot of us older guys are friends,” he said. “I look at every score every week and I’ll call them or send them a note. A lot of these younger coaches now, if you get beat, they won’t talk to each other.”
The ties that bind
Curtis’ father, the Rev. Q.T. Curtis, was the most powerful influence in making Curtis the demanding but loving man, husband, father and coach he became.
Even now, he wears a tie on the sideline because of his father.
“I watched my dad get up and go to work every day and put on a coat and tie,” Curtis said. “It was a respect thing with him. He’d say, ‘I can’t go around looking like a bum doing God’s work.’ When I got to Shaw, I’d think if I want them to act right and do right, I’ve got to look the part.”
Q.T. Curtis died in January 2022 at age 97 and didn’t get to see his son break the record but he told Curtis it was one reason he willed himself to live as long as he did.
“He knew the record was close,” Curtis said. “It was the hardest thing standing there when I broke the record and he wasn’t there. I know how much he would have enjoyed that.”
In the fourth quarter of Q.T. Curtis’ life, they often visited on Sundays around the kitchen table, the father and son making sure they both knew how much they meant to each other.
“We’d sit there and talk and I miss that as much as anything,” Curtis said. “I’d ask him questions he had never really wanted to answer. One time, he said, ‘You know, I am ready to go. The only thing keeping me here and what I would miss on this earth is watching and listening to your games.’ He couldn’t even see but he’d still come to the game if I could get my brothers or somebody to bring him.”
Soon after Curtis broke the record in the Bulldogs’ 56-13 rout of Headland in the first round of the playoffs last November, CBS broadcast a nationwide tribute to Curtis at halftime of the Iron Bowl. While flattered, Curtis’ overwhelming thought was of his father.
“I sent a text to my brothers and I said, ‘I wonder if they get CBS in heaven because if they do, Dad would have a big smile on his face,’” Curtis said.
In games during the countdown to the record, especially the salient moments, Curtis almost reflexively called upon his file of treasured exchanges with his father instead of glancing at his studiously constructed play sheet, which remained in his pocket.
“Terry told me several times this year during a game he could feel his dad’s presence, like he was right there with him,” Jeanie Curtis said. “He’d even say, ‘Dad, I don’t know what to do here.’”
Curtis’ players look to him as their personal GPS in much the same way and he has always taken them down the right road, although it is littered with the carcasses of youthful selfishness and unreliability Curtis culls from his teams.
“It was a blessing to play for coach Curtis because you could see the commitment he had,” former star receiver Brandon Gibson said. “We didn’t have that much talent. We weren’t intimidating coming out of that building but he created such a belief within the group.”
Dial said the players loved being pushed because they knew they would win with Curtis.
“He always knew you had more in the tank and I carry that over to my kids,” Dial said. “He was tough on everybody but he has this amazing gift of getting the most out of his players.”
Those players have a fealty for their coach’s hard edge as much as for the love they know he feels for them.
“I owe him an enormous debt of gratitude,” said former UMS-Wright player Brad Israel, who went on to become an Army Green Beret. “What a beautiful life he’s lived. A lot of his players have gone on to successful lives. Would they have done that without him? Maybe. But has he made them better because he is in their lives? Absolutely.”
Rolling with T.C.
Many of those lives are shaped during Curtis’ stringent practices, which are usually more exacting than the games, given the Bulldogs have averaged winning by three touchdowns in 24 years under Curtis.
“My practices and game day, everything is consistent,” Curtis said. “Nothing is going to change. I do an exit interview with all my seniors and I’ll ask them what they think of practice and they like the consistency.”
Assistant coach Brandon Dean, who like Israel played on Curtis’ first UMS-Wright team, remembered the expectations set on his first day.
“He set the tone and vision for the program,” Dean said. “He was big into doing the little things right. He’d say, ‘If we tell you to run 12 sprints full speed, you better run them all the way through. If you run 11, those are the things that’ll get you beat.’ If we didn’t run them all the way through, he made us start over back then and we still start over today. He said, ‘I don’t have a lot of rules except that you’re going to do things the way I want and if you don’t, you’re going to be on the sideline with me.’ He didn’t use cliches. He’d say, ‘This is what wins and if you don’t do it, we’ll still win but you won’t be part of it.’”
That goes for the staff, too, although Curtis is loyal and has experienced few defections.
“He’d always say, ‘I tell you what, if you don’t like the way things are run around here, you can leave,’” assistant coach Eddie Roberts said. “He doesn’t like change but I’ve never known him to outright fire somebody.”
Added assistant coach Gerald “Bullit” Jones: “He loves his coaches. He says if he has to rebuild a staff, that’s when he will retire. That’s why all of us young guys are still hanging around.”
Curtis is as caring off the field as he is unyielding on it. When Dean’s father died, he drove through the night from Jacksonville, Fla., back to Mobile and found Curtis sitting with his mother in her living room at 3 a.m. trying to comfort her.
“He was there when both of my kids were born,” Dean said. “He is a special guy. Some people see him as a football coach with all the wins and some see him as their buddy. I feel like I got all that with him.”
But Curtis makes no apologies for his uncompromising approach on the field.
“I want the little things to be right,” he said. “I tell the coaches we’ve got to hold the players and each other accountable. I don’t have many rules — just do it right and be on time. I want it said I was fair. I tried to coach the best players to the worst and if you don’t do it right, you’re gonna roll.”
Rolling is a euphemism for the players having to do somersaults for hundreds of yards up and down the field to discourage any transgressions.
“I think most of them love the discipline,” said Tyrone Dixon, whose three sons played for Curtis at UMS-Wright. “He was tough on them. I was at a lot of practices and he’d scream and make them run a play over and over and over again until they got it right. When it got to Friday night, it didn’t take long for him to win your respect with teams that didn’t look evenly matched a lot of times. You hear some ask why the kids have never come back and complained. It’s because they respect him because he is a disciplinarian. We all need discipline.”
Wood said a huge byproduct of Curtis’ approach is fearlessness.
“One of his greatest strengths is not only the way he coaches but his teams don’t play scared and he doesn’t coach scared,” Wood said.
READ THE OTHER STORIES IN THE SERIES
Wigfield column: Wins record isn’t Curtis’ legacy
The Tales of Terry
Curtis’ mystique is real
Curtis, Saban a lot alike
‘Lucky CHARMS’ help Curtis pile up victories
Jeanie Curtis: The wife behind the man