By JIMMY WIGFIELD
UMS-Wright coach Terry Curtis and Alabama coach Nick Saban may not have started their careers pursuing greatness but it caught up with them in an uncannily synchronized fashion.
Born on almost the same date one year apart, they are considered the GOATs in their respective spheres — Curtis in high school football and Saban in college football — in a state which confers divine status on men who earn the highest achievements in the sport.
Curtis, 72, is one year older and born on Oct. 25, 1950. Saban, 71, was born Oct. 31, 1951.
Curtis was born in Lenoir, N.C., and Saban in Fairmont, W.Va. — and if you add another four miles to the southwest as the crow flies from Fairmont to Monangah, where Saban won a state championship, they are 348 miles apart, the same number of victories Curtis has accrued in becoming Alabama’s winningest high school football coach.
Both had domineering fathers who served as the strongest influences in their lives.
Both played quarterback on their high school teams.
Saban has averaged 10.5 wins per year as a head coach and Curtis 10.2.
Curtis has won eight state championships and Saban seven national championships.
Both are unbending disciplinarians with carefully prescribed processes for success.
They also have their idiosyncrasies about food — Curtis must have peanuts during games and loves Fig Newtons. For breakfast, Saban eats two Little Debbie oatmeal creme pies after heating day-old coffee in a microwave for 1 minute and 11 seconds — 1:11, nothing but number ones.
Curtis has his own special messaging imbued in numbers scrawled on a lucky stone in his office, Matthew 7:29 — “For he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes.”
Authority is a watchword for both coaches.
“Coach Saban and Terry are similar in the way they run their programs,” said Jack Wood, a close friend of Curtis’ who also knows Saban through serving as executive director of the Alabama Football Coaches Association. “Everybody has a boss but both have about as much control of their program as any coach could have. They have total control.
“He and Terry talk. There’s not much Terry doesn’t know about Mobile and coach Saban respects his opinions. He probably talks to Terry as much as any coach in Alabama.”
Wood said the demands placed on players and assistant coaches by Curtis and Saban can be carried only by the mentally toughest people.
“They have high expectations of their players to perform and prepare,” Wood said. “You’ve got to expect the best out of them and their coaches are held to a higher standard as well. Both understand physical mistakes will be made but mental mistakes, neither one of them accepts that near as much as some other people do.”
Former UMS-Wright and Alabama tight end Preston Dial, who played for both coaches, said Curtis and Saban have more patience and a deeper underlying affection for their players than many people realize.
“Both are great guys that wanted to do any and everything they could to help their players, even the ones that seemed to always find trouble,” Dial said. “The only way to lose their loyalty is to lack effort or be a bad teammate. And when it’s time to work, it’s time to work. They’re both very serious when it’s work time — meetings, film and practice.”
Running afoul of them came with a price but was tempered with ministrations.
“If you did what you were supposed to do, he’d praise you for it,” Dial said of Curtis. “Like coach Saban now. I watch him now and he’s loving on some of these players. He’s enjoying the ride.”
Added former wide receiver Brandon Gibson, a teammate of Dial’s who also played for both men: “He and coach Saban have the same type of mentality. Coach Curtis would get into you but he’d show you some love.”
Wood said while both are well organized and consistent, they don’t micromanage their coaches.
“Terry is going to let his coaches coach and coach Saban is the same way but everybody knows who the boss is,” Wood said.
As for their famous systems of player development, Wood said Curtis’ methods start at a more formative age in UMS-Wright’s elementary school football league.
“Terry knows what his players’ limitations are but they’ve been coached up in his ‘process’ and come through their system,” Wood said. “I’d say Terry probably has an even better process than coach Saban because coach Saban has a lot of his players for just a couple of years where Terry has his for nine.”
Curtis could have had a chance to face Saban if he had not turned down Auburn coach Gene Chizik’s offer to join the Tigers’ staff as the director of football operations.
“He wanted me to come be the football relations guy,” Curtis said. “I thought about it and I was going to go up there to take the job but he called me one night and said, ‘You’ve been a head coach a long time. You’ve made all the schedules and you make all the decisions but when you come up here, you’re not going to be that guy. You need to think about that.’”
Curtis could not swallow such a mouthful.
“I laid in bed that night thinking about it and there’s something to be said for making all the decisions,” Curtis said. “I told him the next morning I was going to stay at UMS.”
It was a history-making judgment, for had Curtis gone to Auburn, he would not be the winningest high school coach in state history and his career would have been irrevocably altered.
Chizik, of course, flatlined after winning the 2010 national championship with Cam Newton and was fired after four years. While Chizik was finishing 3-9 in 2012, Curtis was winning his fifth state championship with the Bulldogs.