“If it was raining, thundering and lightning, coach Curtis would walk outside with that hat on and his rain jacket and he’d walk around the field and look around and kick the grass and 10 or 15 minutes later there wouldn’t be a cloud in the sky. It was like clockwork.
I don’t know if he had a special relationship with God or what.”
Former UMS-Wright star receiver Brandon Gibson
By JIMMY WIGFIELD
From operating the dreaded “county fair” to play-calling that could fool Nostradamus and controlling the weather at practice, UMS-Wright coach Terry Curtis has built a powerful mystique which defies normal football convention.
The skill of staying several plays ahead has always served Curtis well — the Bulldogs have averaged 32 points per game during his 24 seasons — and is perhaps his most feared and admired characteristic among his contemporaries.
“He’s just so far ahead of other people as far as what he’s calling to set up something,” assistant coach Gerald “Bullit” Jones said. “He does it better than anyone else. Sometimes we’ll wonder, ‘How did he come up with that?’ We worked on that in practice for weeks and he uses it now.”
The state’s all-time winningest high school football coach, who refuses to wear a headset, said he learned the importance of prophetic play-calling from former Murphy coach Bob Shaw.
“I learned how to coach as an assistant when the game was going on,” Curtis said. “He’d have a game plan and certain formations and then we’d get in a game and none of that was working. I watched Bob just wad up that play sheet and throw it away, then he’d go back to something we had practiced two weeks ago.
“Play-calling is a gift. Some people just see it. My philosophy is I’m gonna get you where I want you by formations. We’re gonna find a DB we can throw on or a defensive lineman we can run at.”
Former B.C. Rain coach Ed Lathan said Curtis was already a prodigious play-caller as an assistant coach on his staff in the 1970s.
“It didn’t take me like three games to know he needed to call the plays,” Lathan said. “He was always two plays ahead of me. He could see things I couldn’t see. He used the KISS method — Keep It Simple Stupid.”
Curtis admits he gets a thrill from setting up another team, similar to the pranks he enjoys playing on his own coaches.
“You laugh sometimes,” he said. “I tell the coaches in practice, ‘This play is going to be good for us,’ then we’ll get in a game and I know they’re thinking, ‘When is he going to run that play?’ And I may not run it that game — I’ll save it. Or out of the corner of my eye, I’ll see their guy biting on something and I’ll tell them, ‘Watch this, I’m going to run it two plays from now.’”
Ears to the ground
That Curtis does this so well without wearing headsets is perhaps more difficult than a myopic seeing a gnat 100 yards away. His genius is in taking something complex and making it appear simple.
“Being an assistant for 16 years in the press box, I could see the field,” he said. “Then I got to be a head coach and you can’t see anything in all that chaos from the sideline.”
But he had a feel for the flow of a game and, because his superlative preparation allowed him to live plays into the future, he visualized his counteractions with his playbook stored in his head.
Curtis decided he didn’t like headsets when he got his first head coach’s job at Shaw and his assistants would chatter in his ear from the press box and try to call plays.
“I’d say, ‘I know the plays, just let me know if they’re changing anything,’” Curtis said. “One night, I just took them off. I wasn’t used to all that racket coming out of them. It was a distraction. Plus, I just didn’t know how to wear them. But I’ve got good assistants who give me good advice and I usually take it.”
Asked if the assistant coaches pick on Curtis for not wearing a headset, Jones dropped into a reverential tone, as if in church: “We don’t pick on him about anything.”
Other coaches gnash their teeth when dealing with Curtis, even his close friend, former Hewitt-Trussville coach Jack Wood, the executive director of the Alabama Football Coaches Association.
“He has a great knack of calling gadget plays or trick plays,” Wood said. “Everybody on the other side knows something is coming at some time or another and it drives them crazy.”
But even when Curtis shares a special play with a friend, it may not have the same panache.
“He had a trick play, a fake field goal, and we called it the ‘T.C. Special,’” Wood said. “We ran it one time at Hewitt-Trussville and we lost 10 yards. The next morning, I called him — I won’t say the words I used — but I told him, ‘Thanks a lot for that play’ and Terry laughed and said, ‘You’ve just got to know when to call it.’”
Curtis, who stashes plays in his mind like an old Rolodex, fired a warning shot at opponents on his first play calls at Shaw and UMS-Wright that he would never be pigeonholed, although he prefers to run first.
“At Shaw, it was a lead fake and a pass in the flats to our big tight end,” Curtis said. “We wanted to get him involved early. At UMS, it was a deep ball, if not on the first play, then it was in the first two or three plays. When I came to UMS, all I heard was they ran the ball all the time, so we threw the deep ball down the middle. Doug Garner must have overthrown it 10 yards. The crowd was going, ‘Woooooooh,’ like they were thinking, ‘They threw a pass and it wasn’t even third down.’”
Garner, his first UMS-Wright quarterback, had trouble overthrowing receivers at times but Curtis, true to his mystique, had ways of curing such problems. In one practice, Curtis grew irate watching Garner repeatedly overthrow a fade route and took over at quarterback.
“I threw a bunch of them underhanded and every one of them were perfect,” Curtis said.
Success is elementary
Curtis’ players don’t do certain things around him without repercussions.
“Mental mistakes,” he said. “Dropping the ball when your eyes are not looking at the ball. Linemen jumping offside. I get mad at holding calls. When a kid in practice isn’t giving full effort, that sets me off. The players will tell you I have a hard time seeing them make the same mistakes over and over and playing with bad technique, bad leverage.
“They aren’t going to make every play but they’ve got to be in the right position. The thing is, we do the film work and they know that play is coming. Then if we’re watching film the next week and they don’t do it right, before I can say anything, they’ll say, ‘Coach, I know, I know,’ and I’ll say, ‘No, let’s watch this a couple more times.’”
Earning Curtis’ praise has always been the ultimate exultation for his players.
“It was extremely difficult to get but very easy to get criticism,” star running back Cole Blaylock said. “But if you did something right, he would tell you. I can say playing for the winningest coach in the state of Alabama is real cool.”
Curtis’ coaches better have the right answers, too, when quizzed by the schoolmaster.
“He’ll ask you a question and he’ll know what the answer is before you can say it,” assistant coach Eddie Roberts said. “He’s going to see if you’re telling him the truth or if you’re making up something.”
Perhaps those are some reasons why Curtis hasn’t lost two straight games with the Bulldogs since 2010. He’s lost two straight only four times in 24 years at UMS-Wright, where he has never missed the playoffs. Curtis has had the Bulldogs ranked No. 1 for 103 weeks — considering there are 11 weeks in a season during which polls are conducted, that’s nearly 10 years at the top of the rankings.
That’s time enough to go all the way back to when the bullpups start playing in UMS-Wright’s elementary school football program, including Blaylock, who started playing football at the school in the third grade and ran for 2,000 yards and 27 touchdowns as a senior.
Blaylock remembered Curtis watching him in elementary school.
“We heard stories about him, all the state championships, the running, how strict practices were, that he ran a tight ship,” Blaylock said. “We are all third-graders and we thought he was the big, old scary football coach. But when I saw him bringing home all those state championships, I wanted a ring.”
The unique elementary-school program is where future champions are grown.
“You know why Terry has all those good teams at UMS? Because he’s out there every day watching the fourth- and fifth-grade classes and he can tell you after three years who can run and catch and who can’t,” said longtime friend and former Mobile County Sheriff Jack Tillman.
Curtis said 12 of the 16 seniors on the 2022 team started playing at the elementary level.
“Our youth program is a big deal but I wasn’t sure of the age — and I’m still not sure — when a kid should start playing tackle football,” Curtis said. “I tell the parents to see if they like it or not. We decided to start in third grade and it’s only for our kids at our school. You can tell certain kids will grow up and be good football players.”
The fact many of the players come through the elementary system blunts criticism UMS-Wright recruits many of its players.
“I think we may be the only private school that says on the Jumbotron or in the (game) program what grade they were in when they came to school here,” Curtis said.
Chasing away clouds at the ‘county fair’
When they finally reach the varsity, the players get their plumbing checked in Curtis’ infamous practices, including what is called the “county fair,” which doesn’t feature cotton candy and corn dogs unless they are ingested beforehand and then barfed onto the field.
“We start every fall practice with it,” Curtis said. “It’s six stations of drills — bag drills, up/downs, such as that — about 2 or 2½ minutes each with no break. They all know it’s coming. They’ll say, ‘We’re going to the fair.’ It’s a rite of passage. I’ve been doing that everywhere I’ve been.”
Even when the players are hopeful inclement weather will intervene, Curtis apparently can wave it off.
“If it was raining, thundering and lightning, coach Curtis would walk outside with that hat on and his rain jacket and he’d walk around the field and look around and kick the grass and 10 or 15 minutes later there wouldn’t be a cloud in the sky,” said UMS-Wright star receiver Brandon Gibson, who played for Alabama. “It was like clockwork. I don’t know if he had a special relationship with God or what.”
Added Blaylock: “We always said he had a weather machine and he could make it go away.”
As it turned out, having a roof over their heads if it was too stormy to practice didn’t make things easier on the players.
“If we stayed inside, we’d do 20-20s — that’s 20 pushups and 20 situps, then 19 pushups and 19 situps all the way down to one,” Gibson said. “It was miserable.”
That’s Curtis’ kind of football, not the modern brand which includes rampant transfers and the spillover effect from college athletes getting lucrative deals from their name, image and likeness (NIL), which may render the game unrecognizable.
“If we don’t get hold of some of this stuff, it’s going to be bad,” Curtis said. “I tell coaches every time I talk to them, our main job is to protect the game of football. You’ve got NIL and these kids are transferring from one school to another. The parents now want self-gratification. A coach makes them mad because their son isn’t starting or playing the right position and they’ll say they’re going to go to another school. There is no more working for it. It’s like the wild West now.”