Skip to content

Wigfield: Wins record is not the legacy of Terry Curtis, the Secretariat of coaches


The indefatigable Curtis is unflaggingly consistent, yet an amalgam of contradictions. He is a masterful, unpredictable play-caller, yet must dine on the same meal at the same restaurant with his wife week after week during the season as long as the Bulldogs win. He spends hours behind closed doors on game day organizing his play sheet, then stuffs it in his pocket and doesn’t consult it again. His other pockets hold peanuts for in-game snacking and a lucky rock. He insists a long list of superstitions — including wearing the same socks, shoes and boxer shorts to games — protects him and his team from defeat.



UMS-Wright coach Terry Curtis has won eight Blue Maps and is 8-0 in state championship games, an unprecedented accomplishment in Alabama. (John O’Dell/Call News)

This is an opinion column


Terry Curtis is a master craftsman, a man who sets carefully conceived movements to the rat-a-tat of shoulder pads; a coach who plucks out his players’ ragged individual threads, then binds them together into a bullwhip to be unfurled on the opposition; a contemporary tactician with a medieval bent toward making his players prove themselves on every play, short of jousting with ramrods on towering steeds or throwing each other under the guillotine.

And even so, that idea might have been a relief.

“When I was in the military, in basic training and officer candidate school, I’d reflect back and think, ‘This doesn’t have s*** on two-a-days,’” said Maj. Brad Israel, a player on Curtis’ first UMS-Wright team in 1999 who went on to become a Green Beret and served in Afghanistan.

But one day — and let’s hope it’s later rather than sooner — we will look up and Curtis will no longer be coaching football.

When the last game comes, he will probably be down to the last peanut in his pocket, down to the last second to call a play to win or lose, down to the last yard, down to the last probing look into his players’ eyes to see if they have enough resolve, if they have retained the lessons and the toughness he has inculcated in them, to do the job. Perhaps the best coach in this state to always stay several plays ahead of everyone else will suddenly have no future between the lines.

The football field at Cooper Stadium — it should be Cooper-Curtis Stadium someday — won’t go fallow and become overrun with locusts but it surely won’t be the same without him.

Imagine the person who succeeds Curtis, whose influence on the game statewide has grown roots that will never be pulled out.

“There is always somebody who is going to take your place but it will be hard to follow in his footsteps,” said close friend and fellow hall of fame coach Jack Wood, the executive director of the Alabama Football Coaches Association.

Imagine Curtis becoming the state’s all-time winningest high school football coach with 348 victories stacked over 34 seasons despite waiting 16 seasons as an assistant coach to finally get his chance. It was the same as Secretariat breaking last in all three Triple Crown races until the other thoroughbreds got a mile ahead and still running them into the ground.

Imagine the fact Curtis survived a nearly fatal heart attack when he was 36 and has gone on to an 8-0 record in do-or-die state championship games — a feat unrivaled in Alabama.

“To me, that’s more impressive than the all-time wins,” Wood said. “I don’t think that will be broken.”


Record isn’t his legacy


Curtis, 72, considered retiring after the 2022 season following another coaching masterpiece which took the Bulldogs to a 12-1 finish and his 348th victory. But he eschews the record as a personal badge of glory.

“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,” he said.

Curtis is much more interested in cultivating and demanding excellence from himself, his coaches and his players.

“Imagine it’s fourth-and-1 and we’re going for it,” Bulldogs all-time leading rusher Troy Dixon said. “We take a timeout and go to the sideline and he’s looking at me eye to eye and saying, ‘Hit it up in there Troy. Hit it hard. I’m counting on you.’ I may have had 30 carries but it didn’t matter. There was something about him. You wanted to play for the guy.”

Curtis has been as unfaltering as the sunrise — 31 winning seasons in 34 years, including 20 seasons in which he won 10-plus games — and, incredibly, 20 of his 21 freshman classes at UMS-Wright won at least one state championship ring by the time they were seniors.

But he abhors the idea of coming back just to dwell on the past or waste time.

“The job, the destination, he was never satisfied but you can’t hope for anything more,” said Preston Dial, a heavily recruited tight end on the 2005 state championship team who played at Alabama. “He’s coming back to coach another year because he loves to win and I mean win a state championship. And because he wants to see his coaches and players develop.”

But he’s gone three years now without a Blue Map — that’s about the average for Curtis at UMS-Wright — and it’s been particularly galling that the Bulldogs have been stopped three straight times in the quarterfinals, including two straight years on the goal line in 19-16 and 20-14 defeats, so he wasn’t about to walk away with those kinds of losses tickling his neck like an irritating horsefly.

“What happened the last two years is what I think keeps him wanting to keep coaching,” assistant coach Gerald “Bullit” Jones said. “We were close twice and it hurts more. You don’t know when the last time will be.”

While there may be a sense of urgency bubbling inside Curtis, whatever happens from here on out will be shaped by his own meticulous timing.

Even his nap a few hours before kickoff is precisely planned. He must be awakened at 5:20 p.m. by either Jones or administrative assistant Molly Nordmann, who dotingly keeps watch over the legendary coach.

“I’d have to fire Bullit if they let me oversleep,” Curtis said, only half-jokingly.


‘I just don’t want to take a chance’


The indefatigable Curtis is unflaggingly consistent, yet an amalgam of contradictions. He is a masterful, unpredictable play-caller, yet must dine on the same meal at the same restaurant with his wife week after week during the season as long as the Bulldogs win. He spends hours behind closed doors on game day organizing his play sheet, then stuffs it in his pocket and doesn’t consult it again. His other pockets hold peanuts for in-game snacking and a lucky rock. He insists a long list of superstitions — including wearing the same socks, shoes and boxer shorts to games — protects him and his team from defeat.

“I don’t call them superstitions,” Curtis said. “I just don’t want to take a chance.”

That includes avoiding the team bus on road trips, instead commandeering assistant coach Eddie Roberts’ truck, and following immutable routes to games, even the short mile between Murphy High and Ladd-Peebles Stadium when he was the Panthers’ coach.

Roberts recalled one such trip that revealed Curtis’ unwavering demand for perfect execution, even for a superstition.

“He had a certain route he had to take from Murphy to Ladd,” Roberts said. “We had no police escort. The buses went down to the Loop and then Government and then went to Virginia Street but they got down there almost to the stadium and took a wrong turn and he said, ‘We’re going to turn these buses around and go back to Murphy and start over.’”

At practice, Curtis is a diamond wheel, smoothing imperfections, repeatedly putting his players in a vise and squeezing their guts out to see how much they have. In return, they love him the more he steadily tightens the handle.

“They play so hard for coach,” Jones said. “You can’t teach a lot of that stuff anymore, to play through the whistle. When he calls a play, the kids believe it’s the right play, that he’s going to pull the game out for us.”

That’s not because Curtis becomes a grandfatherly figure who might invite folks to sip on half-and-half tea and share some Fig Newtons, his beverage and indulgence of choice. It’s because he is constantly installing a spine in his team and honing his players in the ways of football combat.

“I don’t believe in gamers,” Curtis said. “I believe you’re going to play like you practice. I feel like if you have discipline, you’ll be mentally tough. Discipline is hard; you’ve got to do it every day. I can go back in my practice schedules from 10 years ago and tell you who missed practice. I’d say, ‘You missed practice four days already and they were all on Tuesday, the day you know you’re going to get beat on.’”

Allison Blaylock, the mother of future UMS-Wright star Cole Blaylock, was so unnerved by Curtis berating one player at practice that she never wanted him to coach any of her offspring.

“I saw him chewing a quarterback out when I was a teacher there, before I even had Cole, and I said, ‘I hope that man is gone before my kid plays for him,’” she said.

It didn’t take her long to convert to the Tenets of Terry.

“It’s so funny when new mamas get so upset when their babies get yelled at,” she said. “One time, one of them said, ‘You want to chew them out when they yell at Cole?’ and I told her, ‘Whatever he got yelled at for, I bet he won’t do it again.’”


‘He taught me to be a winner’


The quarterback Curtis harangued at that long-ago practice was Barry Ballard, who went on to lead the Bulldogs to the first of Curtis’ eight Blue Maps and is now a surgeon who has come full circle to coach his own son in UMS-Wright’s elementary school football league.

Some quarterbacks were known to avoid Curtis if they made an egregious error during a game, preferring to camouflage themselves with others on the sideline, resulting in an even worse drubbing when Curtis found them. Not Ballard.

“I was pretty stubborn myself,” Ballard said. “I gave him a lot of grief too. He’s told many people I was the only quarterback of his who argued with him. He didn’t like it if I changed the play.”

But Ballard realized if he could survive on Curtis’ field, life would seem a zephyr breeze by comparison.

“The practices were worse than the games,” Ballard said. “What he put us through, playing football for him, set us up for life. I’m a surgeon now and I see trauma and people dying and blood all over the place and I never get rattled.”

He said his fourth-grade son is getting a preview of what it will be like playing for Curtis if the venerable coach is still on the job at age 77.

“I get a little intense,” Ballard said. “My son plays quarterback and I probably coach him a lot like coach Curtis coached me, maybe with less cusswords. I hope he keeps coaching long enough for my son to get there. He doesn’t seem any different to me now than he ever did. He taught me to be a winner, to be tough.”


Making it right


Curtis learned to be a loving taskmaster from his beloved father, Baptist minister Q.T. Curtis, who countenanced no deviance from doing things properly.

When Curtis was perhaps 13, he was caught whispering to his friends during one of his father’s sermons. Afterward, he ran to the parsonage and holed up in his parents’ room to pray. His father found him coming off his knees.

“I’ve made it right with God,” Curtis told his father, who replied: “Son, I’m glad you made it right with God but now you’re going to make it right with me,” and thereupon laid into the future winningest coach in state history.

A few years later, the roles were reversed as his parents took turns kneeling and praying on the floorboard of their car during a frantic drive from North Carolina back to Mobile after Curtis suffered a life-threatening heart attack.

Curtis hasn’t taken many whippings since then from Mother Nature or anyone else. The Bulldogs don’t lose games they are supposed to win, and they win games they should lose, and they do it — contrary to public belief — without the type of recruiting they are so often accused of. Of the 16 seniors on the 2022 team, 12 started playing football there in elementary school, including Blaylock.

“Other coaches say if I can recruit them in kindergarten, I ought to be in college or the pros,” Curtis said.

Still, after Curtis’ first state championship in 2001, an Alabama High School Athletic Association official wanted to know how many players had enrolled at UMS-Wright after the seventh grade.

Upper-school principal Ed Lathan, who was the head coach at B.C. Rain when Curtis got his first job as an assistant, reported the inquiry to Curtis, who issued a pointed reply:

“Find out who he was and tell him to come down and watch us come out on the field,” Curtis told Lathan. “If I was going to recruit, I wouldn’t be recruiting them.”

But fast or slow, big or small, his coaching has made it right with all of them and they are better men for it.

Reach Jimmy Wigfield at

Leave a Comment