UMS-Wright coach Terry Curtis enjoys the final moments of a first-round playoff win over Headland last year to become the all-time winningest high school coach in state history. This year’s first-round game is a historic clash with Central Clay County and coach Danny Horn in the first game between the state’s two winningest coaches. (Mike Kittrell/Call News)
While appearing a mismatch on paper, Curtis is usually at his best in the playoffs, especially in the rare cases he is an underdog. In the postseason, he is 19-13 against higher-ranked or higher-seeded teams and 12-5 against undefeated teams. UMS-Wright has advanced past the first round in four of the previous five years it entered the postseason unranked.
Paper, pen and calculations — those cold arbiters of the future — say rather loudly that UMS-Wright might not only lose in the first round of the playoffs for just the fifth time in 36 seasons Friday night but get routed.
The Bulldogs (6-4) have had trouble scoring and must drive 250 miles to play Central Clay County (10-0), which hasn’t been in a close game.
But some things favor an upset. For one, the Vols have lost to a lower-seeded or lower-ranked team twice in the last three years in the playoffs. For another, Terry Curtis is 19-13 against higher-seeded or higher-ranked teams in the postseason. Central Clay is missing star running back Ladamion Boyd, so UMS-Wright won’t have to score as much. And if the Bulldogs don’t have to score much, it will be a close game — and most coaches would rather have rats running up their pants legs than test themselves against Curtis in a game where the sphincters and the margins are tight.
Curtis is 57-40 in one-score games over his career and 12-5 against undefeated teams in the playoffs. UMS-Wright has also advanced past the first round in four of the previous five years it entered the postseason unranked.
As most underdogs do, Curtis likes what for him is a rare position.
“It’s playoff time,” he said. “I always hated being a one seed playing a four because all your people take it for granted that you’re going to win and you’re supposed to win by a big margin. You always get their best shot. Well, I feel confident we’re going to give them our best shot. Whether it’s enough, I don’t know.”
It may not be. His adversary Friday night in Lineville is none other than Danny Horn, the defensive savant who is only three victories behind Curtis going into the first game in state history between the two winningest coaches of all time in Alabama.
Like Curtis, Horn has won eight state championships, not that he spends much time looking back given his multitude of responsibilities outside of teaching Clay County’s boys to be good people and football players.
“Coaching is about 10 percent of what I do,” Horn said in a moment of reflection. The rest of the time, he’s cutting grass, cleaning the toilets in the fieldhouse and serving as his own secretary and trainer.
He’s not complaining, mind you. One day last offseason, before spring practice started, Horn said: “The other day, I got home a little after 3 o’clock and I was totally bored.”
He and his players know how to work but so do Curtis and his players, so Horn isn’t going to be snookered into thinking it’s going to be a blowout.
“There’s a reason why they win like they do,” Horn said of the Bulldogs, and it’s the same reason the Vols win so much, which is why people are paying rapt attention to a first-round game with all this uncommonly rich history attached to it.
While Horn said he’s surprised his team is 10-0, only the timing and seedings are unexpected. This is the quality of a pairing usually seen in the semifinals.
“If you had told me before the season we’d be 10-0, I’d say you were crazy,” Horn said. “We’ve had a lot of good teams here who didn’t do that. It’s been a little better than I thought we’d be.”
And he thinks UMS-Wright is better than it appears, especially since it has played a tougher schedule in 5A Region 1.
“That region down there is probably the best in the state,” Horn said. “Vigor is one of the best teams in the state and they’re not even in the playoffs. This is not a normal one seed versus four.”
The Bulldogs usually have their playoff berth reserved long before the postseason begins but this year they were a late arrival, making it on the last week of the regular season with a 20-19 win over Williamson.
“We’ve given up too many big plays,” Curtis said. “But you talk about pressure, knowing they had to win against a good defense last week and they found a way to win.”
Could it happen again?
It could come down to just one thing Vince Lombardi once said, which Horn taped to the front of his office door so his players are constantly reminded of it:
“The difference between a successful person and others is not a lack of strength, not a lack of knowledge, but rather a lack in will.”
Going all the way
With UMS-Wright struggling and Central Clay without Boyd, neither is a clear choice to add a Blue Map to their crowded trophy cases.
But Mobile County has a chance to have three state football champions in the same season for the first time.
Barring the end of the world before Dec. 8, Saraland will win its second straight Class 6A championship. The Spartans are the best team in the state regardless of class and will go down as one of the best in state history.
Mobile Christian has everything it needs — especially at the line of scrimmage — to win its first Blue Map in Class 3A.
Few are giving Mary G. Montgomery a chance in Class 7A but these are people who haven’t seen the Vikings play or think the past dictates what is happening now. Jared Hollins is the best quarterback in 7A, they make few mistakes and MGM has the coaching, balance and defense to reach Bryant-Denny Stadium.