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Curry, Alabama's New Coach, to Ride Out the Tide of Criticism

September 13, 1987|SALLY JENKINS | Washington Post

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — To coach at Alabama is to taste catfish, hominy and black-eyed peas.

It is to know the gorgeous assault of magnolias, to be celebrated by a state that is part antebellum and part glass towers and, above all, to feel the heart-seizing drum roar of Roll Tide Roll.

In a state of such rich emotions, it is no surprise that the hiring of a coach from Georgia named Bill Curry was received with pure outrage and a death threat.

Steeped in the tradition of a university that has won more football games than any other school in the last 65 years (505-154-30), Alabama alumni were stunned at the hiring of an academic-minded coach with a losing record. Since Curry didn't even have the decency to be a Bear Bryant disciple, he was regarded sight unseen by Alabamians as clearly not their kind.

"Being coach at Alabama is like being a state park," Athletic Director Steve Sloan said. "And everyone wants to drive all over your picnic grounds."

The chief sources of outrage are Curry's 31-43-9 mark in seven years at Georgia Tech and his lack of ties to a deeply inbred football history. Even Curry's predecessor Ray Perkins, disliked as he was after summarily tearing down the Bryant coaching tower, was a son of Alabama. Curry's hiring has been interpreted as a grievous departure from Alabama traditions: at worst, alumni fear he indicates a de-emphasis of the program; at best, they fear he is simply not equipped to deal with the strain of a huge program he is not acquainted with.

Curry maintains he is here to win "by Alabama standards" and began by defeating inferior Southern Mississippi last weekend. However, a truer measure will come when Alabama travels to defending national champion Penn State this weekend, and he is braced for a painful, perhaps even divisive, year.

"I certainly have not arrived and I don't have all the answers," Curry, 44, said. "But I'm qualified for this job. So I'm going to roll up my sleeves and go to work. And I'm going to be sure not to pay any attention to my detractors."

That Curry will lose some big games seems a foregone conclusion, as the Crimson Tide returns an inexperienced team that faces one of the nation's most difficult schedules. This laugher is making the rounds:

Have you heard the latest joke at Alabama?

No, what?

Football.

"I think he'll feel exterior pressure he's not aware of yet," Sloan said. " . . . I would be apprehensive coming here even with everybody behind me."

An indication of how seriously Alabama alumni take the issue of Curry was given by the university president, Joab Thomas, who has said publicly that if Curry fails, his own days in office may be numbered.

"I would say he's exactly right," said Tommy Brooker, an end on the 1961 national champion Tide and now a local insurance executive.

In taking over from Perkins, who moved to Tampa to coach the Buccaneers of the NFL, Curry has made up for the difficult circumstances with some gestures that have eased his entry into the Tide's cloistered midst. One of his first actions as coach was to get Bryant's coaching tower out of storage and raise it on the practice field, proclaiming it a monument. Then he campaigned across the state, meeting his critics personally and winning some over.

"A few of them came to me personally and said they wanted to explain their objections," Curry said. "I respect that. I don't expect them to approve of me, but I admire honest critics, people who look you in the eye and tell you how they feel. But I've got to be careful not to confuse warmness with results.

" . . . We're looking each other in the eye, and that establishes a certain relationship. At least it's not this backbiting stuff. I go back to the fact that to earn my way into a family tradition I've got to do what's required, and that's win."

According to Sloan, Curry has earned at least the benefit of the doubt this season mainly through the force of his personality and some outstanding performances at alumni functions. By all accounts an inspirational speaker, he quotes long Teddy Roosevelt passages in a deep voice. His discussions with alumni groups border on the politic, and he has maintained photos of Bryant prominently in his office.

"Smarter than a treeful of owls," Sloan said.

Curry has also shown some gumption for a coach who was regarded as perhaps too nice a guy, and is intent on building a tougher image. Unafraid of being called presumptuous, he intends to raise a Curry coaching tower next to Bryant's ("It will be shorter," he said diplomatically). He frowningly calls his detractors at Alabama "The Fellowship of the Miserable," and when he received the death threat, he called his new boss and said, "When it's too tough for most people, it's just about right for you and me."

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