The King of Queens
|Coach Curran directing his baseball team|
Like the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty, Jack Curran is a treasured institution in New York City.
He is New York City high school basketball and baseball. Since 1958, Curran has coached the boys’ basketball and baseball teams at Archbishop Molloy High School in Briarwood, Queens, N.Y.After 49 seasons, he has won 885 basketball games and five Catholic High School Athletic Association city championships. Entering his 49th season on the baseball diamond, his teams have compiled nearly 1,600 victories and claimed 17 CHSAA titles. Suffice to say, Curran, 75, is the winningest coach in New York State history in both sports. His amazing accomplishments have led to his induction into nine Halls of Fame, including the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.
Similar to John Wooden, Curran – who taught physical education for 42 years – is held in reverence by his players. Not only does he turn out great athletes, he graduates great individuals. During his tenure at Molloy, Curran has coached over 475 boys who have earned athletic scholarships. More than 40 of those young men have followed him into the coaching profession on both high school and college levels.
That being said, we had the opportunity to chat with this Jack-of-All-Trades, who also happens to be Scholastic Coach & Athletic Director’s selection as the New York State Coach of the Three-Quarter Century.
COACH: Tell us about your childhood. Where did you grow up? How did you get involved in sports?
CURRAN: I grew up in the Bronx on Webb Ave., on the other side of the reservoir from DeWitt Clinton High School. Across the street were the church, Our Lady of Angels, and the grammar school. We lived in the Bronx until 1948, when we moved to Rye. N.Y. We had a summer place in Rye that we converted to a year-round home.
We played all sports growing up. My brother Tom, who was the oldest, went to Regis High School and he swam. My brother Jerry – who was a year behind me – went to Cardinal Hayes. He started playing basketball but then switched to swimming. He became a national high school champion swimmer. My sister, Helen, went to Cathedral High and she played basketball.
Outside our apartment building was an empty lot. We used to play out there all of the time. Whatever sport was in season we would play. On the other side of the lot was the park. And we would play basketball there until it got dark. We used to go out and stay out all day until it was time for supper. Nowadays, kids don’t go out. We played roller hockey in the street. The sewers were the goals. We’d crush down tin cans for pucks. We’d get mad when the cars came by.
And we all got into the education end of the business. My sister taught for over 40 years in Rye. My brother Tom taught in California for his whole career, before he died. And my brother Gerry taught in Harrison. N.Y. for 30-something years and coached the swim team before he passed away. My sister and I are the only ones left.
COACH: Where did you go to high school and college?
CURRAN: I went to All Hallows High School in the Bronx. I played football, basketball, and baseball. All for the same coach: Vic King. He was an outstanding football coach. He used to help Lou Little at Columbia. Little had been Vic King’s college coach at Georgetown. Vic coached all three sports for like 20 years or so. In football, I played end on both offense and defense and also did the punting.
I went to St. John’s University on a basketball scholarship. My high school coach wanted me to play football in college but I didn’t’ want to play football for fear I would get broken in half. Personally, I liked baseball the best. I wanted to play baseball at Holy Cross or Fordham. Actually, Fordham was going to take me but reneged at the last minute. Frank McGuire was the coach at St. John’s and he wound up taking me there. I was with Frank for four of his five years at St. John’s. He gave me a basketball scholarship.
My freshman year I was living in Rye and I wasn’t getting home from basketball practice until 10 p.m. I was doing poorly in school. So Frank said, look, you’re not going to make it here if you keep this up. Why don’t you switch your scholarship to baseball and maybe you will have more time to do your work? So I said, OK. I like baseball better anyway. It was not easy playing basketball at St. John’s. You had to travel all over the place to practice and play. We practiced in different armories all around New York City.
Baseball we had no field. We practiced at Dexter Park. That was our home field. It had 20,000 seats and we would have like five people at the games. Four of them were probably scouts. We took the subway to the field, took all of the equipment on the subway. It was different in those days. It was college.
COACH: How were you introduced to coaching?
CURRAN: Coaches always seemed to be the main guys for me. They were always on a pedestal. Vic King was such a dominant personality at All Hallows. He was an extremely tough and forceful guy. Frank McGuire was probably the direct opposite personality wise. You could talk to him more easily. He was more player-friendly, more like one of the guys.
I always admired guys like Joe Lapchick, Nat Holman, Howard Cann, and Clair Bee – the legendary New York coaches. They were the big ones. And of course, Adolph Rupp. Those were guys that seemed big in my mind at that time.
After college, I played professional baseball for the Dodgers and Phillies. My last year of playing I fractured a vertebrae in my back pitching in Quebec. But I still pitched that season before the Phillies released me. So I started working. I was the Recreation Director in Rye. I started all of the sports programs. This was in 1954. I only stayed in recreation for a year or so and managed a semi-pro baseball team. We used to play against all of the prisons in New York: Sing-Sing (Ossining), Ellenville.
In basketball, I used to bring teams up to play against Clair Bee. That is how I got involved with him. I used to send poor kids up to his camp, Camp All-America. There were very few camps back then. He used to have all of these great coaches come to lecture like Adolph Rupp, Alvin “Doggie” Julian, and Press Maravich. They had all of the great players.
Louie Carnesecca worked there for three summers. He was married and he’d spend eight weeks at the camp. He’d listen to all of these great coaches lecture and he became a great student of the game.
I was working in sales at the time for Johns Manville in Western Massachusetts. I stopped one day to have a cup of coffee and read in the newspaper that Lou Carnesecca had left Molloy and gone to St. John’s as an assistant. So I called Clair Bee and told him Lou had taken a job at St. John’s. He said, “I know. Why don’t you go down and get that job at Molloy.” I said, you think so? And he said, yes. So I drove down and interviewed for the job.
COACH: In 1958, you followed Lou Carnesecca at Archbishop Molloy (known then as St. Ann’s Academy) as head basketball coach. Forty-nine years later you still roll out the basketballs every winter and patrol the baseball diamond every spring, en route to becoming the most successful high school coach in New York State history. What has been the secret to not only your success but also your longevity?
CURRAN: I guess staying healthy over the length of that time. I also think stability at this level – having the same routine going every day. The kids know that’s going to happen year in and year out and it makes it that much easier to have a good program.
COACH: Strategy and teaching are vital aspects of coaching. However, developing a rapport with the players and commanding their respect are equally if not more important. Talk about your keys to relationship building in a team and individual setting?
CURRAN: It’s mostly being you. Not trying to act like you’re tougher or different than your normal personality. And making sure you always do what’s right and try to set the right example. Kids are very observant of how you react to different situations. They know that you’re trying to help them. I think that is very important, because then they will respond to you.
It depends what you’re talking about and where. If it’s a game situation or practice situation, I think I try to treat them pretty much the same. It’s hard to do at certain times because you focus more on certain people. You try not to be too obvious about that. When you talk to them in a one on one situation, they have to feel confident – you’re almost like a counselor for them. It’s more like a vocation coaching on the high school level, rather than a job.
COACH: In 1968, you coached the Molloy baseball team to a then-national record 68 consecutive wins, a feat that stood until April 2, 2005. How were you able to keep your team focused during that span and what can a coach do to ensure that his or her players don’t get carried away with the notoriety that comes with such a streak and the expectations to keep winning?
CURRAN: After we lost that game, 2-1, we actually won about 30 more games in a row. You don’t really think about it too much. You just keep playing. I think we were much more intense then and we had a lot of very good players. In high school, if you have great pitching and pretty good defense, you win.
COACH: You are the only coach to be honored as National Coach of the Year in two different sports: basketball in 1990 and baseball in 1988. To what do you attribute your success in both sports? How have you been able to balance both in back-to-back seasons, i.e., winter and spring?
CURRAN: We have fall baseball, too. That’s about five or six weeks. We have to stop fall baseball by October 15. But you pretty much have your team picked and you play an informal schedule. And we start basketball on November 1. I think it’s always been easy because I like baseball. I like both sports. It doesn’t really bother me. I used to run a swim program during the summer and I put in a lot of hours there, too. So that was a long day. I worked harder in the summer. Now, I just run camps in the summer – three weeks of basketball and two weeks of baseball. I don’t like a lot of time off.
COACH: You were recently named by the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame as one of the inaugural winners – along with Leta Andrews of Granbury, TX – of the Morgan Wootten Award for lifetime achievement in coaching high school basketball. What does the prestigious award mean to you?
CURRAN: It means that I’ve been here a long time (laughter). Morgan and I have played many games against each other over the years. We’ve developed a good friendship. Obviously they can’t put everyone in the Hall of Fame. So I think it’s just their way of honoring some high school coaches. I feel like I am accepting it on behalf of all of the other high school coaches who do just as much as I do.
COACH: Doc Rivers said that the toughest sell coaches have today is getting young players to understand who they are, buy into that role, embrace it, and run with it. Everyone wants to be a star. Few can. Do you agree? And if so, what have you done to comply with today’s ego-driven players?
CURRAN: They all want to be in the game all of the time in basketball, anyway. And in baseball, too. I think with the youngsters, if it’s just you and them, then you’d be fine. But I think too many other people get involved with them and pump them up – parents, friends, and outside influences – telling them they should be playing more and doing more.
We try to steer the kids away from those types of situations.
COACH: How have you adapted/changed your coaching style over the decades, if at all, in order to relate to the different personalities you have encountered during your tenure?
CURRAN: I think the kids are a lot more sensitive now than they used to be. They have a lot more outside interests. I wouldn’t say I am totally flexible. I still have the things I would like them to do and they conform very well. And they know what I want and expect. You have a little more understanding of situations, as you get older.
COACH: How do you relate to players who are almost 60 years younger than you?
CURRAN: They probably look at me as a great grandfather (laughter). When I was in high school, my coach was in his 30s and I thought he was an old man. When I was in college, Frank McGuire was in his 30s and I thought he was old. So now, they probably think I’m as old as Moses. But I still mix it up with the kids. The other day at baseball practice one of the kids said, “Wow, he still hits infield – fungos!”
COACH: Several of your former assistant basketball coaches have gone onto success at the college ranks: Jim Larranaga at George Mason, Norm Roberts at St. John’s, and Jack Carey, formerly at Fairfield. What do you look for when hiring an assistant coach? Do you hire someone that shares your coaching philosophy and views or someone who brings other intangibles to the team?
CURRAN: On this level, sometimes you’re lucky to get somebody. We have been fortunate over the years. There’s always been somebody that just popped in or was available and wanted to do it. You don’t get paid hardly anything if anything at all. Mostly I do it by feel. I don’t even think about the basketball. I just get a feel for somebody. If I like the way they handle themselves or their personality, then I tell them I think they could do a good job.
COACH: You are no stranger to coaching star players. You have had more than 300 of your former players receive college scholarships, including Kevin Joyce, Brian Winters, Kenny Smith, and Kenny Anderson, who all had successful college and/or pro careers. That said, how does a coach not show favoritism to his or her star players in order to maintain team unity?
CURRAN: I think you wind up being involved with them a lot more. But you’re more demanding on them than you are the others because you want them to be leaders. They have to set the pace. My star players probably had it tougher, like Kevin Joyce. Kevin was the most committed athlete I have ever coached as far as intensity. I could never push him hard enough. There was no way you could work him too hard. When the best player is that way it’s a lot easier for the others to fall into place.
COACH: Do you believe in such a thing as star treatment on the scholastic level and how do you deal with it so it does not become a disruptive influence?
CURRAN: When Al McGuire was coaching, he always decided that one guy was going to be the guy. When he was at Marquette he had to tell the other players they’re not the guy. At this level, kids know who the guy is. It’s kind of obvious who’s the better player. You don’t have to say this is the way it’s going to be. Basketball-wise, it’s going to work to your advantage because he’s the one you want to do most of the damage.
COACH: You are a big proponent of promoting stability within a team concept. In this day and age of coaches looking to move on to the next big job, how can this concept prevail?
CURRAN: Most of the coaches in our league have spent their entire careers here. Very few of them leave. I think it’s a different vocation. If you want to be a college coach, I’m not sure you should start in high school. Maybe you can work in high school for a year or two then move on. But if you’re focused on being a college coach then you’re better off concentrating on that. It used to be that you would graduate from the high school level to the college level. I’ve had several opportunities to coach in college but I kind of enjoy this level much better.
COACH: You are also a stickler for fundamentals, focusing on repetition until the drill becomes second nature. How do you get your players to buy into the importance and relevance of fundamentals, especially when you look at professional baseball today and watch players who have no idea how to sacrifice bunt or hit a cut-off man?
CURRAN: It’s interesting. You’re noticing that more on the major league level now. You can’t believe guys can’t hit the cut-off man. They don’t know where to back up bases. They forget to cover first base. It’s unbelievable to me. They should be doing those kinds of things on the high school level or below.
There are certain players on the pro level that do everything right that you would like them to emulate. Derek Jeter, for one. You have to follow a guy who does the job right. A lot of kids get to higher levels strictly on talent. But they get there too fast. So they don’t pay their dues through the minor leagues and learn how to play the game the right way. That’s what’s happening now in the majors. They’re rushing these kids before they are ready.
COACH: One of the most intriguing aspects of your basketball coaching philosophy is having your players perform their conditioning drills early in practice and then have them quickly move to the free-throw shooting station. Consequently, your teams are annually among the top foul shooting teams in your conference. Elaborate on that concept?
CURRAN: You can’t duplicate a game situation. So the only way to come close is to have them practice their foul shooting when they are a little tired or winded, as they would be in a game. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.
COACH: What is the most difficult thing you have had to do as a head coach?
CURRAN: Cut people. Picking the team is the toughest. You kind of delay, delay, delay, and hope some of them will drop off before you make that final decision. It’s very tough to tell someone they can’t play on your team. You try to tell them they’re pretty good but that you have just so many spots.
COACH: Do you have a timeframe on when you intend to step down?
CURRAN: No. As long as I feel like I am enjoying it, I am healthy, and the kids are responding properly. As long as that keeps happening, I’ll keep coaching.
COACH: When you do finally decide to retire, how would you like to be remembered?
CURRAN: Just as someone who tried to help young people as much as he could. Just like the old saying, “No man ever stands so tall as when he stoops to help a boy.” That’s basically what I have tried to accomplish.
About the Author
Kevin Newell is the former editor of Coach and Athletic Director magazine.