Louisiana H.S. Football Coach Goes For Win No. 500 Tonight

October 27, 2011 / Football
The Times-Picayune, Mike Strom

When John Thomas Curtis Jr., best known to friends and foe alike by the initials J.T., earns his 500th career victory, the 64-year-old football coach at John Curtis Christian School will be joining an exclusive two-man fraternity. As has been his wont during 43 years of coaching that have produced a Louisiana-record 23 state championships and a career record of 499-54-6, even when Curtis finishes second at something he somehow finds a way to be first.

The 500-victory summit that Curtis is expected to reach tonight in a District 9-2A contest between his undefeated and top-ranked Class 2A Patriots and winless Joseph Clark Prep Academy scheduled for 7 p.m. at Joe Yenni Stadium is no exception.

When he wins his 500th game, Curtis will be 12 years younger than the only other football coach to set foot on this monumental milestone, be it at the professional, college or high school level.

John McKissick, coach at Summerville (S.C.) High School, was 76 and in his 52nd season when he recorded his 500th victory. The 85-year-old McKissick continues to coach and now owns a record of 592-142-3 in his 60th season at Summerville with 10 state championships and a winning percentage of .803 to his credit.

Curtis by contrast boasts a mind-boggling winning percentage of .893 that is nearly 100 points higher than that of McKissick.

In Curtis’ case, it is his wife and life partner who offers a compelling explanation as to what has driven and continues to drive her husband of 44 years to such unparalleled heights.

“It’s his calling,” said Lydia Curtis. “We both have this intense faith and we both believe that God calls you to serve. It all revolves around your spiritual life. You’ve got to be happy in your heart. In my heart, I believe that he found his calling early on and God really has blessed him.”

Curtis has never served a single day as an assistant coach, spending all 43 of his years in coaching as head coach at the River Ridge school founded by his late father, John Curtis Sr. He arrived at Curtis at age 22 in 1969 following graduation from Louisiana College, experienced an 0-10 season in his first year, his lone losing season, and has never looked back after rebounding to advance to the Louisiana High School Athletic Association state playoffs in his second year and then winning his first state title five years later in 1975.

Today he still stands at a trim, 5 feet 11, 215 pounds, the same playing weight he maintained as an All-State lineman at East Jefferson High School, shows no signs of slowing down and leaves his coaching tenure very much open-ended.

“First of all, I enjoy it. I enjoy what I do, I like what I do,” said Curtis, who cites the 1975 state championship game, the school’s first, as his most memorable victory. “There’s a real challenge in putting the team together. There’s a camaraderie that we have with not only the players, but with the coaches because we’re all friends. So that part of it is enjoyable. It’s fun to be around these guys. We don’t have egos that are involved, that create difficulty when we work together.

“And the challenge of trying to fit guys into places so that they can not only be their best, but fit into the team to be their best, to watch them grow and develop, it really is enjoyable. And maybe that’s the teacher in us.”

Curtis, who has assumed the responsibility as headmaster at his school following his father’s death in 2005, interestingly considers himself a teacher first and foremost, more so than a football coach, athletic director (which he doubles as) or administrator. His meticulous attention to detail is legendary among family and friends and transcends both fields, they say.

“I think every coach is a teacher,” Curtis said. “You have to teach this game. It’s a game of being able to transmit to the player what you know, what you expect and find a way to get him to be able to do it. The key to success in the classroom is the exact same thing. It isn’t what you know.

“You can be the most brilliant math person in the world. But if you can’t transfer it to your students, then you’ve failed. Coaching in my opinion is the ultimate teaching process, not only because you’re going to have to teach them, but then you’re going to have to go into direct competition against other people that are teaching. And it is direct competition. Every Friday night you take the big test. The only difference is it’s posted in the (newspaper) and everybody sees it. Everybody knows whether you failed or passed.”

But wins and losses on a football field are far from all that defines Curtis.

As a father of three adult children, two of whom (Johnny and Jeff) now coach alongside him today, Curtis is patriarch to nine grandchildren and a family circle that predominates the Curtis school.

A lifelong devout Christian, Curtis became an ordained minister this past June and serves as pastor of the Coliseum Place Baptist Church where he has given sermons, initially as a deacon, for more than a decade. A captivating public speaker, Curtis also delivers talks to various civic and professional groups, athletic associations, schools and teams.

He routinely welcomes fellow high school coaches to come study and observe the methodology of he and his coaching staff, a homogenous grouping of family, longtime friends and former players, whose top lieutenants are his brother Leon Curtis, the team’s defensive coordinator, and offensive line coach Mike Robertson. Both have coached alongside him for more than three decades.

“We try to tell him it’s OK to give (knowledge and information) away, just don’t give it all away,” Robertson said with a chuckle. “But he’s not like that. He shares everything.”

“As big as his legend is,” Leon Curtis said, “I don’t think the legend is as big as he is.”

Curtis, for his part, says, “There’s got to be more to this game than just the score. If there’s not more than just the score, if there’s not some intrinsic values — spiritually, morally, ethically, a team concept, learning to get along with other people, learning to work together — if those are not part of what you do, then the money and the effort and the time that you put into a sports program is not worth it.”

In his “spare” time, he is an aspiring gourmet cook and grill master whose gumbo, corn and crab bisque and Osso Buco are said “to die for.” His attention to detail in the kitchen rivals that of his meticulous, leave-no-stone-unturned approach to coaching.

Add those talents to his other athletic achievements that include 11 perfect seasons, a state-record five consecutive state championships from 2004-08, 30 appearances in the state finals, election to the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame in 2010 and a 37th consecutive playoff appearance earned this season and you come up with a remarkable resume.

“He’s always known that (coaching) was what he wanted to do,” Lydia Curtis said. “His dad was always holding his breath waiting to hire him. God has blessed him with this enormous talent. He really has been blessed. He’s actually serving where he’s been called to serve.”

“He’s said, ’I don’t want to be coaching when I’m like that guy from South Carolina. I don’t want to be coaching when I’m that old,’” son Jeff Curtis said. “But I can see it. I don’t see any slowing down.”

Neither does Lydia Curtis, whose firecracker personality seems to serve as a perfect complement to her husband’s more poised comportment.

“I know, it’s just not fair,” Lydia said whimsically when asked about her husband’s youthful appearance, energy and zeal for life. “It’s ridiculous.”

But in a serious vein she adds, “When you work with young people on a daily basis, I think you lose track of time. I don’t think he’s anywhere near ready to move over.”

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