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Curry ready for opener with Georgia State
Georgia State University football coach Bill Curry walks the sideline during a practice earlier this summer. The Panthers open their program with a game Saturday against Shorter College. - photo by Curtis Compton

ATLANTA — Bill Curry hasn't been on the sideline for a college game since 1996, so excuse the ol' coach if it takes him a few plays — maybe even a few games — to get up to speed.

"I'm trying to remember everything I can," the 67-year-old Curry said. "I hope it's enough to knock the rust off so I don't do too many embarrassing things."

He's still got a few tricks up his sleeve, though.

With a sly grin, he won't reveal the starting quarterback for his new team at Georgia State until the offense runs on the field for the first time. And he's brought in some big names to chat up his players, such as former teammate and Pro Football Hall of Famer Willie Davis, who stopped by a few days ago to give the Panthers a pep talk.

Now, it's time to see if all that chicanery and inspiration will pay off. On Thursday night, Curry leads the Panthers onto the field for their inaugural game against Shorter.

"This means a lot to me. This means lot more than I thought it would. This is my hometown," he said. "I have an emotional attachment to these streets. I know that sounds weird, but it's the truth."

When Curry was let go by Kentucky 14 years ago, he seemed at the end of the line in a career than began at Georgia Tech, his alma mater, and included a highly contentious stint at Alabama, where he was never fully accepted trying to fill Bear Bryant's shoes.

But along came another school, right down the road from Georgia Tech and about six blocks away from the old Rich's department store where his father once worked, starting up a football program of its own. When Georgia State called, asking if he might be interested in coaching again, Curry jumped at the chance.

He has stayed familiar with the college game after leaving Kentucky, working 11 seasons as an ESPN analyst. He believes that experience made it easier to step back into coaching after so long away.

"I was right in the middle of a lot of great programs," Curry said. "I sat in the room with Tom Brady before his first start at Michigan, when nobody thought he would be the starter. As soon as Brady left the room, I knew he could be something special.

"I learned from all that. I hope it makes me a better football coach. I know it made me a better person."

Even though he's now in his late 60s, Curry still has that same passion for teaching young men that he brought to his first coaching job at Georgia Tech, way back in 1980.

He'll go on and on about how football is the greatest team sport there is, the one where everyone has to work together on every play. Even if 10 guys get it right, he'll point out, one guy going the wrong way can mess the whole thing up.

Mark Hogan was certainly impressed with Curry's vigor. He wanted to play for the man who had coached Hogan's father at Georgia Tech, so much so that he was Georgia State's first — and, for a while, only — player. He worked out on his own in the early days of the program before the Panthers signed their first full recruiting class.

"He cares about his players. He's a man of integrity. He's knows what he's doing. He's got a lot of experience," Hogan said. "He told me the other day, 'If I wasn't so enthused about this, I wouldn't be here."'

In some ways, Curry comes across as more preacher than coach, a deeply religious man who talks as much about hope and redemption as he does blitzes and running plays. To his critics over the years, this surely sounds familiar — they always thought he was much more impressive in front of the cameras than he was on the field.

Only six times in his 17 years at Georgia Tech, Alabama and Kentucky did Curry's teams finish with a winning record. Even his best season — in 1989, Alabama went 10-2 and shared the Southeastern Conference championship — didn't end well.

Hopes of a perfect season crashed with a third straight loss to rival Auburn. When school officials tried to strip away some of Curry's power in a new contract, he left for Kentucky and failed to produce a winning record in seven seasons.

All that's in the past now.

Curry and his players see a chance to leave a lasting legacy at school that has largely ignored its athletic programs. More than 4,000 season tickets have been sold for a team that will play a step below the big time in the NCAA's Football Championship Subdivision.

A crowd of up to 20,000 is expected for the historic first game at the cavernous Georgia Dome, also home to the NFL's Atlanta Falcons.

"We know we're going to playing in the same place where NFL players have played," linebacker Jake Muasau said. "That triggers something in your mind. I you want to be an NFL player, you better start playing line one."

Curry promises an entertaining show, even if takes a while to knock the rust off.

"It'll be fun to watch us," he said. "We're not asking people to come to downtown Atlanta to see a team that will run it into the line and hope to hang in the game. No, there will be none of that."

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