ATLANTA — Bill Curry is a long way from the ESPN TV booth.
The sidelines he roamed as football coach at Georgia Tech, Alabama and Kentucky were also distant memories for Curry when he was leading tryouts last month for a Georgia State team that is still 15 months from its first game.
He was at a high school football stadium trying to find a smattering of talent amid an abundance of football follies from the Georgia State students trying to win spots as walk-ons.
A quarterback’s pass shot straight up into the air. A punt squirted sideways. A 40-yard dash was followed by grimaces, groans and giggles.
But Curry wasn’t discouraged. Afterward, the 66-year-old coaching veteran beamed like a proud parent — or maybe grandparent.
“There are some guys here who are going to play on Sept. 2, 2010,” Curry said, referring to the Panthers’ first game.
Some 13 years after his last stint on the sidelines, Curry hasn’t lost his passion.
“I’m happy to report that I still love coaching football a lot,” he said.
Even so, Curry acknowledges that he had reservations about leaving his decade-long TV gig for his first coaching job since 1996 when he was hired last year to become the first coach of Georgia State’s team.
“When you get back into something like this, you don’t know if you’re really going to love it,” said Curry, who is 83-105-4 in 17 years as a coach.
“And Lord help you if you jump back into this and find out that you’re not having a great time. You’re in serious trouble, but that has not happened and fortunately I do love everything about it. I even like the tough challenges.”
Tough challenges? Finding a quarterback is a breeze compared with launching a football program in this economy.
Georgia State recently broke ground on a new practice facility that will include grass and turf fields, a weight room, coaches offices, meeting rooms and a training room. The school paid $6.6 million for the site and plans to spend another $5.6 million on construction and building the two fields.
Any occasion to raise funds must be seized, so after the tryout Curry made a quick change from warm-up suit to coat and tie in a stark, musty locker room at the high school stadium. He was headed for an opportunity to meet potential contributors.
“I would like to have a different economy, but you don’t get to pick the economy,” he said. “When I went to Georgia Tech in 1980, home loans were 18 percent. The economy was crazy. We had to raise a bunch of money to build a facility, but we did it. We’ll do it this time, too.”
The good news is Georgia State doesn’t have to build a stadium. The Panthers, who will compete in the Football Championship Subdivision’s Colonial Athletic Association, will play their home games at the Georgia Dome.
Wide receiver Brent McClendon, the son of former University of Georgia and Chicago Bears running back Willie McClendon, called Curry “very old school.”
“I know some people who played for him,” the young McClendon said. “He has the best interest in his players.”
Willie McClendon, who watched the tryout, said Curry was a good choice to start a program.
“His teams have always been fundamentally sound and his players have always graduated,” he said. “When you’re talking about starting a program, someone with coach Curry’s background and his fundamental approach to the game is important.”
Curry, who also played 10 years in the NFL, says he’s not looking for a quick fix.
“The only thing that we have to do to make this work is to keep hustling — for about 10 years,” he said. “That’s all we need to do. The ingredients are all here. That doesn’t mean it’s going to take us 10 years to be a good team. That means to build a real program.”
Curry’s first signing class this year included 27 players. The first scholarship player to enroll was Mark Hogan, a wide receiver from Sudbury, Mass., and the son of Mark Hogan Sr., who was a starting safety on Curry’s 1985 Georgia Tech team that finished 9-2-1.
“I had heard a lot of stories from my father about what a great coach and great person he is,” the younger Hogan said. “My father was fortunate to be part of a special team at Georgia Tech, and now I have a chance to do that at Georgia State.”