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THE COACH WILL SEE YOU NOW

11/10/2009
Imke Lass

7:25 a.m. He takes the long way to work. Straight down Peachtree Street, into the heart of the city where he was born. It's the first morning of July, and from the middle lane of this famous passageway he reads the street names wistfully—Peachtree Battle, Ponce de Leon, Sweet Auburn Avenue—and stares at the Atlanta landmarks in his earliest hour as the first head football coach of the Georgia State Panthers. A gray coffee mug in the cupholder, motivational books and framed pictures piled in the backseat, AC blowing slow at 70°, both hands lightly on the wheel. He sports a blue-and-gold striped tie, buttons shining like gold tokens on his blazer. He has a stunning head of hair—graying a bit, parted straight to the right, revealing nothing but the small, white trail of his scalp line. He's clean-shaven, with the face of a man much younger than 65, a sharp chin and nose, solid cheekbones. There's a large band on his right ring finger—slightly faded, carved with intricate lettering, a diamond like an eye in the middle—from when he played center under Bart Starr for the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl I.

The city comes to life outside his Lexus sedan. MARTA buses' growling motors idle at stoplights; road crews plant hazard cones in rectangular construction spots in front of the restaurants and strip malls while joggers emerge from loft apartments.

"I love Peachtree Street," says Bill Curry. "I remember driving it in anticipation and dread in 1965, before I was going to report to the Packers. I was big, strong and young, and I remember how that felt: confident, but not really sure if I could block Ray Nitschke.

"I can see it like I used to back then. I can appreciate the buildings and the new restaurants, and I can remember having 53 cents in my pocket and loading up at the Varsity. I learned lessons about myself here."

Through the neighborhoods he drives. Buckhead. Midtown. Finally, downtown. He tells stories as the streetlights change, about playing for Lombardi, about playing with Johnny Unitas, about coaching at Georgia Tech, Bama and Kentucky, about the blessing of being in the booth for 11 years as an analyst for ESPN, about this city's being his home again.

Driving slowly he passes the majestic Fox Theatre, where he and his wife, Carolyn, watched their little girl perform in The Nutcracker; the building where he used to sell shoes for Thom McAn; and the famous Royal Peacock Lounge, to which he snuck from his Georgia Tech dorm and listened to rock 'n roll. And he pauses to draw a breath at all of the memories.

8-9:30 a.m. He parks in a lot across from the I-75/85 overpass. He steps out, glances at the cartoonish, blue Panthers mascot with yellow eyes and bared teeth painted on the awning above the door of the Georgia State "sports arena" athletics office, and opens the trunk of his car. "I wasn't crazy about Pounce until I heard the name, and then I loved it," Curry says. "I love Rudyard Kipling and The Jungle Book. My favorite cat, literally and metaphorically, is Bagheera. When I was 14, I read Kipling and memorized those creatures."

Wheeling luggage behind him, he walks like a salesman down a long corridor with bright blue cement walls, past the offices of other coaches. His khaki pants taper down long, thin legs. He is ushered into an empty meeting room, which will serve as a temporary office. He drops his black leather Briggs & Riley briefcase and drapes his black blazer over a chair. He sits with hands folded and legs crossed. The first call is to his mother, who recently had her third hip replacement. Listening to the conversation, you hear the coach in his voice. "The gods are looking out for us," he says. "You're walking around on your walker—I'm so proud of you."

He opens a day planner to Tuesday, July 1: "Wear blazer and gray slacks." "Gray" has been crossed out. Carolyn suggested beige.

Curry's very first request is for a cup of coffee. Black, in a tall cup, from Starbucks. At least four people have been waiting for him to arrive. The very first, a man dressed in shirt and tie, has been sitting outside the meeting room since 5:30 just for the chance to hand Curry his résumé, even though the team won't take the field until 2010 and won't play in the Colonial Athletic Association (FCS division) until, at the earliest, 2012. Curry greets the man, says thanks, then directs him to the football office's temporary secretary, Shanny Burge. "I don't know who he is," Curry says. "He got someone to let him in. But part of my job here at first is going to be to walk in and meet people."

10 a.m-1 p.m. Everything is a first. The first shirt, straight from Adidas, school blue with a Pounce logo and tags attached. Same with the white socks and sneakers. The first banner promoting the football team hangs high on a rail near the student cafeteria. He stands in line with freshmen to get his first Panthers ID card, learning the number by associating it with jerseys and names: "00, Jim Otto; 04, Brett Favre … " He fills out his first parking application and forgets his license plate number. He goes to find the parking space, on C Deck. His first school-issued cell phone is a BlackBerry Curve 8330. The first student rec-league football players come up to him in the hallways, recognizing him by either his attire or his face, from ESPN.

Before hiring its first football coach, Georgia State, a largely commuter school of 28,000 students in downtown Atlanta, conducted a feasibility study and held public meetings last year. Then, as part of an urban renewal project that includes dorms and a student center, it tacked on $85 in student fees to help fund the football program. The first budget is $3 million. Curry's first salary is $350,000. Up the road in Athens? The Bulldogs will pay $2 million for a Vince Dooley statue.

And the very first football—well, Curry had this poetic idea that he, himself, would pick one off the shelf of some Atlanta sporting goods store and bring it to the university, sacred as a grail. But the school already owned two: a Wilson and an Adidas, used for promotional events to boast the program.

The balls are now in the back of a red Expedition, alongside the first GSU helmet, a Riddell slapped with a sticker. Curry and media relations director Allison George drive toward the Georgia Dome, the Panthers' homefield, to film the program's first marketing video. Curry picks up both balls and says, "I don't want to emphasize the logo."

He meets a cameraman near the 50-yard line, while a construction crew works like ants to replace upper-level seats. A microphone is clipped under Curry's collar. Curry is asked by the cameraman to turn to his left, to look up at the "grandeur" of the empty dome, to clutch the football, to pat it in his hand, to hold it near his belly button. "Our team will be a point of pride for every graduate of Georgia State University," Curry reads. "Join us as we take Georgia State into an exciting new era." It's obvious he's had practice in front of the camera.

"Saturdays will never be the same." He's asked to repeat the line about 15 times. "Who will take the first handoff? Who will catch the first ball? Who will score the first touchdown? Saturdays will never be the same."

When he returns from the nearly two-hour shoot, his first lunch as head coach is chicken salad from Chick-fil-A, in the cafeteria. He douses it with honey mustard and hot sauce, which he puts on everything. His first drink, Diet Coke. His first utensil, a spork.

2:30-3:30 p.m. His first formal interview is with John Bond, the former offensive coordinator at Georgia Tech. Inside Curry's temporary office, the two go through the decencies of asking about each other's families. They met a few years back while Curry was on assignment for ESPN at Northern Illinois University, where Bond thrived before going to Georgia Tech. The men talk about the modified spread offense, Bond's ambitions to be a head coach and the realities of conjuring a football team from thin air.

"Can you deal with a two-year absence?" Curry asks. "Think about this: We get to create what we want to create, from scratch. With some really sharp minds. We're going to have to get players Georgia doesn't want. That Tech doesn't want. But we won't sign anyone who can't fly around the field. A lot of kids around here are going to want to play in that dome too."

Since he lost his job, after last season, Bond has lived in Marietta with his wife and three kids, who don't want to move. He's offered on the spot, though the hire is not announced for three weeks. Curry sits back in his chair after Bond leaves and says, "This is just one of those fortuitous situations. A lot of people talked about how good he is. I just assumed he had been hired somewhere else already."

5-6:30 p.m. Curry reads lists off yellow steno notebook paper: "There are 20 calls to return. Establish reporting dates. Equipment check. Stationery. Calendar system. Correspondence system. Football staff manual: policies, times, order, loyalty, conflict resolution. Our purpose. A value system. Team rules. Leadership expectations. PR, alumni relations. Existing facilities, facilities to come. We need blue and white everywhere."

He had a good life before this. A great life, really. A cabin in the Carolina mountains with a heartrending view, a gig doing color at college games, a fulfilling side job with the leadership program at the Baylor School, a prep academy in Chattanooga.

Did he want to coach again? That wasn't the exact question Mary McElroy, the Georgia State athletic director, had asked in May. Curry had been a successful coach at Georgia Tech and Alabama, but at Kentucky, migraines and losses burned his wick all the way down. A local boy with football pedigree, he had advised Georgia State's coaching search committee. The question he recalls: What do you think about Bill Curry's being the coach at eorgia State? That got him going. Something flared up inside of him again; something hard for him to classify, but a feeling that seemed as visceral as putting a fingertip to the end of a flame. "I honestly almost passed out," he says. "I sat there for 10 seconds. It was a shocking remark, one of the most shocking ever made to me. I aid, 'Mary, two things are going on. I'm stunned that my heart is pounding like this, and I'm thinking about blocking sleds.' "

He accepted the same day.

Now it's 6 p.m., and he's the coach of a team that doesn't have a sled or a practice field. Not even a jockstrap. Yet he's marching his old bones past Edgewood Avenue, new keys in pocket, to look at his future as head coach after a decade away from the game.

He walks about a mile through heavy heat, past the construction, the graffiti, the gentrification, the brick buildings with sooty windowpanes, to the office on the ninth floor of the old Citizens Trust Bank Building. The keys don't even work. Shanny, who's walked with him, luckily has her own set. The walls of his big, new office are as blue as the mascot. He has a dark red wooden desk with a glass top. The window blinds are black and, when opened, reveal a gigantic empty parking lot, a church, the highway and construction cranes.

7:10 p.m. Exhausted, contemplative, clothing slung with his luggage in the backseat, he bypasses the city, heading toward his condo in Buckhead. "We sign the first class next February," he says, perhaps envisioning how difficult this will actually be. "And in the spring we have a practice. I think we'll start by having a tryout. I think we start there, bring the class in when they report, then in 2009 we'll be able to practice all year. To not play any games, I think, will be challenging. My job is to then make practice interesting. "I just tell myself, This is going to be an adventure."