November 10, 2009

ATLANTA -- A countdown clock hangs in the football offices at Georgia State University, ticking off the days, hours, minutes and seconds until Sept. 2, 2010, when the Panthers will field a football team for the first time.

Excitement is high on the downtown Atlanta campus. Student enrollment is up, the university president figures, because there is now a football program. There's a freshness and anticipation to it all.

That's got more than a little to do with head coach Bill Curry, who played 10 years in the NFL, coached at college football's highest level, learned the game under Vince Lombardi and Don Shula and won two Super Bowl rings.

But Curry, who will be nearing his 68th birthday when the Panthers finally take the field, also recently had minor neck surgery, has had both shoulders replaced, still limps a bit from a 1973 knee injury, has endured migraine headaches and spinal issues over the years and has some fingers that don't properly align. He has four grandchildren, too.

Still, Curry doesn't hesitate when asked why he's at Georgia State. "This is what I'm supposed to be doing," he said.

Larry Coker knows the feeling. Fired by Miami in 2006 despite winning the national championship in 2001, the 61-year-old is now conducting an experiment of his own at Texas-San Antonio, which will debut its football team in 2011 with Coker as head coach.

"Some people have asked me why I'm doing this," Coker said. "When you know it's right, it's right, and I believe this is right for me."

Curry, who played 10 seasons in the NFL as a center and owns two Super Bowl rings, was a lightning-rod of controversy as head coach at Alabama. His Tide team won the 1989 SEC championship, but after going 0-3 against rival Auburn, he walked before they made him run. Curry retreated to a more tranquil setting at Kentucky, but was fired in 1996 after seven mostly disappointing seasons. He hasn't coached a game since.

Then Georgia State, mostly known as a commuter school of nearly 30,000 undergraduates, called in 2008.

"It was a stone, flat-out shock," Curry said. "Shocked that they called, but more shocked at my gut response. My heart started racing, and I'm thinking about pass routes, blocking and tackling. I told them, 'I'll have to call you back. Let me catch my breath here.'"

Curry had all but conceded his coaching days were over. He'd latched on with ESPN as a college football analyst in 1997 and worked nearly 200 games over the next 11 years. The emotional surge coaching provided, however, was missing.

"I'd shake hands with my broadcast partner, go get in the car, go to the Holiday Inn alone, get up at 4 a.m. and get on airplane and go home," Curry said. "There was a feeling that I should be doing something more than this."

Even faced with the daunting task of starting a program, Georgia State made sense. Curry had grown up in nearby College Park, Ga. He coached at Georgia Tech before heading to Alabama. His wife, Carolyn, is a local who had received her master's degree and Ph.D from GSU. Some of his four grandkids even live in town.

Even with kickoff a year away, football is well under way at Georgia State. The team gathers for 6:30 a.m. meetings five days a week and practices at 8 a.m. Offenses and defenses are being installed. Curry has even called South Florida's Jim Leavitt and Florida Atlantic's Howard Schnellenberger, coaches who also started programs from scratch, for a few words of guidance.

GSU will play as a Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA) independent for two seasons before joining the Colonial Athletic Association. Home games will be played at Atlanta's Georgia Dome. Winning, Curry says, will matter.

"It always matters," he said. "We're in America here. Let's not kid ourselves."

Coker knows that, too. Despite beating Nebraska for the 2001 national title and winning more games in his first six seasons than any Miami coach except Dennis Erickson, Coker lost his job in Nov. 2006 after a 6-6 season.

After his firing, Coker picked up his own gig as an ESPN analyst. Two years passed. He inquired about a job or two, but failed to find mutual interest. Like Curry, he figured his coaching career was finished.

"My phone wasn't ringing off the wall every hour of the day," Coker said.

When Texas-San Antonio called, the possibilities were too juicy to ignore. The school is located in a major metropolitan area with no competing NFL or college team. Quality recruits are plentiful. Home games will be played at the Alamodome.

The only question Coker had to resolve was whether it would be wise to get involved with this type of undertaking at his age.

"I think it's a great question and one I had to answer," Coker said. "Do I really want to do this and tackle this? I feel very good. I'm in great shape and in great health. I'm not a golfer and I'm not a fisherman. I coach college football. I feel like I have plenty of energy in the tank. It's invigorating every day."

The Roadrunners will play two seasons as a FCS independent before joining the Southland Conference -- with the long-range goal of becoming an FBS program. For now, though, Coker and his staff are simply trying to fill out a roster.

"You very seldom get an opportunity to start from scratch and begin something," Coker said. "Hopefully I'll finish my career here, and when I leave [it'll be] something very special."

Curry and Coker know success is possible, and constantly look to Leavitt and South Florida for inspiration. The Bulls held their first team meeting under a shade tree in 1997 because they lacked practice facilities. Since then, they have climbed as high as No. 2 nationally and have played in four straight bowl games.

The bright lights of the NFL, the SEC and Miami are in the past for Curry and Coker. This time, in the relative quiet of FCS play, they will most likely leave coaching -- for the second time -- on their own terms.

This time around, wins and losses alone won't determine success.

"There's an age of achievement and eventually you move into an age of reflection," Curry said. "I hope those two are not mutually exclusive."

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