Stanford University is not the kind of institution a career football coach would naturally gravitate to. It is a school where the alumni once gave the coach a new automobile for posting the worst record in its history. It once banned football altogether for 12 years (1906-1918) as too tough for scholars, and in 1949, when it beat Harvard 44-0, it almost died of embarrassment after Harvard haughtily canceled the remaining game of a home-and-home series.
It is the place where a president once signed a football coach and then waited two years for him to show up because it was unthinkable to ask him to tear up the contract where he was. And it is the place where another coach once posed for a picture sleeping on a football on the practice field—and then sued when a newspaper used the picture to prove he didn't care whether he won or not. He collected; but then went out and lost seven, won one and tied one.
It is small wonder that when Stanford announced last winter it was looking for a football coach the football intelligentsia on the West Coast asked simply, "Why?"
But the facts are that Stanford is also a school where the football team went to the Rose Bowl three times in succession. It is also the school where five footballers—four players and a coach—were elected to the football Hall of Fame, and it is the school which once fielded a squad known melodramatically as the "Vow Boys," a bit of bravura worthy of Burt L. Standish, as the players vowed never to lose to rival USC (they never did).
September 21, 1958
In short, Stanford is the kind of school chronically in the grip of athletic schizophrenia. It is in the West, where winning is a compulsion, but it can never quite reconcile itself to the accidents of chronology and geography which prevent it from being a member of the Ivy League, and one of the highlights of suspense each season is whether Stanford will be fielding a football team or a bunch of nice kids off the dean's list who can't see very well without glasses.
The surprise in the football world last January was not so much that Stanford had signed on as football coach Jack Camp Curtice, then at the University of Utah (SI, Oct. 28, '57), as the fact that Curtice had signed on with Stanford. At Stanford the coach is known as Director of Football, which, all things considered, seems an embarrassed attempt to hide the real nature of his business. Jack Curtice is a football coach, one of the members in the best standing of a hardy and determined breed. He comes to win, not to direct, and if anybody ever catches him asleep on top of a football, it will be at 2 o'clock in the morning in the privacy of his bedroom.
Most of the other Directors of Football at Stanford (Chuck Taylor, the present assistant athletic director, is an exception) have been career businessmen dabbling in football on the side. The more mortifying aspects of the trade—such as hardnosed recruiting or scrambling after able-bodied boys—they have left to unsqueamish alumni. They were so circumspect about it, in fact, that Stanford was almost the only school which went uncaught and unpunished in the recent rash of proselyting scandals on the West Coast. Stanford's coaching staff was pure and had the won-lost record to prove it.
A football coach for 28 years and a head coach for 14, Jack Curtice seemed hardly in the mold. Moreover, he is a man who likes to sprinkle his conversation with colloquialisms which seem more suited to Tennessee Ernie than the cultured San Francisco peninsula.
This is to report that a close examination of the facts in the case reveals that neither Stanford nor Coach Curtice seems to have made a mistake. In a sense, Coach Curtice is as suited to and as suitable for his new surroundings as the Hoover library, which rises 280 feet in the air from the middle of the Stanford campus, the most arresting piece of architecture in all of Palo Alto.
He was selected for the job only after Stanfordites had carefully observed him coaching the West squad in the East-West Shrine games of 1956 and 1957. "We liked what we saw," says Stanford's sports publicist, Don Liebendorfer. "Curtice had short practices, a sense of humor, was light and airy and put no pressure on the kids." In short, about the only thing that might have given a true Stanford man pause for thought was that Curtice won both times—7-6 in 1956 and 27-13 last year.
Oregon State Coach Tommy Prothro, who assisted Curtice, is still a little taken aback by it all. "We didn't spend but about 20 minutes on defense," Tommy, a man who normally spends 20 minutes out of every half hour of practice on defense, says. "He wasn't interested in fundamentals and his technique depended awfully heavily on the forward pass. Of course, in an all-star game, you just got to get the boys in a frame of mind to play. And Jack was excellent at that. His demeanor on the field was great. He's got a lot of confidence in himself and he's serious about the game and expects an all-out effort. But he injects a lot of fun into it and I doubt the boys realized he was getting all-out effort out of them."
In a collegiate sport which has become increasingly a coach's medium, Curtice is an anomaly. In the first place, it has become customary for a coach, when he moves to a new job, to bring along his own iron gang of assistants to staff the football program his way right from the start. Jack Curtice brought only one coach with him, a personal friend, Andy Everest. He agreed sunnily to Stanford's recommendation that he retain the incumbent staff of assistants.
Their complicity in Stanford's so-so past record did not disturb him in the least. "I could never fire anyone anyway," he told the surprised San Francisco press.
He agreed to a lesser status than he had had at Utah, where he was athletic director as well as coach, because the university already had a perfectly acceptable one, and he found no quarrel with the fact that his predecessor as coach, Chuck Taylor, was elevated to the post of assistant athletic director.
He carefully canvassed Stanford's prospects and decided it was "great" that the school's academic requirements were such that not even a 10-flat, 200-pound fullback could get in without passing college boards. "Intelligence breeds intenseness," he proclaimed cheerfully.
Although he himself is intense and intelligent, Jack Curtice, who was nicknamed "Cactus Jack" by a reverent press during his tenure at Texas colleges even though he was raised in Kentucky and Canada, is a man who likes to act in public as though he had gone barefoot until the draft caught up with him. His speeches are larded with Bob Burnsian colloquialisms and corn-pone homilies and he often mortifies his ex-schoolteacher wife by shaking hands with distinguished visitors and exclaiming, "Glad to have saw ya." It is Jack's private joke. Actually, Cactus Jack—who never saw a cactus except in a pot until he was a grown man—is a holder of a master's degree in physical education from Columbia University. He is a full commander in the Naval Reserve and well knows which fork to use for salad despite his protestations that he is really "just a li'l ole Kentucky boy whose folks were too poor to paint and too proud to whitewash."
At a recent football clinic on the West Coast a coach from another part of the country blandly advised his fellow lecturers, "If you run across any students who are good to their mothers and like to play a little football now and then, send them to the Pacific Coast Conference, but if you run into any gin-drinkin', women-chasin' athaletes and football players, send 'em down to us." Curtice not only ignored this gibe, but closed his own lecture with an impassioned plea to the coaches present to "make the game of football fun for your guys."
As if to demonstrate this thesis, Curtice shyly screened a half-hour film, a fine, festive three-reeler showing his successful 1957 University of Utah team in action. In the film, Curtice's quarterbacks—usually the incomparable Lee Grosscup—complete a bewildering assortment of passes, mostly for touchdowns, the whole time seeming to be having the time of their lives. As an entertainment for rival coaches, it is somewhat reminiscent of the Stuka bombing pictures Hitler used to show foreign ambassadors just before he asked them to hand over the keys to their countries. Some coaches refer to it as the Jack Curtice production, You, Too, Can Learn to Scare Army.
Curtice ordinarily narrates the film from the back of the room, with a twinkle in his eye and a quip on his lips. For instance, after Passer Grosscup has completely succeeded in bamboozling onrushing linemen on the screen, Curtice will sigh and announce: "Fellas, that boy is sure going to miss me this year!"
Grosscup himself is no man to low-rate Curtice's contributions to his All-America status. "I thought old Jack was just the greatest," he said recently. "I think he is one of the two geniuses of college football as far as passing is concerned. [The other is Grosscup's old Santa Monica High coach, Jim Sutherland, now at Washington State.] I feel the reason I had such a high percentage of completions last year was because I didn't get a real rush put on me all last year. And the reason I didn't get a real rush was because Jack's got so many deviations in his pass patterns that the opposition never gets a chance to rush."
Tommy Prothro, who will have those deviations to contend with this year, is in agreement. "Curtice can hurt you a lot if you rush too hard." And Curtice's eyes gleam merrily behind his half-rimmed glasses when the subject comes around to rushing the passer. "I'm a great believer in throwing off the running action," explains Curtice. "We got some plays where we like for them to rush." He believes that the straight drop-back pass is made to order for a rush. Consequently, as his Utah pass-pattern film reveals, Curtice has few plays where the quarterback tries to run backward faster than linebackers can run forward. "When you got people on that drop-back and them other guys, they're stunting on you in the line, why, Lordy, they're just liable to eat the buttons off your vest. But since we trap a lot, we kinda like to use the rollout, and if I can get a one-step lead on the corner man, why, hell, my man will go and run for it."
But the measure of a modern coach is not all in his pass patterns—or pass defense. His relations with the community, particularly the press, are of paramount importance to a school like Stanford, struggling to preserve its unique academic and cultural identity in a state (and a nation) where virtually cost-free state schools offer strangling competitions for scholars—and football players. It costs a Stanford student—football player or no—$1,000 for tuition alone.
Added to these natural hazards of the private school in the football market is the supercharged atmosphere of Pacific Coast football generally. Just beginning to emerge from the vale of penalties and recriminations of three years of name-calling and vengefulness, the Pacific Coast Conference currently is a truncated band of five schools which already have voted to dissolve by next June 30 in the face of the defection of four former members, UCLA, Cal, Southern Cal and Washington. These schools have loosely confederated in a quasi conference all their own, known grandly as the "Athletic Association of Western Universities."
Stanford is the only really puissant football school remaining in the shattered Pacific Coast Conference, and has taken the position it will not jump to the aborning AAWU until it sees what it is jumping into. Since the secessionists, who have been talking in grandiose terms of a new national conference to include such heavyweights as Notre Dame, Army, Navy and the Air Force Academy, do not at the moment have any headquarters, published code of ethics or enforcement machinery, Stanford is sitting tight, not about to do business with any group which carries its office around in its pocket. Stanford, it is to be assumed, will ultimately throw in with its traditional rivals but only on clearly defined terms—probably Stanford's terms—and it pretty much resists any pressure attempts to trigger its entrance into the game until it can cut the cards and count the pot itself.
With this in mind, Stanford's Liebendorfer squired his new coach through the reef-ridden shoals of press conferences in hostile Los Angeles with a fervent plea for a no-comment type of approach on the part of Curtice. But Curtice, characteristically, was not interested in defense. "When the questions got sticky," recalls one newsman who attended Curtice's introductory interviews, "old Jack talked three times as fast and said three times as little." "Jack takes your questions seriously—but not very," confided another.
Instead of saying "no comment," Curtice simply offered no comment-several hundred words of it. He was asked, for instance, how it was he gave up a post as athletic director and coach to accept one as merely coach. A familiar, crinkly grin spread across his features. "You know," he said chummily, "that was the funniest thing—I mean my being both coach and director of athletics, don't you see? Say, I used to have some fun with those old boys up there at Salt Lake City. I'd like to get up before the Quarterback Club and all that, don't you see, and I'd say to 'em, 'Ya know, as athletic director, I'm 'bout half-thinkin' I ought to let that li'l ole bald-headed coach of ours go.' But then I'd pretend to think a minute and I'd say, 'Oh, hell, I guess he's adoin' the best he can. I mean, bein' a family man and all that, we ought to keep him on. He's not very bright but he's atryin'.' Yessir, I had me a lot of fun with those folks up there."
So far as Cactus Jack was concerned, this was directly responsive to the question and, having answered it at least to his own complete satisfaction, he would lean forward and smile disarmingly at his questioner. Another man wanted to know what he thought of the future of Pacific Coast football. "Oh, Lordy, as the woodchuck said when the hawk grabbed him, I expect football is like the li'l ole cat who kept falling off the ladder. He just kept comin' back up again." And so it went. Time and again, the old (Transylvania College) quarterback stepped out of the cup and got the ball away just before the interviewer could bring him down.
"I think the thing that sticks out in your mind about Jack's coaching," observes Coach Prothro slowly, "is the way he keeps it loose and funny—but with effort. By that I mean with effort on the part of the players and coaches. He doesn't believe in pampering anybody but he manages to make it pretty pleasant out there just by his own personality. He talks a little country to the boys but just to try to be humorous. He can sound like he's lecturing on Shakespeare if he wants to. But his great plus is that when he starts talking to the boys he starts to get more and more excited and enthusiastic, saying, 'Now, fellas, we're goin' to do this and then we're goin' to do that,' and by the time he gets through he's got them to thinking, 'By gosh, that's the way we're goin' to do 'er.' "
"I'll never forget when we went back to West Point to play Army last year," reminisces Grosscup. "We were in the locker room and, frankly, we were just like a lot of country boys. I mean, to tell the truth, we were a little scared. I mean, there's this big crowd and there are cannons going off and the Cadets are marching and all that.
"And then, here comes old Jack into the locker room and he's rubbing his belly and kind of laughing to himself. He turns to us with a perfectly straight face and says, 'Now, fellas, the first time you get the ball I want you to line up in a double-flanker right and run a 30-late. Next play, you fake a 30-late and you, Lee, hit Vaughan on a wingback middle pattern. Next play, another double-flanker right and, Lee, you're going to run a down-and-out to Stuart Vaughan. Next play, you're going to hit your end with a shovel pass and lateral to the fullback.
"Now, on the following play, George Boss, you're going to kick the conversion."
The dressing room, reports Grosscup, exploded with laughter. "But do you know the best?" he adds. "It happened!"
As a football coach, it is Curtice's duty to keep up the morale not only of his players but of his fans. This role gets him into more service club lunches than a president of the chamber of commerce. A recent one found him rolling down the highway to Modesto, Calif., a cow and cantaloupe town in the heart of the state's thriving San Joaquin Valley with Assistant Coach Bob Ghilotti as chauffeur.
At Modesto it turned out there had been a mixup in the dates of the Rotary luncheon. "There's been a mixup in the schedule, Coach," explained the program chairman in some distress. "Today it is 'Overthrow Day.' We got to change officers. We .tried to get the highway patrol to stop you on the way down but they couldn't find you." Coach Curtice looked reproachfully at Ghilotti. "You see, Bobby, I told you that officer looked friendly. I mean he wasn't shooting at us or anything like that. We oughtn't to of run away from him like that."
The Rotarians chuckled and brightened. "All it means, Coach," soothed one, "is that you'll only have to talk 15 minutes instead of 30." "Fifteen minutes!" exploded Curtice. "I usually bow that long!"
His speech that day, when he got to make it, was typically breezy and extemporaneous. "Ya know," he said, buttoning the third button on his suit jacket, "in this state you never know whether to be Ivy League like this, or [now unbuttoning his jacket and letting his belly flop over his belt, into which he thrust his thumbs] a big, ole Cadillac-drivin' cattleman from Tay-ax-as!" As always, it drew a big laugh from his listeners.
"But I would like to say I'm in what I consider a privileged profession. Just think of the privilege of one little ole short-legged, bald-headed rooster like myself who can stand out in the middle of a stadium full of 90,000 people and realize down deep in his heart that purt' near ever' one of those 90,000 people feel they can do a better job of running the team than I can!
"Lots of people ask me how I stayed in coachin' all these years—bein' so stupid and all, I mean. Well, I'll tell you. Down in Texas one year, I got the biggest, tallest and strongest two boys I could find. Then I gave each one of them one of those assorted scholarships you get at colleges down in Texas but not at Stanford—and I told these boys they had to do only one thing: after we lost a game, they had to hoist me up on their shoulders and carry me off the field. The folks would see that and they'd say, 'Oh, hell, ole Jack ain't much of a coach but you can see the kids love him.' "
Curtice becomes entirely serious when the subject of the worth of competitive sports is under discussion: "The President himself has said that the one great lack in America today was the lack of competitive sports for our youth. Russia recognizes its merit. I get tired when people say, for instance, that the Little League is having a bad effect on our youngsters. I think youngsters should find out early what it is to win—and lose. Too much of one or the other is not good for them. But it is not bad psychologically for them to have to meet defeat at an early age. It is bad for them not to. The next time you go to a Little League game, you look and see who's doing all the troublemaking. It's having a bad effect on the adults is what it's doing. That's because they never learned to be good sports when they were young. And it shows.
"It disturbs me every time I realize that only 10% of our youth is under the direction of coaches and on organized teams. You all know what unorganized corner-lot ball becomes. The great big fellow always gets to carry the ball or be at bat and the little guys never get to find out whether they are any good or not. Chances are they're really better than that great big guy but they'll never know it without organized coaching to equalize the competition."
Like most football coaches, Jack Curtice has been given a new automobile (a Buick Roadmaster by grateful Texans at Texas Western), which he later used to drive out of town to a better job. But unlike most, Jack Curtice seems never to have left a bad feeling behind him when he departed. Even today, his graceful, rambling redwood ranch home hard by the Stanford golf course is frequently visited by Utah alumni vacationing in San Francisco. And they are as welcome as they were in Salt Lake City.
Curtice's wife is the former Margaret Brittingham from Lunenburg County, Virginia. She is the coach's second wife. His first died in a fall from a horse in 1941, and Margaret has raised Jack's son and daughter by his first marriage as well as their 11-year-old son Jimmy. They were married at Norfolk in 1943, when Curtice was stationed in the Navy there.
Being a coach's wife calls for a little play-selecting, too. One of the things not to do, Margaret has found, is select the wrong game for a post-game party. One year at Utah, the Idaho game looked like a nice safe breather. Utah was an overwhelming favorite when Margaret confidently shoved the turkey in the oven before the kickoff. The shocker came when Idaho edged Curtice's team 27-21, and the turkey stayed in the oven till the meat fell off of its own accord.
Curtice seems stimulated by the challenge of West Coast football. Of this fact, Prothro observes: "Most coaches want to win in as big a league as possible to prove themselves." It seems clear that Coach Curtice took the new post at some initial financial sacrifice. His salary probably is somewhere between $16,000 and $20,000, and at Utah, considering his salary, weekly television show and other side income possibilities, it is believed the Curtice take-home pay was higher. But the growth possibilities are present at Stanford.
For one thing there is "the big game." To Stanfordites and their toll-bridge alumni of San Francisco, the "big game" is not the seventh game of the World Series, Notre Dame vs. Army or even a no-limit poker session with Nick the Greek but the four quarters of the annual end-of-November California-Stanford football game. It is a bit of smugness which sometimes irritates football fans from other parts of the state (to say nothing of Harvard and Yale), but a San Franciscan is not at all intending to be funny when he calls a Cal-Stanford game in which the combined records of the two teams may total three victories "the big game." It would be an unforgivable gaffe to laugh. The big game got its name in the days when it was, indeed, just that and the Cal-Stanford tussle pitted two titans of the national football scene against each other.
Under Curtice, Stanford football should swing to the winning (and moneymaking) side of the schizophrenic syndrome, and the big game should get bigger. There is nothing as lurid as the "Vow Boys" or the later "Wow Boys" on the horizon, but Curtice teams, at least in films, look like the most exciting show this side of the pros—a show that may again fill Stanford's 90,000-seat stadium, and incidentally make some money. Nor is Cactus Jack merely out to entertain. "Listen," says wife Margaret sternly, "Jack may not act like it, but he likes to win."
Jack himself grins enigmatically. "Oh, shucks," he says. "Goodness knows, I'm no better and no worse than any other coach. I certainly didn't guarantee anybody I'd win every game. But I do think we'll show up for 'em. And there ain't nobody going to beat us without they stay awake."