From 2005 until 2008, Terry Curtis, the legendary football coach at UMS-Wright Prep, won 45 games, lost 12 and claimed two state championships.
During that same period, the coach at Calvary Baptist Academy in Shreveport won 41 games and lost 10 but never won a state championship.
Last season, the two coaches reached the pinnacle of their professions. Curtis led UMS-Wright to a 13-2 record and a Class 4A state championship, clinching the title in a blizzard at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
That coach from Calvary Baptist? Well, he’s since moved on from high school football in Louisiana. His championship came when the Philadelphia Eagles beat the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LII.
There is no question Doug Pederson earned his position as head coach of the Eagles. Winning the Super Bowl with a backup quarterback certainly proves he was worthy of the position.
But is he a better coach than Curtis? He certainly wasn’t when the two were high school coaches a decade ago. And I have no reason to believe he is today.
The difference? Pederson had great contacts in the NFL because of his playing days as Brett Favre’s backup and he decided to pursue a coaching position on the higher level, while Curtis was content to continue as one of the most successful coaches in Alabama high school history.
But Curtis is not alone as someone who would have a chance to succeed on the higher level if given a chance. I’ve long had the strong opinion that the best high school coaches are at least the equals of their college and even professional counterparts. The difference is they decided to pursue a different path and — perhaps more importantly — they didn’t have the natural connections to the college or pro level.
“No. 1, you’ve got to be somebody who wants to do that and be organized in your philosophy and approach,” Curtis said when asked about the path from high school coaching to the college or NFL level. “In a lot of ways someone at the high school level is way more qualified than the assistant coaches who are being promoted. A lot of college position coaches only know their position. At the high school level you have to learn the whole game, including offense, defense and special teams. Football is pretty much the same game at all levels, but at the high school level you better know every aspect of the game.”
There are many examples of super-successful high school coaches making their way onto the largest stages of college football. In the SEC, Auburn’s Gus Malzahn and new Arkansas coach Chad Morris were legendary head coaches at the high school level. They both had a plan to use the contacts they made with college coaches who were consistently recruiting their players to make inroads into the college game.
“It’s probably unusual because most colleges won’t give the high school coaches an opportunity to do that,” Curtis said. “But when those guys get a chance to be head coaches they usually do better because of their experience in all areas of the game.”
Curtis said the strategy for becoming a multimillion-dollar coach on the college or even pro level has changed in recent years.
“When I came into coaching what most guys did was go to the high school level, then move up,” Curtis said. “But then it changed. They started wanting you to go be a graduate assistant or an analyst in college and then try to move up. Most of the great head coaches from my age group coached three to five years in high school before they made some connections and moved up to college. That’s not the case today. Most of the guys who are advancing to head coaching positions are guys who have never been head coaches at any level before.”
Of course, that approach can also work. Just look at Kirby Smart and Dabo Swinney, two guys who had never been head coaches at any level before leading their current schools to a total of three national playoff appearances over the last two years.
There is certainly more than one path to success. But nobody should rule out the path of a high school coach using the skills he’s learned to succeed at the higher level.
Doug Pederson got a shot. No, he was not as good a high school coach as Terry Curtis, but he has proven good enough to win a Super Bowl.
Randy Kennedy writes a weekly column for Lagniappe and is co-host of “Sports Drive” every weekday from 3-6 p.m. on WNSP 105.5 FM, the country’s first all-sports FM station.