ATLANTA — Bill Curry still remembers the night in Baton Rouge when his Alabama team had just blown out LSU to remain perfect for the season. The home fans had bolted for the parking lot, leaving only the crimson-clad contingent chanting "Roll, Tide, Roll!"
A friend of Curry's, who also happened to be a member of the school's athletic board, went up to another high-profile Alabama booster looking to savor the moment. "Isn't this great?" he said. "It's just like old times."
The response: "I don't care if Curry wins eight national championships. He will never be our coach."
As it turned out, Curry coached only three more games at Alabama, his rocky three-year tenure ending abruptly after the 1989 season. He headed to Kentucky and was replaced by one of Bear Bryant's boys. Three years later, Gene Stallings guided the Crimson Tide to a national championship and the Curry era became just a footnote.
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Well, look who's coming back to Tuscaloosa.
Curry will be on the opposite sideline Thursday night at Bryant-Denny Stadium, leading Georgia State, a next-division-down program that has played a grand total of 10 games.
"To have the opportunity to play the defending champs, to see what they are like, to see how it feels, to see if you can knock them off the ball, to see if you can keep them from knocking you off the ball, to see if you can compete with them, even for a period of time, we want to see how that feels and we want our players to experience it," Curry said.
The back story in all this, of course, is Curry's time at Alabama from 1987-89. His hiring was a stunner: a coach who had a losing record at Georgia Tech and no ties to the Crimson Tide, given the keys to the storied program just four years after Bryant called it a career.
Not surprisingly, it didn't go well. Curry posted a record that would be respectable at most places (26-10) but wasn't nearly good enough at Alabama. He was never fully accepted by a large majority of the fan base, and three straight losses to rival Auburn ensured that he wouldn't last. When Kentucky sent out feelers after the Tide lost its final two games of the '89 season, Curry left Tuscaloosa.
In hindsight, Curry realizes he had to beat Auburn.
"I had assumed that I knew all about big rivalries," the 68-year-old said this week. "You do not know nothing until you go to Alabama-Auburn."
If there were any bitter feelings at the time, they are long gone. Curry struggled at Kentucky, failing to finish better than .500 in seven seasons, and he was shown the door in 1996. With that, he settled into a career as a broadcaster, each passing year taking him farther away from the sideline.
Then, another unexpected twist. Georgia State, a downtown Atlanta campus with little athletic tradition and mostly commuters for a student body, decided to start a football program. Curry jumped at the chance to get back into coaching — in his hometown, no less.
Curry is realistic about his team's chances Thursday. After all, Georgia State (6-4) will be facing a top-level team for the first time. "We know what could happen," Curry said. "We're not crazy."
But he's also told his team of a game that occurred long before any of them were born, when he led Georgia Tech to its only win of the 1981 season: a 24-21 stunner over Bryant and a Crimson Tide team that was ranked No. 2.
"I've told them there are two differences in this game and that one," Curry said. "The Tech team that I took over there was not as good as this Georgia State team, and the Alabama team that Coach Bryant had was better than this Alabama team this year. Now, maybe it was a fluky win ... but it was still a win. These things happen."