Bill Curry doesn’t like to boast about his accolades and awards.
Speaking at the Cobb County Chamber of Commerce’s First Monday Breakfast at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Center, Curry didn’t brag about his three NFL Championships, including victories in Super Bowls I and V. He didn’t talk about his two pro bowls, being named the Bobby Dodd National Coach of the Year during his time at Alabama, or his ACC Coach of the Year award as the coach of Georgia Tech in 1985.
What he did talk about was the different ways to motivate people.
Reflecting on his days under legendary coach Vince Lombardi, Curry went through three different ways to motivate – including fear, incentive, and most effectively, relationships.
The relationships were the core of Curry’s life. He went from hating football due to the fact that he was given the center position that no one else on the College Park High School football team wanted, to learning to accept his role.
In accepting his role, Curry went on to have relationships through football with some of the all-time greats, hiking the ball to hall of famers Bart Starr, Johnny Unitas and Joe Namath, to name a few.
He didn’t recall his victories as a player and a coach, but rather the relationships, including one with former co-captain of the 1964 Georgia Tech football team, running back Johnny Gresham, who is one of his best friends.
“The awards and dust collectors go away, but the relationships never go away,” Curry said. “The only permanent motivator is relationship, and great teams consist of a leader or two and a bunch of people who care more about the team and refuse to let each other down than they do about themselves.”
Using football as an analogy, Curry delved into the five shared and universal values that people hold sacred in religion, those being honesty, fairness, respect, responsibility and compassion.
“When those values are internalized, they become virtues,” Curry said. “How we walk, talk and live our lives, people can feel that from you.”
Curry had to learn these lessons the hard way, but had help from two significant people. One being former teammate Willie Davis, and the other being Lombardi.
Willie Davis was a person who didn’t see color, while Curry grew up in a culture that did. Davis reached out to Curry, seeing his potential during practice, and offered his help because he thought Curry could make the team.
“He said when you don’t think you can take it, you come find me,” Curry said. “When I needed him I would go find number 87, he would tell me you can do it, you can do it.”
In one small gesture, Davis showed Curry that a person’s color didn’t matter. It was what was inside that counted.
Another important lesson Curry learned was from Lombardi.
Curry hated Lombardi at first. The coach was hard on him like he was on all his players.
Lombardi pushed players like Curry because they didn’t know how good they could be.
“He forced us to be grown-ups before we wanted to be,” Curry said.
After the victory in Super Bowl I, where Curry was the starting center, Lombardi placed him on the expansion list, where he ended up with the New Orleans Saints.
“That was a nightmare to me and an insult, and I blamed him,” Curry said. “It was really my fault because I wasn’t a very good player, but I blamed him and I hated him.”
Several years later, Curry was with the Baltimore Colts, getting ready to play in Super Bowl III against the New York Jets. Being inexperience with the media, he was approached by reporters on his thoughts about Lombardi, to which he responded with things he regretted, such as calling Lombardi abusive.
Years went on, and players were upset with Curry. Paul Hornung, a former teammate and hall of fame running back in Green Bay, approached Curry with anger and advised him to reach out to Lombardi, thinking that his former coach would treat him like a long lost son.
Sure enough, Lombardi did. Although they were not able to settle their differences, they were able to have conversation.
Curry’s apology for his remarks came at the time of Lombardi’s death, where Curry noted that he made amends and let Lombardi know that he meant a lot in his life.
“He squeezed my hand and said it would mean a lot to me if you prayed for me,” Curry said. “I did. What did the great man do? He gave to me what I needed when I least deserved it.”
So, Curry took what he learned from Lombardi and Davis and applied to his coaching, preaching that relationships, above all else, are what are needed for successful teams.
“People who care about each other and respect each other are hard to beat,” Curry said.