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Bill's improbable comeback
This April 20, 2009, file photo shows Georgia State head football coach Bill Curry overseeing football tryouts in Clarkston, Ga. - photo by Associated Press

    ATLANTA — Bill Curry thought his coaching career was over.
    Now, he's less than three months away from a most improbable comeback.
    At age 67, Curry is launching a new football program at Georgia State, a school that has long languished in the shadow of its more prominent neighbors but has certainly made an early splash.
    The Panthers recently landed four transfers from major schools, including two from nearby Georgia Tech, and they'll face defending national champion Alabama in their very first season.
    "I gave up," Curry conceded. "I didn't think I'd get to do it again."
    The Panthers will play in the Football Championship Subdivision, a notch below the top level, and their first schedule is a hodgepodge of opponents ranging from the Sept. 2 opener against Shorter, an NAIA school, to the Nov. 20 finale against Alabama, the very best team in the land.
    Curry knows that any new program goes through its ups and downs, but he's downright giddy about getting a chance to coach for the first time since 1996, when he left Kentucky.
    "I've been a youth worker since I was 15. That's what I do," Curry said. "People ask me, 'What do you love?' I love to sit down with some child who maybe has not had a lot of direction and has been told all his life what a jerk he is and why he's not going to be successful. I just start clicking off, 'Let me tell you why you're going to be successful.'
    "I'll tell them, 'It's going to be the hardest thing you've ever done. But you're going to come out of it being a man. You might even have a long career.' When to have those guys come back 12 years later and say, 'Thank you,' that's all I need."
    Georgia State, long known as a sterile commuter school with little athletic tradition, is counting on football to help raise its profile. Located in the heart of downtown Atlanta, the campus serves 30,000 students — many of whom drive in and out for classes, with little regard for college life.
    But the university has opened a huge dormitory within walking distance of classrooms, and has grandiose plans to spruce up its concrete campus and add more student housing, all in hopes of getting students more involved with extracurricular life.
    "I knew it as a commuter school," said Curry, who was very familiar with Georgia State since his wife, Caroline, earned both her masters and doctorate degrees at the school. "Now, you walk across campus and there are students with backpacks who live in dorms on campus. And there's a lot of them. And they're fired up. They yell at me, 'Coach, are we going to be ready? I've got my tickets. I'm going to be there.'"

The Panthers will play their home games in a big-time arena, the 70,000-seat Georgia Dome, but there are no illusions about challenging schools such as Georgia or Georgia Tech anytime soon. While the Bulldogs usually have more than 90,000 fans for their home games, Georgia State has sold about 2,000 season tickets for its debut season and won't even use the upper deck at the Dome.

In the crowded Atlanta sports scene, which also includes teams in all four major professional leagues as well as several minor league and women's franchises, it's easy to get overlooked.

"It's going to take time to build a following," Curry said. "We'll have to be good, and we'll have to do entertaining things in the Dome. But I think we'll do all that. There's a lot of enthusiasm — genuine enthusiasm — on the campus."

Georgia State has provided another option in a state that is one of college football's most fertile recruiting grounds. Curry has gone after those players who might not be quite good enough to play regularly at a major college, but could be stars at the level formerly known as Division I-AA.

"I feel like there's definitely a lot of great talent that maybe gets overlooked that we'll get in our program," said offensive guard Michael Davis, a redshirt freshman. "With Georgia being such a huge recruiting base of talent, there's so many guys who don't get to go to the really big schools, the Alabamas and Georgias and Floridas."

Davis signed with the Panthers out of Chamblee High School in suburban Atlanta, even though that meant spending his first year in a program that played no games. The basis for his decision could serve as a template for Georgia State's recruiting pitch.

"One of the biggest reasons was coach Curry," he said. "Another reason was I wanted to stay in Atlanta for college so my parents could come see all my games. Being able to play all my home games in the Georgia Dome was a big draw, too. I just liked everything Georgia State had to offer me."

Curry has further bolstered the talent base with transfers such as Star Jackson, who played sparingly last season at Alabama but could be an instant starter for the Panthers.

Jackson wasn't the only prominent transfer to land at Georgia State. In the past week, the Panthers picked up offensive lineman Joseph Gilbert, who started the last two years at Georgia Tech; Clyde Yandell, a backup offensive lineman for the Yellow Jackets; and former Auburn tight end Bailey Woods.

Gilbert, Yandell and Woods have all enrolled in Georgia State's graduate program and will have two more years of eligibility remaining, looking to help build a program from the ground up.

"We're a viable option," Curry said. "They see a chance to play."

The guy on the sideline saw another chance to coach, something he did for 17 years at Georgia Tech, Alabama and Kentucky. Curry settled in Atlanta after his last job, went into broadcasting and with each new year figured any chance to do what he loves best was passing him by.

His wife didn't want to move, so any feelers that Curry got were quickly shot down. Then, a school right in his backyard decided to start something new. It feels like old times for the old coach.

"I've loved every minute of it," he said, breaking into a big smile.