J.T. Curtis stands alone with 622 coaching victories
J.T. Curtis was about to win his 600th game as the head football coach at John Curtis Christian School.
Tulane football coach Willie Fritz was being visited by his brother Ed, a very successful high-school basketball coach in Kansas.
The brothers Fritz were driving to the Curtis game against Archbishop Shaw and Willie explained to Ed the historic significance of the game.
“I’m telling my brother we’re going to watch this friend of mine win his 600th ball game. I’d like to be there to watch it,” Willie recalled.
They parked and started walking to the event when Ed stopped after Joe Zimmerman Stadium appeared in front of them.
“He said, ‘you’ve got to be kidding me. He’s won 600 football games?’” Willie recalled. “He thought we were going to a gymnasium some place. I said, ‘yeah, buddy – football.’”
John Thomas Curtis Jr. has been accumulating head-scratching milestones for a half a century.
Victory No. 600 came in a 37-19 victory that night – and the wins as well as a record 28 state championships – have kept coming. The victory total reached 622 with a 41-7 victory against Edna Karr on Friday night at Hoss Memtsas Stadium.
That’s more victories than Don Shula, Paul Brown, Bill Belichick or any other professional football coach.
It’s more than Eddie Robinson, Bear Bryant or any other college football coach.
And now it’s more than any other high-school coach, most notably the late John McKissick, who used to hold the record with 621 victories at Summerville, S.C. High School.
“I think it’s a number that will never be duplicated,” Newman coach Nelson Stewart said. “I don’t see how anyone could ever do it – to sustain success for so long.”
The number accumulated with an average of nearly 12 wins per season for more than half a century – will continue to grow for as long as the spry Curtis chooses to continue coaching at the school his late father established.
Curtis has enjoyed advantages that are rare, if not unique: He became head coach at the age of 21, has always enjoyed complete administrative support, beginning with his father, John Curtis Sr., and continuing seamlessly since he succeeded his father, and the health, drive and determination to continue to excel into his mid-70s.
But it’s simply the consistency of winning that is at the heart of the record. Curtis, whose team will be one of the favorites to win the 2023 Division I state championship when the playoffs begin next week, could be considered a contemporary of the aforementioned legends.
When Curtis became head coach of the Patriots in 1969, Shula was in just the seventh season of his 33-year tenure as an NFL head coach, Brown had seven years left in his 25-year tenure as a professional head coach and Belichick was a high-school student.
Robinson had 19 seasons left in his 57-year tenure at Grambling and Bryant had 14 years left in the 38-year tenure that featured stops at Maryland, Kentucky, Texas A&M and Alabama.
As for McKissick, he still had 46 years left in a 63-year tenure that ended in 2014. He died in 2019.
Stewart and Brother Martin coach Mark Bonis – two very successful coaches in the early stages of their careers as head coaches – shook their heads as they contemplated Curtis’ numbers. Stewart got the 150th win of his career last month, and last season a well-wisher informed Bonis that a victory against St. Thomas More would be the 100th of his career.
The Crusaders, who would go on to lose to Curtis in the Division I state championship game, lost that night. But a milestone was reached in that game in Lafayette.
Bonis heard a voice come on the loudspeaker after the game to announce that St. Thomas More coach Jim Hightower – already a member of the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame – had just gotten his 450th career victory.
“Four hundred and fifty wins is saying something,” Bonis said, “but when you really think about it – 600-plus wins – the ones that are so successful are able to change with the times. I struggle with it at 44 years old. Think about how many different changes he’s gone through. That’s what I truly admire.”
Stewart noted that Curtis’ 54-year tenure has included his school’s ascension from Class 1A all the way to Louisiana’s highest classification of 5A with stops at each classification in between even as enrollment has remained in the ball park of the lower classifications.
“He’s continued with small numbers to play at that level,” Stewart said. “This isn’t a padded number. It’s a really legit number.
“There’s only one J.T. I think it should be celebrated. To me it’s a once-in-a-lifetime moment. He just keeps going. It’s an unbelievable number.”
It’s worth noting here that some accounting has Curtis’ win total lower than this because of the Louisiana High School Athletic Association applying forfeits to Curtis due to allegations of an ineligible player’s participation; however, for the sake of clarity and consistency the numbers in this story and other evaluations have referenced on-field victories.
And ultimately this is a story not so much about arithmetic as one about the value of athletics in general and football specifically in the education of young people, the influence that coaches can have on student-athletes and the valuable lessons learned in victory and defeat that can last a lifetime.
The first coaching tool
To appreciate the evolution of Curtis’ historic career we have to go back to 1962 when Mr. Curtis opened the small school in River Ridge when J.T. was a student at East Jefferson High School.
“He wanted to have a well-rounded extracurricular activity because he really believed that was an important part of education for kids,” J.T. said of his father. “What can you take out of the classroom and bring into the extracurricular part of life that’s going to be important to society and be important to your functioning in society?”
Mr. Curtis hired Clem Dellenger, who was an All-America player at Tulane, to start the football program, but Dellenger got an opportunity to coach at a junior college in Mississippi – and Mr. Curtis reluctantly took on the challenge himself even while serving as principal.
“He didn’t plan to do that,” J.T. said, “but he had to.”
In the summer of 1969 J.T. was nine hours from graduating from college and starting a job as a teacher at his father’s school, and Mr. Curtis “was getting overwhelmed” as head of the fledgling school and football program.
“He said, ‘Look, why don’t you come and start with the football program now and finish your nine hours the next semester,” J.T. recalled. “Take me out of this situation because I don’t want to bring somebody in and you’re coming in anyway.’ So I said, ‘OK, I’ll come.’”
Things didn’t go exactly as the younger Curtis had planned. He had started college at Arkansas and transferred to Louisiana College. He had been recently married to Lydia, his wife of more than 50 years, and planned on taking his final nine hours after moving back to New Orleans.
He looked first at Tulane, but it had a rule that in order to earn a degree a student’s final 30 hours had to be completed there.
Then he looked at UNO, which had the same rule; then Loyola – same thing.
He finally settled on Loyola, but had to earn the final 30 hours in the spring and summer because he was tied up coaching football during the fall semesters.
“It took another 2½ years to get it done,” J.T. said, “but the point was, my Dad told me early on, you’re not going to work here unless you’re qualified. You’re not going to work here unless you’re a certified person and a college graduate. It’s not a place where you can come and work because your name is Curtis.”
J.T., who would go on to also earn a Masters’ from Loyola, had yet to start coaching, but he already had a tool he could use once he formed his first team.
“I tell that story to our kids all the time,” he said. “It’s important that you set the goal to say I’m going to get the degree. Well it took me seven and a half years to get it.
“It took me the long, hard road, but I had to get it and I got it. I think it’s a valuable lesson that a lot of kids need to hear that sometimes get discouraged or a get a little overwhelmed. You’ve just got to keep on keeping on and good things will happen.”
A ‘special’ first team
On the first day of preseason practice coach Curtis had six players show up. Without enough players to hold an actual practice he had the players run “a few laps around the field” before going to talk to Mr. Curtis.
“I walk into my Dad’s office and I said, ‘Dad, I only had six guys show up,’” J.T. said.
Mr. Curtis didn’t look up from his desk.
“‘Daddy, did you hear me? I said I only had six guys,’” J.T. continued. “He said, ‘I heard you.’ I said, ‘what do you think I ought to do?’ He said, ‘If I was you I’d get on the phone and start calling people.’
“That was the end of it. What he was saying to me was, ‘you took it, it’s yours.’”
When the semester began “we picked up a few kids” and the Patriots started the season with barely 20 players.
“We had good kids and they were trying hard,” J.T. said. “We just weren’t very good.”
The guy who now has 622 victories had exactly zero in his first season. The Patriots scored two touchdowns the whole season.
“As difficult as it was,” J.T. said, “the one thing I tried to emphasize to them was consistency of effort and practice.”
As the season was nearing its end, Curtis decided to hold practice on All Saints Day, which was a school holiday.
“A friend of mine said, ‘you’re not going to practice, are you?’” J.T. recalled. “I said, ‘yeah, we’re going to practice. We’ve got a game.’ He said, ‘you’re not going to win the game, you ought to give them off.’ It never dawned on me to give them off because we had to prepare. We had a game.
“And he was right – we got beat. But I think what it did was it set the precedent of how we were going to be fixed.”
Harry Hawks was an offensive guard and noseguard for two seasons under Mr. Curtis before J.T. took over for Hawks’ junior season.
“That year was absolutely no fun,” Hawks said. “We got beat 50-0 a couple of times. It was demoralizing, but J.T. wouldn’t let us give up. We had so few kids on the team that if you knew what shape a football was you played both ways.
“We were undersized, undermanned. Other teams had more players than we did so we were always really beat by that fourth quarter because we had been run pretty hard and we didn’t have many substitutes.”
During one game late in the season, the Patriots were losing 52-0 and the opponent still had its starters in the game. One of Curtis’ overwhelmed players got hurt (“not seriously,” J.T. said.)
But he and Mr. Curtis ran onto the field to check on the injured player.
“They were getting the kid off the field and my Dad looked (at the opposing coach) and he said, ‘do you think this is necessary to do this?’” J.T. said. “And the guy looked at him and said, ‘well, if you can’t take it, just get your ass out of the league.’”
The incident had a lasting effect on the neophyte head coach.
“It really hurt me as his son because they belittled him and they looked down on him,” J.T. said. “We were just starting out and it was a struggle and I knew how hard he had worked to put a private school together himself and be where we were. It was a motivating factor for me, no question.”
J.T. went into his father’s office the following week.
“I said, ‘Daddy, I want you to know that that is not ever going to happen again to you again,’” J.T. said. “I said, ‘we’re not only going to be respectable, we’re going to put a team on the field that you’ll be proud of.’”
The 1969 season ended with a 32-0 loss at Port Sulphur. On the bus ride back to campus, coach Curtis and the players started planning for the next season.
“We had this conversation with J.T. and amongst ourselves,” Hawks recalled. “We’re not going to do this anymore. If we’re going to continue playing football we’re going to figure this out. We’re going to work hard, we’re going to hit the gym, some of you skinny kids are going to gain some weight, lift weights, get stronger.”
It was a turning point.
“I look back at that ’69 team,” J.T. said, “and though they didn’t win games they really kind of set the tempo because they were really good kids that wanted to win and they just didn’t have enough time and enough background to do what we were able to do in the future.
“The ’69 team has always been kind of special for us.”
The 1970s: Finding a “life motto’
By the time spring practice began in 1970 Curtis had about 30 players – enough to divide the roster into two teams and have a spring game.
“We started creating this kind of environment that I think is really necessary,” J.T. said.
The evolution of the program’s culture transcended what happened on the football field at practice and in games.
“One of the most important lessons and this is a life lesson and one of the reasons that I consider J.T. one of the best role models I had my entire life,” said Hawks, who’s now 70, “one of the real important lessons was solving the problem between the ears. We had lost so much we kind of thought of ourselves as losers – that we couldn’t win.”
J.T. can comfortably quote Scripture and cited Proverbs 23:7 to his players: “As a man thinks, so is he.”
“That became our life motto,” Hawks said. “You had to think of yourselves as winners. It was a combination of dedication, hard work, changing attitude and commitment and frankly allowing ourselves to be molded and guided and inspired by J.T., this very young but dynamic football coach who wasn’t that much older than we were.
“He was very relatable in the sense that he wasn’t that old. He was inspirational in the sense that he was a better athlete than any of us. I was 16 years old when I first played for J.T. When you are around people with that kind of inner strength, it’s inspiring.”
The 1970 team was much more competitive in its season opener, losing to River Oaks, 6-0.
The following week, victory No. 1 of 622 arrived in the form of a 14-0 win over Delta Heritage.
Hawks said “it wasn’t the prettiest game and some of us felt bad,” but the fact that the Patriots could be disappointed in how they played in a victory told the players “wait, we’re getting better here.”
When the game ended the players wondered if they might get “fussed at” for the sloppiness. But, instead, the young version of the now-stoic record-holder “was animated, jumping up and down, screaming and yelling, ‘we won, we won,’” Hawks recalled.
“You’ve got to build on that success, man,” J.T. said. “In college I had a great psychology professor who said nothing succeeds like success. I had to build some success, man. I had to celebrate some success.”
The sloppy victory started an eight-game winning streak to conclude the regular season. The Patriots made the playoffs and lost to Central Catholic of Morgan City 13-0.
The Times-Picayune called the Patriots “the Cinderella team of New Orleans,” a moniker that quickly became obsolete for the program.
“Junior year nobody would come to our games,” Hawks said. “The girls at school weren’t that impressed if you were a football player. I don’t think too many girls wanted to be a cheerleader for that team.
“All that started to change. Our senior year we started winning. People started showing up at our football games. The girls wanted to be cheerleaders and date a football player. It was really fun.”
Hawks, a very successful businessman who has retired from his position as CFO of Hearst Broadcasting, said he still looks back on his time playing for J.T. “incredibly fondly.”
“It’s still one of the important life lessons to have gone through,” Hawks continued, “using hard work and a positive attitude to come back from failure.”
The rest of the 1970s introduced the Patriots program to a statewide audience as they went 94-18-6.
They won their first state championship in 1975, won another in 1977 (in the last game played in Tulane Stadium) and won a third in 1979.
It had quickly become a program Mr. Curtis could be proud of.
The 1980s: Teaching better than others
During the 1980s the Patriots had as many state championships as losses (seven), winning 132 games and titles in 1980, 1981, 1983, 1984, 1985 (in their first season in Class 3A), 1987 and 1988.
They had a pair of 43-game winning streaks, one of which ended in 1982 and another that ended in 1986.
The success of Curtis’ program can’t be measured by the number of players who have gone on to play in the NFL or even by those that have gone on to play at major college programs though there are numerous examples of both.
“Ninety nine percent of the people who play for us, it’s the end of their career and we want to make it the best experience possible,” J.T. said.
One player whose football experience ran the gamut was linebacker Michael Stonebreaker. He lettered as an 8th grader on the 1981 Curtis championship team and also won titles in 1983, 1984 and 1985.
He earned a football scholarship to Notre Dame, which he attributed to the Patriots’ “commitment to teaching fundamentally sound football that is consistent at whatever level – 7th and 8th grade football, JV football and varsity football.”
The exceptional preparation became clear to Stonebreaker during the first few days of his first preseason camp with the Fighting Irish.
“You’re nervous because you’ve never competed outside the umbrella of the John Curtis coaches,” Stonebreaker said. “You’ve got new coaches and you’ve got new players from across the country. You’re going to find out how good you are right away.”
The Notre Dame coaches wanted to see what they had in the son of former Vikings, Colts and Saints linebacker Steve Stonebreaker.
They conducted one-on-one drills where Stonebreaker was paired with a freshman guard, whose job was to try and block the linebacker long enough for a running back to cross the line of scrimmage.
“The guard fired off at me,” Stonebreaker recalled, “I was able to hit him, get my hands into his chest, get off him, stand him up, read the running back and throw the guard to side and make the tackle for the loss.”
Stonebreaker noticed the look on the faces of the defensive coaches.
“They were amazed that I was able to do that.”
The coaches had the players repeat the drill to see if Stonebreaker could duplicate his success.
“We did the same thing with the same results.”
Stonebreaker’s defensive teammates were “all fired up and started screaming.”
But he noticed the coaches summoning a more experienced guard to take on Stonebreaker.
“They got the same results again,” Stonebreaker said. “I knew at that point that I was taught better than some of the other freshmen that were coming in.”
Stonebreaker, who played for the Bears and the Saints, was inducted into the John Curtis Hall of Fame last month.
1990s: The start of a second career
The Patriots of the 1990s were much like the Patriots in the 1980s as they had as many state championships as losses (six) while winning 126 games, including titles in 1990, 1993, 1996, 1997, 1998 and 1999.
Quarterback Danny Wimprine enrolled at John Curtis for 7th grade and was part of the first group of Patriots to win four straight state titles (1996-99).
Wimprine, who would go on to break every career passing record at the University if Memphis, generally was limited to a half-dozen or so passes per game while running the split-back veer offense that has been one of the trademarks on J.T.’s program.
But the Patriots over the years have shown that they can be balanced on offense.
“Balanced means you take what the defense gives you and you attack where they allow you to attack,” Wimprine said.
Wimprine was part of two state championship baseball teams, playing on J.T.’s final of four state title teams as baseball coach as a freshman and winning another under J.T.’s oldest son Johnny as a senior.
Back then the Patriots baseball team featured “a bunch of tough football players who would play baseball,” Wimprine said.
“We got used to winning and hated losing,” Wimprine said, “and that carries over to every sport. J.T. had the same passion in baseball and was a leader that kids gravitated to because he does what he says he’s going to do.”
In 1992, Ed Daniels was beginning his tenure at WGNO/ABC 26 and the station manager wanted to start a half-hour NFL show.
Daniels and Curtis had talked for years about doing a prep football show but hadn’t found the right opportunity.
“Let’s do a high-school football show,” Daniels told the station manager. “Let’s do something that’s completely local, that no one else is doing that people will respond to.
“There was this big debate in the station that went on for months about whether we were going to do it or not. In April we got the go-ahead.”
J.T. had some ideas of his own.
“I don’t think it ought to be just football,” the football coach said. “I think we ought to feature cheerleaders. I think we ought to feature the band. We ought to feature the scholar-athlete.”
At the time prep sports were getting overlooked in the media, which focused on the New Orleans Saints and the college programs.
“I said, ‘We’ve got to do something to get these kids noticed,’” J.T. said. “Mamas and daddies and grandmas and grandpas want to see their kids on TV. That made all the difference in the world and it just took off.”
The show has since been moved from 10:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. and expanded from 30 minutes to a full hour.
The bold idea of having one of the most successful prep coaches in the state comment on all the prep programs in the area wasn’t warmly received in all quarters.
The late Tommy Henry was then the commissioner of the LHSAA and he and Daniels frequently debated the merits of J.T.’s presence on the show. Henry thought the role gave the coach “an advantage in recruiting.”
“Tommy’s one of my favorites,” Daniels said, “but I told Tommy, ‘would you change your quarterback every week if you were a coach? I’m going to plug this guy in and we’re just going to go with that?’ No. When you’re doing a TV show, you’ve got to have consistency. We’ve got to have the same people working together every week so we have some consistency.”
And if J.T. Curtis is anything, he’s consistent.
“I made a commitment to myself that I would not be promoting John Curtis on the air,” J.T. said. “That wouldn’t be fair to Ed. It wouldn’t be fair to the other kids. It wouldn’t be fair to our team. I was going to be as neutral as I could be and I think through the years I have done that. I was not going to make this a John Curtis show because it wasn’t. It was Friday Night Football and we’re going to feature 10, 12 games.
“I can’t preach to my kids to do one thing and I do the other. I have to go to that show and put all that beside me and go give them the best effort that I can give. That’s what I ask my kids to do and that’s what I’m going to do.”
“How many coaches do you know that on a whim on a new program would decide that ‘OK, yes, I can leave my team and come to a TV station every Friday night’ and do that?” Daniels said.
J.T.’s first foray into television had a bumpy start just as his first foray into coaching had.
“He was late,” Daniels said.
On opening night the Patriots were playing at South Lafourche, some 70 miles south of New Orleans and the officials thought the 7 p.m. game was scheduled for 7:30. They arrived late and the game started late, making it impossible for J.T. to get to the studio for the 10:30 p.m. start of the show, though he did get there by 10:40.
Craig Gardner and the late Red Lindsey were JPSO officers that handled the Curtis detail on game nights for more than 30 years. In addition to the standard security provided at the stadium, they had the added responsibility of getting J.T. to the studio after his team’s game in time for the show.
“Red and Craig were amazing,” Daniels said, “and they could get him anywhere.”
Gardner, who played for Curtis in the late 1970s and early 1980s, “did some creative driving to get him there in time.”
One time the distance from a playoff game north of Lafayette made it impossible for even Gardner’s creative driving to get J.T. to the studio in time. So he brought J.T. to Lafayette for a satellite hook-up back to the station.
“He’s willing to do whatever it takes to make the show successful,” Daniels said of J.T. “That’s who he is.
“The thing that he does so well is he understands television. We have an hour program. If I ask him to make a comment about something, he’s going to make a great comment and he’s going to do it in less than 20 seconds. And that’s not something that everyone can do on television. That’s what he does so well.”
The large majority of Patriots highlights that J.T. has commented on over the years have come from victories. But there are periodic losses, some in season-ending games, a few in especially painful ways.
“Over the last 32 years I’ve witnessed all the bad losses and all the great wins,” Daniels said, “and I can tell you, that person when he comes to the station is the same.”
Daniels singled out a quarterfinal playoff loss to Salmen in 1995 in which the Patriots squandered a 19-7 fourth-quarter lead and lost 20-19.
“Curtis doesn’t blow two-touchdown leads in the fourth quarter,” Daniels said. “This was a very talented Salmen team, but J.T. had them. And they lost. He came to the station and he complemented Salmen on all the things that they did, complemented (Salmen coach) Bill Stubbs. I thought it was just superb.”
Every Patriots season that doesn’t end with a state championship ends with a loss that J.T. dissects on Friday Night Football.
“When that shows over I feel as bad as you could feel,” J.T. said, “but while that show is on and during the preparation for that show I was going to be on the top of my game as best I could.”
2000s: No one could knock them off
In the 2000s the Patriots went 128-11 and won seven state titles – in 2001, 2002, 2004 2005 (a season disrupted by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita), 2006, 2007 and 2008.
St. Martin’s coach Kevin Dizer played at Sterlington High School in north Louisiana from 2003-2006.
In 2005 and 2006 the LHSAA started requiring schools to play in the classification dictated by their enrollment, which required the Patriots to drop down to Class 2A from 4A.
Sterlington twice made the state semifinals and would have played the Patriots in the title game, but they couldn’t get over the hump.
“I can clearly remember being a junior and senior in high school and if I’m being honest it’s almost like you’re playing for second place,” Dizer said.
Prep football followers in the northern part of the state were familiar with the Patriots because they eliminated Neville in the Class 4A playoffs in 2002, 2003 and 2004.
“Curtis was just a menace,” Dizer said. “Nobody in that area knew anything about Curtis or what made them great. You just knew Curtis was coming to town and a lot of people don’t make it past that week.
“You definitely knew of them in North Louisiana because they were crushing everybody’s dreams. Everybody wanted to knock them off, but nobody could.”
2010s: ‘Always very well-coached and super physical’
In the 2010s the Patriots went 112-14 and won four state titles – in 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2018.
De La Salle coach Graham Jarrott faced the Patriots as an assistant at Jesuit and Rummel.
Jarrott cited two characteristics that were in the Patriots’ DNA: “They are always very well coached and super physical.”
“When you play Curtis, the next week there are going to be some guys that can’t play because they’re hurt or beat up from that game. It’s always a battle,” Jarrott said. “They’re such a physical team every year. Every year their offensive line and their defensive line are as physical as you’re going to see and you know the week after that you’re going to have some bumps and bruises.”
Jarrott was at Jesuit when the 2014 Blue Jays stumbled into a way to avoid the physical fallout from playing the Patriots. They met in the state title game and Jesuit prevailed 17-14.
“If that game had been a semifinal game we would not have had three starters the next week,” Jarrott said. “We won the state championship and the next week we had two kids on crutches and another guy in a sling. It took that to beat them.”
The Blue Jays’ luck ran out the next season when Curtis became a district rival by joining the Catholic League. It didn’t take long for the Patriots to duplicate their traditional success in their new league as in their second season they started a run of three consecutive Catholic League titles.
2020s: Consistency in the Curtis family
So far this decade the Patriots are 30-13 and won the state title last season – making it six consecutive decades with a championship.
The consistent success of the program is a product of the infrastructure of the football program and the school itself.
Archbishop Shaw head coach Hank Tierney has more than 300 career wins, though he’s just 1-5 against Curtis. Tierney, who is in his second stint with the Eagles and also has been successful at West Jefferson and Ponchatoula, marveled at the consistency of the Patriots’ program.
“When I was an assistant at Shaw (more than 40 years ago) we played them and he was running the split-back veer,” Tierney said. “I saw them play last year and they were running the split-back veer.”
Riverdale coach Kyle Walker ran the split-back veer as a quarterback in the Curtis system from 3rd grade through 6th grade before transferring to Archbishop Hannan, then De La Salle.
“It’s exactly what they still do to this day,” Walker said. “We installed the option in third grade and played other schools that had elementary teams such as Riverside and we would just run the option. I believe the play calls are still the same all the way up and that’s how he’s built such a program.
“We could have played at the parks, but you didn’t have to because we were playing tackle football at Curtis and getting that experience, which led me to successful years in my high school and college careers.”
All but one member of J.T.’s varsity coaching staff is either a member of the Curtis family or an alumnus of the school and the football program – or all of the above.
J.T.’s brother Leon has been the defensive coordinator virtually from the beginning and “has been a great coach forever and probably has never gotten the credit that he deserves,” Tierney said.
Head coach Curtis’ oldest son Johnny is the special teams coach and younger son Jeff is the offensive coordinator. Son-in-law Tommy Fabacher, who’s married to Joanna, the oldest of J.T. and Lydia’s three children, coaches the defensive backs. Former Patriots offensive line coach Jerry Godfrey coaches his former position and Leon’s sons Matt (receivers) and Steve (defensive ends/linebackers) are also on staff. Johnny’s son Jay (John Thomas Curtis IV) joined the staff this year.
“They’ve got such a great collection of coaches – mostly with Curtis ties that have all played in that system and coached in that system – how do you out-coach them?” Tierney asked. “If you stop outside veer, there are going to be four guys on that staff saying, ‘this is why they stopped it, let’s do this.’”
“They have an answer for everything,” Brother Martin’s Bonis said. “The core members of their staff have been together for so long. The thing that is so tough is you might get them once, but you have to capitalize when you have them because the second time you do something they’re on it, they’re making the adjustment.”
Bonis said he took a page out of the Curtis playbook by placing varsity coaches in charge of the Crusaders’ 9th grade and junior varsity programs.
Though the Patriots continue to run the same system they have always run, that doesn’t mean they haven’t evolved.
“You don’t play football the same way today as you did in the 80s or as they did in the 70s,” Stonebreaker said. “You’ve got to grow with the game so they’ve continued to educate themselves on the new techniques that have developed and as that has changed they’ve been able to adapt to that and put that into their system and continue to teach fundamentally sound football and that’s the only way you’re going to get to that number of wins and that limited number of losses that they have because on the offense and defense their guys know how to play the game properly.”
Bonis credited the Curtis staff for managing “that delicate balance of evolving, but staying true to who they are.”
Hollywood storytelling on top of football excellence
Earlier this season Gardner, who retired from JPSO four years ago and now helps coach the offensive line, showed J.T. a shirt that a friend have given him with “John Curtis 622” on it.
“He didn’t even want me to wear it to practice,” Gardner said. “His goal is for this team to win the state championship. He told everybody he did not want to hear about the record. So many people were involved getting to 622. It’s not about him.”
When the Patriots convened for their first practice in August, coach Curtis addressed the record with the team that was destined to put him over the top.
“We know what it is,” Curtis said. “Now we’re not going to talk about it again.”
But eventually J.T. would choose to call an audible on that plan.
This season’s schedule potentially would have given Curtis an opportunity to break the record as early as October 13 against Acadiana.
But an early-season game against Zachary was canceled because of a scheduling misunderstanding. Then the Patriots lost two games in a row – to Holy Cross and Rummel, both on the final play of the game.
J.T. sensed “disappointment in the stands” as the potential historic win got delayed multiple times. He told his players to “be respectful to your parents, be respectful to your friends, but pay no attention” to anything other than getting back to playing Patriots football.
The historic game was still four wins away when that game against Acadiana arrived. It was Curtis’ Hall of Fame night and Stonebreaker was one of the former players inducted. J.T. would say that the presence of some of the greatest Patriots had a positive impact on his players.
Acadiana came to the Shrine on Airline as the highest-scoring team in the state, averaging 52 points per game, and the Patriots beat the Wreckin’ Rams 28-0.
Then came a 36-26 victory over St. Augustine and a 26-7 victory against Brother Martin on October 27 that enabled J.T. to tie McKissick with No. 621.
That set up the opportunity to break the record against Karr.
Whoever is writing this script has as keen an appreciation for Hollywood storytelling as they have for football excellence.
Karr, like Curtis moved into Catholic League without missing a beat. In fact the Cougars debuted as undefeated district champions in 2022 and were on the verge of repeating that feat – until the Patriots made history against them Friday night.
Cougars coach Brice Brown has gained national notoriety not only for his championship program, but more so for his dedication to ensuring the safety and growth of his players in the sometimes dangerous neighborhoods surrounding the Algiers school.
The demographics of the Curtis and Karr schools, head coaches, student bodies and neighborhoods are about as different as they could be, but the influence of the two head coaches on the young men under their guidance is exemplary in a profession dedicated to that.
“I think in the history of high school sports nobody has done it better than J.T. Curtis,” Brown said. “From the lives he’s impacted to the games he’s won and the games he’s lost, he always seems to see the glass as half full.
“I often hear how his relationships with his kids go beyond the football field. When you see how his players come back and love talking to him and seeing him – that tells you that what you see on TV is real.”
Tulane defensive end Angelo Anderson was a 13-year-old 7th-grader when he met Coach Curtis, who already was closing in on 600 wins.
“I had a lot of growing up to do,” Anderson said. “He explained to me that I had to buy into what it was he was saying and everything we were doing and realize I was doing it for a reason. I have people that are depending on me to do things with my life, not just football but being a good person for the people that raised you and care about you.
“I don’t think you’re going to find someone as genuine as he is who actually cares about the person you are as well as the football player you are. He’s an outstanding leader and an outstanding role model. He’s taught me so much about how to go about business on the field, how to go about my business off the field.”
Jesuit coach Ryan Manale called it “an honor to be on the opposite sideline and share field” with J.T.
“When you play against a Curtis team, you know your team is always going to get better because they’re going to work long hours on figuring out their opponent’s weaknesses,” Manale said. “So it’s a good chance for you to self evaluate when you’re playing that are that well coached – to really develop your own program.”
But this isn’t a story just about one head coach. It’s also a story about that coach’s history-making career shining a spotlight on the role of prep coaches and the dedication, leadership, selflessness and ability to guide that he shares with countless others whose won-lost record doesn’t command the same degree of notoriety.
“I told coach Curtis that I was rooting for him to break the record because it represents all of us, all of the coaches in Louisiana,” Country Day coach Chris Chetta said. “Anyone who ever played football in Louisiana should be proud that we have one of our own that has been so successful for a long time. I think he has put Louisiana high school football on the map nationally and I’m very proud of that.”
Curtis was invited to speak to the Greater New Orleans Quarterback Club at the start of the season as the milestone victory loomed, but he quickly turned the talk to his profession and his colleagues – as well as himself.
“Sometimes we get caught up in scores, we get caught up in wins, we got caught up in the negativity of losses,” Curtis said, “and we lose sight of the intrinsic values that come from athletics – the ability to compete, the ability to get along, the ability to achieve goals … that we learn to sacrifice ourselves and our wants for the betterment of the team and I think that carries over into the family, that we learn to sacrifice and we learn to be the leader of our families and therefore be the director of our children.
“Playing and coaching is more to me than just wins and losses. I think for the men that I deal with and the men that I’m associated with, it’s more than just wins and losses and the ones that it’s not, fall by the wayside.”
622 and counting
The all-time coaching record fell by the wayside Friday night.
The Patriots drove to a first-quarter touchdown and kept rolling. They increased their lead to 21-0 at halftime and merely expanded their advantage in the second half.
When the game ended coach Curtis received the traditional Gatorade bath from his players.
He and Brown shook hands and then hugged briefly while both teams engaged in a businesslike, respectful series of handshakes before the Patriots ran to the sideline to celebrate with their coach.
Coach Curtis led the team in prayer before speaking briefly to his team and reporters.
Then he was whisked off to the studio because airtime for Friday Night Football was approaching.
And this edition was going to have a heck of a lead story.
- < PREV John Curtis thumps Edna Karr as J.T. Curtis wins record 622nd game
- NEXT > 2023-2024 Jesuit Blue Jays Wrestling Preview
CCS/SDS/Field Level Media
Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. The New Orleans area native’s blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists. He has since become a valued contributor for CCS. The Jesuit High…