Playing football for some of the greatest coaches of all time – Vince Lombardi, Bobby Dodd and Don Shula – Bill Curry learned what it means to be a leader. Curry earned three NFL Championships, including Super Bowls I and V, protecting quarterbacks Bart Starr and Johnny Unitas. As a coach at Georgia Tech, Alabama, Kentucky and Georgia State, he made several bowl appearances and led Alabama to an SEC Championship in 1989.
Today, Curry shares his lessons learned with leaders across the country. He recently spoke to a group at Duke Energy. So I asked him some questions about how his star-studded career has influenced his leadership style, and, of course, his prediction for the National Championship game between Clemson and Alabama on Jan. 9. This interview has been edited for brevity.
You’ve been a player, coach and motivational speaker, is there one skill that has stood out as most valuable to you?
The great leaders that I have encountered have the capacity to listen, empathize and construct a relationship pattern almost instantaneously.
I’ll give you an example. I show up with the Green Bay Packers. I’m the last draft choice. Vince Lombardi is already being called the greatest coach of all time. The team is already being called the greatest team of all time. This is 1965, and I was 22 years old. I was a baby. In a matter of hours, he understood me, communicated with me, listened to me and forced me to start to become a man.
So, what is that complex mixture that the great leaders have? I don’t have one word for it, but it is the capacity to listen, empathize and shape a relationship very quickly. When somebody can do that with a whole lot of complex individuals, that’s how you can build a team.
In your speech you say the No. 1 lesson was: “Don’t assume what you’re saying is what others are hearing.” Is there an effective way to communicate effectively with those who communicate differently than you do?
Well, I use my grandchildren as an example because what they say is hilarious. I think I’m saying one thing to them, but that’s not what they’re hearing. And they will tell me. Whereas, a complicated person, who may be racially and culturally different from me, might just be offended and not say a word. So I’m not aware that I’ve offended this person.
There should be a mechanism built into the organization such that the leader periodically sits down face to face and listens. Actually listen.
Take your time – your busy time – when you think you ought to be on the phone trying to get a recruit or make a big sale, and listen to that person.
When you walk past that person in the hall, and you see they’re troubled, ask them about it. Sit down with them. I’d give anything if I had done that more because they very often will tell you [what’s bothering them]. If they don’t tell you, they’ll come back in a week and say, "You know, you really caught me on a bad day, and you cheered me up just because you listened to me."
Playing for Vince Lombardi, who most people consider to be the greatest NFL coach of all time, can you think of a moment where the communication you describe happened on that team?
The defining moment of my relationship with Vince Lombardi came after he had traded me. I had been so wounded by that. I was immature and foolish.
After I had shot my mouth off publicly and criticized him while playing in the Super Bowl for Don Shula, I was cajoled by a teammate to go to his room at Georgetown Hospital because it was obvious that he was going to die from colon cancer.
I had a most dramatic experience there because I thought he’d throw me out of the room after the remarks I had made. And, in fact, he did just the opposite. He welcomed me and forgave me. It was life changing.
It turns out that his greatness did not lie in the sport of football at all, but in his great faith and in his great heart. I had not seen that when I played for him.
That sounds like one of the relationships you mentioned in your speech. You said after winning several championships, getting another ring isn’t enough incentive to do well anymore. At that point, why do you think relationships become more motivational? As a leader, how do you cultivate them?
It goes well beyond the ring or anything tangible because in the fourth quarter, you don't want a ring. You want to die. You’ve been out there battling each other for so long that what you really want in your gut is to quit.
You’re standing there during a TV timeout, and it’s 100 degrees. You've lost 14 pounds [to dehydration]. You’ve just broken your finger again and everything hurts.
And in our sport, and in most pursuits, you don’t have to leave the field to quit. All you have to do is let up a little bit so that the other team tackles your quarterback. Well, the game’s over now. You can go home.
Nobody would know, but, deep inside, there’s a part of you that knows. I call it "magnanimitas" – greatness of spirit. Every human being has it, and that little voice says, "Don’t you dare quit. Suck it up and do what you have to do."
The leader – the coach – has forced us into positions in practice where we felt exactly like this, and then he forced us to continue to do our best so it became habit. I look at my teammate, who feels just like I do, and I know I can’t quit. I can’t let him down.
What great teams have is a bunch of people who will not let each other down.
Will you be watching Alabama and Clemson play the National Championship on Monday?
[laughter] You could say I’ll be watching.
I coached at Alabama, and one of my players was Dabo Swinney, who’s the head coach at Clemson. So, I’ve got many emotional connections to a game like this.
People ask me, "Do you still watch every game?" Well, no, most games I don’t watch. I’d rather take a walk or go fishing with my 8-year-old grandson, but I love championship performance. I wanna see them play when it really matters and the world is watching. That has always fascinated me. When I was 10 or 11, we got this funny looking thing at our house called television. The first thing I saw was the World Series with the New York Yankees.
Since those days, I have been fascinated by what human beings do when all the chips are on the line. I love to see who is going to rise to the occasion, transcend the moment and be the very best that he or she can be.
Do you predict winners, or do you keep it secret since you have connections to both teams?
I think Clemson will win. I think it’s because Clemson matches up physically with Alabama, but they’re probably the only team Alabama has seen this year that matches their size, speed and ferocity.
But, [Clemson] also has a veteran quarterback in Deshaun Watson that I think will be the difference in the game. If he plays the way he’s capable of playing, Clemson will win. If he has a bad night, Alabama will beat Clemson, and they might even hammer them if Watson starts throwing interceptions.
Curry in print
Learn more about Bill Curry in his books “One More July – A Football Dialogue” (1977) and “Ten Men You Meet in the Huddle” (2008). Novelist Pat Conroy praised "Ten Men" as the best book about the NFL.