George Curry talks about returning to Berwick on July 21, 2012.
George Curry, who amassed more coaching victories than any other Pennsylvania high school football coach, died Friday morning at age 71.
Curry compiled a record of 455-102-5 in 46 years as a coach, with 39 of them coming at Berwick over two different stints. He also coached at Lake-Lehman and Wyoming Valley West.
Curry acknowledged to the Times Leader in February he was diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, midway through this past football season. ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that attacks nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord.
“I thought I was in great shape,” Curry said in February. “I lost 110 pounds. I was running four miles a day. I felt great, eating healthy, going to church every morning. I don’t chew (tobacco). I don’t smoke. I don’t drink. And you know what, then all of a sudden. It got worse.”
Curry brought notoriety and prestige to Wyoming Valley Conference football by winning a record six PIAA Class 3A state championships. Only two other WVC teams have won state titles – Hanover Area at Class 2A in 1990 and Dallas in Class 2A in 1993. No other WVC team has played for a state championship since Curry’s 1997 team won the Class 3A crown.
Curry played linebacker and nose guard at Temple University before beginning his coaching career in 1967 at Lake-Lehman. He then headed to Berwick in 1971 where his career was filled with victories and occasional controversies.
BUILDING OF A DYNASTY
Curry didn’t walk into a great situation at Berwick. The program was 20-20 over the previous four years and 50-48-4 in the 1960s.
“In 1971, I remember coming down to Berwick for an interview,” Curry said in 2005. “I remember people telling me don’t go to Berwick, it’s a graveyard of coaches.”
Instead, Berwick became a graveyard for opponents. Curry had just two losing seasons at Berwick – 4-5-1 in his first year and 2-9 in 1974. But the 1977 season brought Berwick its first Eastern Conference championship since 1960. Prior to district and state playoffs, the Eastern Conference playoffs were considered the epitome of success.
The 1983 team finished 13-0 with another Eastern Conference title, as well as, the mythical national championship awarded by USA Today.
“People walked around with their chests puffed,” Curry told the USA Today in 2000. “It was unbelievable. We dominated everyone we played. We put them away. And when that poll came out, they had a map of the town in the paper. It put the town on a high they didn’t come off for a year.”
Berwick would be honored again by USA Today in 1992 and 1995 after unbeaten seasons culminated in PIAA Class 3A state championships.
Berwick won four consecutive state championship from 1994-1997. The 1997 victory avenged Berwick’s only state championship game loss, a 20-8 setback to Perry Traditional Academy.
The program’s dominance at the state level ended with the sixth championship in 1997. Curry was tied with Southern Columbia coach Jim Roth for the most state titles until Roth’s team won its seventh this season in the Class 2A championship game.
Berwick lost in the state quarterfinals in 1998, 2000 and 2001. The Dawgs made it to the semifinals in 2004 only to fall to Manheim Central.
A year later, Curry stepped down after a 7-3 season.
Curry didn’t achieve legendary status without controversy. Two of them came in state playoff runs in 1989 and 1997.
Fresh off the inaugural PIAA Class 3A championship in 1988, Berwick rode a 29-game winning streak into the 1989 state title contest against Perry Traditional Academy.
Berwick trailed 14-8 and had the ball inside Perry’s 5-yard line with 27 seconds left. The Dawgs twice completed touchdown passes that would have tied the score only to have them negated by penalties. Perry returned an interception 100 yards for a touchdown on the game’s final play.
Afterward, Curry called the officiating crew “incompetent” and said “I think the officials were bought.” Curry’s diatribe didn’t stop there.
“They just didn’t want us to get into the end zone,” Curry said. “It was obvious. It’s outright cheating. We got jobbed.”
For his outbursts, the PIAA placed Curry on probation for a year.
Eight years later, Curry and Berwick was once again in the PIAA’s sights.
The controversy surrounded the eligibility of lineman Gus Felder, who would go on to play for Penn State and is currently the assistant strength and conditioning specialist at the University of Georgia.
The Philadelphia Daily News noticed Felder listed as a senior on Berwick’s roster in 1997. He had transferred to Berwick in 1996 and started on the state championship team that year.
The Daily News reported Felder was enrolled at Dobbins Tech during the 1992-93 school year and at Simon Gratz in 1993-94 and 1994-95. He then spent the following school year at Red Rock Job Corps in Lopez before enrolling at Berwick as a junior for the 1996-97 school year.
District 2 declared on Nov. 4, 1997, that Felder was ineligible to play as he has exceeded the then-PIAA regulation for number of semesters as student could play high school sports.
The administrations of Berwick and Simon Gratz blamed each other for the situation. The controversy ended the day after the District 2 decision as Berwick won an appeal to the PIAA Board of Directors by a 3-2 vote.
Felder, though, wasn’t the only Berwick player whose eligibility was in question. Running back Cody Hall showed up for his senior year after playing three years at Salesianum School in Wilmington, Delaware.
The Hall situation hung over Berwick’s head throughout the season and even after the Dawgs went on to defeat Perry 17-14 for the state championship. The District 2 athletic committee voted 15-0 on March 7 – three months after Berwick had beaten Perry – that Hall was eligible based on new information supplied by school administrators. Had Hall been declared ineligible, Berwick would have had to forfeit all 13 victories and its state championship.
THE END OF AN ERA
Berwick started the 2005 season, which would end Curry’s 35-year run at the school, with a 6-2 record. The Dawgs headed into their final two games with a chance to defend their District 2 Class 3A championship well within reach.
Then everything fell apart. Two starters were kicked off the team for violation school policy prior to the Week 9 game against Coughlin. Then four more players, including three starters, quit the team in the week leading up to the regular-season finale against Hazleton Area.
“They were being punished and didn’t want to be punished,” Curry said after the Hazleton Area game. “I gave them the option – do the punishment or quit. They didn’t come down, so I collected the equipment.”
Berwick limped through the Hazleton Area game, suffering a 9-8 loss. With the starting quarterback banished from the team and the backup seriously injured against Hazleton Area, Berwick declined an opportunity to play in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Eleven days later, in the fieldhouse at Crispin Field, a tearful Curry announced his retirement.
“I just have to adjust to this,” Curry said. “In fact, (Monday) was the first day I was ever home at 3 o’clock. (My wife Jacqueline) had me putting the tree up, putting decorations up.
“I said, ‘I don’t know if this is going to work.”
Wyoming Valley West had a long infatuation with Curry. A graduate of Larksville High School, one of the schools which formed Valley West in 1967, Curry’s Dawgs had beaten the Spartans 21 of 27 times.
But rumors of leaving Berwick for Valley West never materialized. Then came the first Valley West school board meeting in 2006. By a 5-3 vote on Jan. 4, the board opened the position held for eight years by Ed Michaels.
A week later, Curry applied and the battle lines were drawn. Supporters for Curry and Michaels, a former Valley West star, packed the middle school auditorium on Feb. 23, hoping the situation would finally be resolved. The school board deadlocked 4-4 on Feb. 8.
As the decisive fifth vote was announced for Curry during the Feb. 23 meeting, some of the crowd immediately headed for the exits. Others stayed to boo and heckle the school board, which made its escape through the back of the stage, and drowned out the Curry supporters.
The noise was so intense that the vote of board president Barry Williams couldn’t be heard. He later confirmed he voted for Curry to make the decision 6-2.
“The whole meeting went to chaos,” Williams said when contacted after the meeting. “The bottom line is, after five (Curry) votes my vote was meaningless.”
Valley West was 26-8 in Curry’s three seasons, but the District 2 Class 4A championship eluded the Spartans all three years.
Curry coached his last game at Valley West on Nov. 8, 2008, as the Spartans fell 48-18 to Bethlehem Freedom in the D2/4-11 Class 4A subregional quarterfinals. He resigned on Dec. 3, citing health issues as part of the reason.
“I’m not coaching anymore. I’m done for good,” said Curry, who was 64 at the time. “You won’t see me anywhere else.”
RETURN TO BERWICK
Curry kept his promise for three years and turned his football knowledge to television. He did the “Coaches Corner Show” for WNEP with former Riverside and Pittston Area coach Steve Armillay. He also did game-day telecasts with WYLN in Hazleton.
Berwick had moved on, hiring Gary Campbell Jr. from Wahconah High School in Dalton, Massachusetts. Valley West had moved on with Pat Keating running the program.
Campbell was a few months from starting the 2012 season at Berwick when an offer came to return to Wahconah. He turned it down in May but accepted it a month later, leaving Berwick without a coach.
But Campbell had a suggestion – bring Curry back.
“They’re definitely options we went through and George was one of them,” Campbell said at the time. “I thought the kids would be happy to have a legend like him leading them, and I knew the staff would stay to support him.”
Curry bailed out the program, which was already preparing for the 2012 season.
“I told them to hire me as an interim,” Curry said shortly after his return. “I don’t want any contracts. I’ll go a year, see how I feel and if you still want me I’ll come back. I’m ready. I’m ready to do it even though I have nothing ready.
“But I told them, ‘I’ll do it. I think we can pull it off.’”
Curry pulled it off for sure. Berwick made four consecutive appearances in the District 2 Class 3A championship, winning the title in 2013 and coming within a victory of playing for the state championship.
What would be Curry’s final season at Berwick started with controversy. The program was closed down for two weeks in the summer while Berwick administrators conducted an investigation into some issues, including the transfer of two student-athletes from Nanticoke to Berwick.
The school district cleared Curry from any wrongdoing. Curry, though, submitted his resignation effective at the end of the season.
However, Curry kept the door ajar for a return in 2016. That, he said for sure, would be his final year. He wanted to coach the current junior class, a group of players considered to be one of the most talented to play at Crispin Field, as seniors. Then it would be over.
But as Curry had said throughout the latter years of his career, his health would be the overriding factor. He had overcome prostate cancer while at Berwick. Some health issues led to his departure from Valley West.
If his was cleared by his doctors, he was planning to apply to coach in 2016. But even before the 2015 started, it was becoming evident that wouldn’t happen.
In August at the team’s media day, Curry sat in his office in the fieldhouse. He had difficulty raising his head. His once-booming voice was raspy. His left leg shook constantly.
His doctors, Curry said, ruled out certain ailments. They planned to test for others.
The Dawgs opened the season with three wins followed by losses to Valley West and Selinsgrove. About that time, Curry’s condition was getting worse as he was diagnosed with ALS.
No longer able to stand for the entire game, Curry would sporadically sit on an orange Gatorade cooler on the sidelines. His interviews that were often long and could occasionally stray off course to things other than football became shorter and shorter.
It became obvious to those around Curry that this would indeed be his final season.
THE FINAL GAME
Curry’s team reached the District 2 Class 3A championship game, but by that time he needed to be shuttled to and from the field at Scranton Memorial Stadium on a golf cart.
Still, Curry managed to hand out runner-up medals to his players after a 37-7 loss to Scranton Prep. He was then helped to the golf cart and whisked away to the locker room well ahead of his assistant coaches and players.
After a few minutes to gather himself in the locker room, Curry walked over to his belongings. He struggled to put on his coat then opted to leave it in his cubical. His players began to file in by then and a few came up and shook his hand.
Curry then took a couple sips from a bottle of water and turned to speak to the media for the final time as a football coach. His eyes swelled with tears. His voice was now a whisper only able to be heard through a device linking a headset to a speaker attached to his belt.
Questions came from different directions about the game, as if no one wanted to ask about the inevitable. Then someone did.
“Is this it, George?”
Curry didn’t hesitate to answer.
“Yeah, it’s over. I’m done,” said Curry after wiping tears from his eyes. “I’ll be 71 next Sunday. When I came back, I said I’d do it for three years. I did it for four.”
Curry coached his last of 562 games on Nov. 20.
S.John Wilkin/Photo 8/11/06 (SPTS)
Reach John Erzar at 570-991-6394 or on Twitter @TLJohnErzar