McKissick's record may be broken on the Bayou

J.T. Curtis of John Curtis Christian School in River Ridge, La., is 530-56-6 as a head coach - 83 games behind Summerville's John McKissick.

RIVER RIDGE, La. - The big-hearted drill sergeant who might break legendary Summerville head coach John McKissick's national record for victories by a high school football coach has complete attention from 80 players seated on the floor of a gymnasium <URL destination=",-90.2212559,14z">two blocks from the Mississippi River.

</URL>It's already 9:21 a.m. on a steamy summer Monday. J.T. Curtis - preacher, headmaster, New Orleans TV personality, gourmet cook - won't waste another second.

"We are here to teach you how to play this game correctly," Curtis, 67, says in a booming voice possibly carrying 10 miles down river to the French Quarter. "If you do not want to focus, that's fine. We will give you your money back and you can go swimming. We expect you to make progress from Day 1 to Day 2 to Day 3. I expect you to go over that progress in your mind when you go home."

That Curtis is lecturing to cross-legged kids as young as 6 at the John Curtis Christian High School football camp partly explains success known across every bayou from Lake Charles to Grand Isle.

Curtis has won 26 state championships (McKissick has won 10).

Of course, McKissick, who turns 88 on Sept. 25, is still coaching. And still winning; Summerville was 11-3 last season.

McKissick is 613-151-13 since his Summerville debut in 1952.

Curtis is 530-56-6 since 1969, and no team at any level of football can match his program's recent dominance.

John Curtis Christian competes at a lower classification than Summerville, roughly equivalent to the South Carolina High School League's Class AA. But the Patriots were crowned national champions by USA Today and four other polls in 2012 after posting their 13th perfect season.

Family ties bind a program as unique as New Orleans itself:

Curtis' late father founded the non-denominational Christian school.

Both of his sons and five other relatives are on the football staff.

There are only 400 students (275 boys) in grades 9-12 and Curtis adheres to having players on offense or defense but not both.

Though their nice brick Lower School is nearby, only a few modest buildings make up John Curtis Christian's tiny high school campus.

No homefield advantage; the Patriots "host" games at three fields in various parts of the metro area.

Curtis wins with a throwback split-veer option offense installed in 1973. Players begin learning it on Lower School teams.

"Some people say this is like a mini-junior college, and I agree with that," says Hunter Dale, a senior free safety who just committed to play at Nebraska. "They teach you how to compete, how to work hard and how to win. Definitely how to win."

They teach you how to manage your football, your studies, your Sunday mornings. Curtis is an ordained minister who regularly delivers sermons to 110 parishioners in the school gym.

He is so meticulous in his daily preparation he has a schedule for a visiting reporter.

"At noon, I have you going down the street for a shrimp po boy (sandwich)," the New Orleans native says in a deadpan baritone. "You should be able to get back by 12:45 to interview our strength coach at 1."

Recruiters like Nick Saban and Les Miles know the Patriots aren't afraid of the big boys. They often face top teams in Louisiana and other states. One of the Patriots' two losses during another state championship run in 2013 was a 29-28 heartbreaker to 3A Saint Augustine High School. Leonard Fournette, who signed with LSU as the consensus top running back recruit in the nation, rushed for 255 yards in the win.

The Patriots beat Tampa's Plant High School, 33-3, at the Superdome in 2012. They play Lufkin (Texas) High School in a Battle of the Border game on Sept. 13 at the Independence Bowl in Shreveport.

One of the state titles came in 2005. A 10-1 season despite a six-week Hurricane Katrina interruption is chronicled in a book, "Hurricane Season: A Coach, A Team and their Triumph in the Time of Katrina" by Neal Thompson.

John Curtis Christian graduates include a quartet of running backs that went on to the NFL after major college stops: Joe McKnight (Southern Cal), Reggie Dupard (SMU), Chris Howard (Michigan) and Jonathan Wells (Ohio State). Malachi Dupre, the Patriots' star last season, went to LSU as the top-rated wide receiver in the country.

But as varsity players trickle in for conditioning drills this morning, the eye test reveals an unimposing group for such a powerhouse. Willie Allen, a 6-6, 300-pound junior rated among the nation's top offensive line prospects, is among the exceptions.

These, Curtis says, are mostly "blue-collar kids with blue-collar parents" attracted by a relatively low tuition of $7,000 per year. There are Jews and Muslims at the Christian school, which is 30 percent black. There are some need-based scholarships, usually awarded with work-study programs.

All the coaches teach at the school.

"We have a lot of average high school players that work hard and are committed and have been doing the same things over and over for years," says Mike Robertson, a 65-year-old offensive line coach who has been one of Curtis' assistants for 40 years.

The real recipe for glory is through the gymnasium door and across a small courtyard. A weight room crowded with morning lifters is the essence of J.T. Curtis' legacy, representative of a work ethic that is the family business.

Asking for "Coach Curtis" triggers mass confusion around here. A newcomer to John Curtis Christian learns fast.

The guy in the royal blue shorts and white polo shirt with red JCC logo? He's simply "Coach J.T." J.T. Curtis, the head coach and headmaster, gave up his spring gig as baseball coach. But only after winning six state titles.

Johnny Curtis, the oldest of J.T.'s two sons, is the special teams and outside linebackers coach. And head baseball coach. His wife Dawn is the volleyball coach.

Jeff Curtis, J.T.'s youngest son, coaches running backs and quarterbacks.

Leon Curtis, J.T.'s brother, has been an assistant coach since he left the Marines in 1971.

One of Leon's sons, Matt Curtis, is the wide receiver coach. Another, Steve Curtis, is the defensive backs coach.

Lance Rickner, J.T.'s nephew, is an offensive line coach.

Strength coach Tommy Fabacher is married to J.T.'s only daughter, Joanna.

Oh, and principal Larry Manguno is J.T.'s uncle.

It's crazy.

Crazier on Friday nights.

"On game days, you wouldn't think we like each other," says Fabacher, who played football at John Curtis Christian and LSU. "We can get into some arguments pretty quick. But J.T. does a good job of not letting it escalate."

J.T.'s father, John T. Curtis Sr. laid the foundation, literally. A Pineville, La., native, he was a Southern Baptist missionary in the 1950s, a double-major in Spanish and English who taught school and saved souls in rural Illinois before moving to New Orleans in 1962. It took courage, starting an unaffiliated Christian school with no outside funding and competing for students in a heavily Catholic parish.

J.T. Curtis answered his father's call for a football coach upon graduation from Louisiana College.

Six kids showed up for that first practice. At 22, Coach J.T. went 0-10. But the Patriots made the playoffs in 1970, Curtis' second season. They won a 1975 state title without a single college signee.

Curtis had discovered a conditioning edge. That system within the system has been state-of-art for decades.

The simple staple, dedication, is on display in the weight room.

"More, Billy!" a coach shouts as the varsity player does push-ups with a large weight on his back. "I need more!"

Similar scenes are repeated in high schools all summer all over the country. But other head coaches can only dream of Curtis' refined control.

The simple rules:

The summer conditioning schedule includes one week off after the school year ends, one week before the school year starts and three days at Fourth of July.

Miss a workout while healthy and you're off the team.

"Parents just know to adjust their schedules," Curtis says.

The coach is flexible - in his own way. There are no cuts. Curtis wants players to play at least two sports. Starting quarterback Myles Washington doubles as the Patriots' center fielder.

Curtis doesn't start spring practice until baseball season is over. He limits summer 7-on-7 football activity because of conflicts with American Legion baseball. The school's ties to major college weight training programs allow for shared innovation unlike anything else in high school football.

LSU strength coach Tommy Moffitt was a John Curtis Christian coach for 17 years.

Alabama strength coach Scott Cochran played for the Patriots.

So did Florida State strength coach Vic Viloria.

"There are some great teams to this day that don't understand that they should have beaten us," Fabacher says. "We were hungrier."

Johnny Curtis, 42, was a linebacker at Mississippi State before he transferred to Tulane and became a team captain. His son Jay will be a freshman this season, the first Curtis grandson to play for J.T.

"There is a bond between the work we put in and how we coach it," Johnny Curtis says. "We try to get better at what we do but we don't try to reinvent the wheel. We know what we're doing."

In the center of all the sweat, Washington, one of the team's best players, walks from drill to drill encouraging younger players.

"We don't slack off. We're not slack," Washington says. "Coach J.T. doesn't like slack."

Mercifully, someone opens the door and a breeze blows in off the Mississippi River ahead of a summer storm.

Folks knew early on that Curtis was up to challenges.

"J.T. always had a lot of grit. Nothing would stand between J.T. and success," says Donald Bonewitz, a human resources director at Durr Heavy Construction in nearby Harahan who played football with Curtis at East Jefferson High School. "His teams don't win because they're the most talented group. They sacrifice and commit. The coaches drink the Kool-Aid and the kids have bought in. They all live it every day. Success is infectious with these guys."

Lydia and J.T. Curtis have been married for 44 years and have 10 grandchildren. They met when she sang at a John Curtis Christian graduation when J.T. was in college. She's an administrative assistant at the school and the choir director on Sundays.

"There was no doubt there was something special about J.T.," she said. "It didn't take me very long after we were married to see that his values and work ethic and determination made him perfect for the field God has put him in."

The players know. Curtis isn't much for foul-language but isn't above the occasional helmet smack to get someone's attention.

Washington, the son of a New Orleans police officer, seems to enjoy every minute of it. He was in fifth grade when he saw John Curtis Christian celebrating a state title at the Superdome on TV.

"Mom," he said. "That's where I want to be."

It goes on for generations. Players drop by the school as frequently as streetcars passing on St. Charles Avenue.

Norman Drake, 45, has taken a break from selling life insurance to bring his son to Curtis' football camp. Drake played for the Patriots from 1983-86.

"They're just very committed to what they're doing here," Drake says. "You can tell by the love they have for the kids and the love they have for God that they just love what they do."

Opinions are mixed about whether J.T. Curtis loves it enough to catch John McKissick.

Ninety minutes into an interview, J.T. Curtis leans across the desk in his wood-paneled office.

"Tell me," he asks. "What's John McKissick like?"

At the Patriots' current rate of 10 to 14 victories per season, Curtis would break McKissick's still-growing record seven or eight seasons after the final McKissick season.

"We've heard a bunch about John," Curtis says, "especially in the last three or four years."

But obsessed with McKissick? Hardly.

Strength coach Tommy Fabacher: "I'm not even sure who John McKissick is. But I just got rid of my flip phone. We're always more about this team coming up. This season is real important to us."

Offensive line coach Mike Robertson: "I'm guessing that's the guy from South Carolina?"

J.T. Curtis, like McKissick, realizes such a major record is about more than one person. It's representative of everyone who played in and cheered for the program.

"I don't want to minimize that accomplishment," Curtis says. "But, and I honestly mean this, if I died tomorrow and went to heaven without another win, it wouldn't bother me a bit. Because it's not about wins, it's about the young people."

He points out the school also has a great band and Key Club.

"My dad always told me, 'Son, the tail does not wag the dog,'" Curtis says. "If we had a school that relied only on its football program, we wouldn't have enough students to have a school. We must have a value that people recognize, and there's more to it than just books, or religion, or athletics. We want kids to be involved."

Curtis isn't slowing down. He finds time during the season to co-host a popular New Orleans high school football highlights show on WNGO-TV every Friday night during the season. He's such a good cook, a meal prepared by Curtis went for $1,000 at the football fundraising auction.

Menu: Shrimp and avocado salad; crawfish and cauliflower soup; rolled green onion sausage stuffed with pork loin, mushrooms and breadcrumbs; oyster dressing; roasted Brussels sprouts; Bananas Foster.

A mile down Jefferson Highway, a pair of brothers who played for Curtis share an office building.

"J.T. is amazing," says Jimmy Burns, Class of 1985, a dentist. "And it's amazing to me how he can get a different group of kids every single year to come together as one."

Jeff Burns, Class of 1980, is a chiropractor. He forecasts many more wins for Curtis.

"How old is that coach in South Carolina?" Jeff Burns asks.

John McKissick will be 88 in September.

"J.T. will probably be coaching until he's 88, too," Jeff Burns says. "What the hell else is he going to do? Coach and preach."