RIVER RIDGE, La. — A large sign hangs in front of John Curtis Christian Academy, and if not for that, you might miss the nondescript small group of brick, cinder block and aluminum-sided buildings where the winningest high school football coach in America presides.
JT Curtis has won 26 state titles at the school and has a career record of 551-61-5, No. 1 among active high school coaches by a wide margin.
The Louisiana High School Athletic Association (LHSAA) is attempting to strip 20 of those wins from across three seasons, including the Patriots’ 2013 state title. The sanctions stem from the alleged recruitment of All-American offensive lineman Willie Allen, now a freshman offensive lineman at LSU.
LHSAA Executive Director Eddie Bonine ruled that because Curtis assistant coach Jerry Godfrey allowed Allen to live with his family, that constituted recruitment because it helped the school to “retain” Allen. The school argued Allen lived with Godfrey’s family because of transportation issues.
The LHSAA Executive Board upheld Bonine’s ruling days before the season opener. Last week, Curtis and the school sent in the $5,000 to take the case to arbitration.
Curtis’s teams win, not a game at a time, but by methodically grinding out three or four yards at a clip in the split-back veer option until the opportunity for a big gain comes along. Curtis’ success with the offensive system has required his teams to be precise and have a stubborn belief that what he’s doing is right. That same belief explains why he’s fighting the LHSAA’s sanctions.
“The contention of the LHSAA was he would never have stayed in school here had he not stayed with Jerry,” Curtis said. “That was not the testimony of Willie, his sister, or his mother. But the (LHSAA) didn’t pay any attention. They made their ruling and we are now in a process of trying to go through arbitration or even court. I want to be able to say and know that we did not violate the rule in our opinion. We think we have a very reasonable case where an unbiased (venue) would come to that conclusion.”
The LHSAA has declined to comment because of the ongoing litigation.
Curtis is the headmaster of the school and has been coaching its football team since 1969, when his first team went 0-10. If his father, the late John Curtis Sr., hadn’t been the school’s founder, that might have been the end for his son’s coaching career. Instead, JT Curtis has had only one losing season since and won his first state championship in 1975.
Though he’ll be 70 in December, Curtis looks a decade younger. In six years, at his career pace of slightly more than 11 wins a year, he could pass the all-time record of 621 wins set by John McKissick of Summerville, S.C., who retired last summer.
“I have great admiration for John and the things he has done,” Curtis said. “The victories aren’t that important for me. What’s important to me is working with young people on a day-to-day and year-to-year basis. I’m not that much into records. I didn’t even know what our record was until a few years ago when we started being questioned about the 500-win mark.
“As long as I can continue and I have the enthusiasm that is necessary to motivate young people, I’ll continue to do the work, because it is truly a passion.”
Curtis said allowing Allen to live with Godfrey speaks more to the Christian values of his school than of any attempt to gain an advantage. He said those values were fostered by his father. who grew up in the rough Irish Channel neighborhood of New Orleans, not far from where Allen was making his near two-hour commute to the school until he moved in with Godfrey.
“We had letters (to the LHSAA) from six students in the past who weren’t athletes who had lived with teachers or administrators for a variety of reasons,” said Jeff Curtis, JT’s son and an assistant coach and teacher at the school. “We had a situation where a mom and dad were having an ugly divorce and to keep a child out of that situation, the student stayed with an administrator. We gave example after example after example [of students] that weren’t even athletes, but they really weren’t interested in hearing that.”
In documents obtained by Gannett partner The Daily Advertiser, LHSAA investigator Joe Kleinpeter wrote that he “could find no evidence to prove that” Allen was provided housing in order for Curtis to retain him. He acknowledges that Godfrey taking in Allen is a rules violation but also writes, “While the perception may appear to be that the move into the Godfrey home was for athletic purposes, I could find no evidence to prove that to be provable. It is, however in line with the creed and mission of a Christian school to help the whole child, and all aspects of their life.”
The Patriots are 3-0 and ranked No. 16 this season in the Super 25 with a game with Brother Martin (New Orleans) at 8 p.m. (ET) on Friday, to be televised live on ESPNU. Last week, when the Patriots won 34-31 at Parkview Baptist (Baton Rouge), Allen was there, cheering his former teammates on.
“We FaceTime every night,” Godfrey said. “He texts my wife every day. He sent me a text last week and saw us at the game Friday. He was excited to see his former teammates and classmates and obviously me. We talked Saturday after the Mississippi State game and we talked (Monday). He tells us his schedule for the week as far as exams and we remind him to get prepared for that.”
Godfrey said faced with the same situation, he wouldn’t do anything differently.
“I would not knowingly do something to hurt the school, and I would not willingly do something to hurt my career,” Godfrey said. “But in the same breath, I could not turn my back on someone because of some made-up interpretation of a rule that doesn’t exist but they used to their advantage when necessary.”