Coaching icons: Love of game keeps them going

Advocate staff photo by BRYAN TUCK. -- St. Thomas More Head Football Coach Jim Hightower coaches from the sidelines.
Advocate staff photo by BRYAN TUCK. -- St. Thomas More Head Football Coach Jim Hightower coaches from the sidelines.

John Curtis football coach J.T. Curtis has become synonymous with success, thanks in large part to winning 25 state titles.

When Curtis thinks about the success the Patriots have had, he also recalls a more humble beginning.

“We finished 0-10 the first year,” Curtis said. “At that point, I just wanted to find a way to get a win. Did I think I’d win over 500 games? No, not at all.

“And I still love the challenge. Every year is different and so is every team. Getting a team to work together, to grow and to make the most of its opportunities is what I like.”

From that winless beginning, Curtis and the Patriots have become Louisiana’s winningest football school and claimed a national title a year ago.

With a career record of 520-54-6, Curtis has more wins than any other Louisiana coach and ranks second nationally. He also leads all active coaches going into the 2013 season, which will include at least two nationally televised games for the Patriots.

St. Thomas More’s Jim Hightower ranks third at 357-112-1, just nine behind Haynesville coach Alton “Red” Franklin (366-76-8).

Lewis Cook of Notre Dame-Crowley (287-78) is the next winningest active coach, followed by Catholic High’s Dale Weiner (280-100).

Two coaches with more than 300 wins left the active coaching ranks after the 2012 season — West Monroe’s Don Shows (345-78) and Oak Grove’s Vic Dalrymple (320-99).

“There’s nothing like high school football on a Friday night,” Hightower said. “You have kids out there who lay it all on the line and give you everything they have. For me, there’s always been something special about that.”

Unlike Curtis, who has spent his career at one school, Louisiana’s other three active leaders started at other schools before settling into their long-term gigs. Hightower started at Catholic-Pointe Coupee and won a Class 1A state title there in 1978. He has been at Lafayette’s STM for 27 years and has led his team to the playoffs 25 times.

Cook got his first head coaching job at Rayne in 1977 and then won a state title at Crowley in 1989. He also has state titles in 2000 and 2009. Two stints as an assistant at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette were sandwiched into Cook’s career.

“I always wanted to be a head football coach in high school, win a state title and I wanted to coach on the college level,” Cook said. “I’ve been fortunate enough to do all those things.

“But I guess I’ve always thought of myself as a high school coach first. I still enjoy what I do. I love the game and I love working with kids and watching them grow.”

Weiner started his coaching career at CHSPC with Hightower in 1975 and went on to be an assistant at Lee High under Earl Noland before landing his first job at St. John. He went on to Trafton Academy and Catholic-PC. Weiner is set to begin his 27th year at Catholic.

“I had a chance to coach and learn for five years before I got my first head job,” Weiner said. “I had some great mentors. Everywhere I’ve been I’ve been surrounded by a lot of good people. And I really think that’s so critical to anybody’s success, along with your enthusiasm for what you do.

“There’s a lot of turnover in the coaching profession these days . There are a lot of guys who get burned out quickly, and I think a lot depends on the environment you’re in. I know I’ve been blessed.”

Kentwood’s David Currier (244-83) and Lutcher’s Tim Detillier (240-100) are next on the list of active coaches, followed by Ponchatoula’s Hank Tierney (233-85) and St. Charles Catholic’s Frank Monica (211-64).

All the active coaches on the 200 wins list have at least 20 years of high school coaching experience. Though some things have changed, Curtis contends others have not.

“The kids we coach deal with so many more distractions,” Curtis said. “But I think they all share the desire for three things. They want to be cared for, they want discipline in their lives and they want to compete in a team activity or sport.”