Jess Curtis made an agonizing decision: take on a new challenge

HEADED EAST:   After leading Many High to 142 wins, six state championship game appearances and three state crowns, Jess Curtis was introduced last Friday as the new Natchitoches Central football coach. (Photo by DOUG IRELAND, Journal Sports)

By DOUG IRELAND, Journal Sports

NATCHITOCHES — Why would Jess Curtis leave the powerhouse Class 2A high school football program he built at his alma mater, in his hometown, to take over as coach at perennially-struggling Natchitoches Central High School in the state’s largest classification?

Last Friday afternoon, Curtis explained, after he was introduced as the Chiefs’ new coach to media, local leaders, and a couple dozen of his new players in a press conference at the sparkling new football fieldhouse at NCHS. That’s three times in the same sentence that “new” was used, and that provides the first insight into what will take some a long time, if ever, to understand.

Why make a move that shocked everyone – first and foremost, Many High football players, their families, Tiger supporters, and experts like prep football coaches and media around the state?

That new building is part of the draw. Not only because of its impressive structure and functionality, but because of the statement made with its construction last year. Curtis was curious to see it, and to hear about why it was built. He loved what he saw, and was intrigued by what he heard from Natchitoches Central principal Micah Coleman and Natchitoches Parish superintendent of schools Dr. Grant Eloi.

But it was fundamentally a desire to scratch an itch, to see if what worked in Many could transfer to a much bigger school, one in search of something it has rarely tasted in the six decades it has existed – consistent success in football, let alone football championships.  NCHS hasn’t won the district this century. The Chiefs have two winning seasons in the last decade, the same span when Many has emerged as one of Louisiana’s premiere powerhouses.

Can Curtis carry the Chiefs from the doldrums to great success?

“You gotta believe. I’m here because I do,” Curtis said. “Everybody has called or texted me, some good friends, (asking) ‘man, what are you doing?’ That was one of the big things that got me here — this is a challenge. I like to build, I like when maybe you’re not the favorite, when you get taken lightly.  It’s going to be fun to see how quickly we can climb that ladder.

“I needed that. I needed a new challenge,” said the man whose Tigers had won 53 consecutive district games … had played in state championship games in each of the last four seasons, winning two of the last three (going 38-2 overall this decade) … and had plenty of talent returning from the 13-0 squad that won last fall’s Division III Non-Select state title.

It wasn’t the first time he thought of coaching elsewhere. He didn’t chase opportunities because he was happy at home, but he fielded phone calls after every season from school leaders around the state wondering if he might consider a move. After the 2019 season, he had conversation about the NCHS job, and because it was 25 miles from home, he did entertain the prospect. Not for long.

His nephew Tackett Curtis was a freshman, and it was already obvious he had a chance to be a very good player. Sunday, Tackett was named Mr. Louisiana Football, as he settled into Los Angeles to enroll at Southern Cal to play for the Trojans. In 2019, the coach/uncle knew Many was poised to challenge for state titles in the next few years. That expectation obviously was on target.

“I wanted to see my nephew through his four years. Four straight state championship games, that was fantastic. Now I think it’s time. It was a crossroads question. I didn’t have much of a Christmas holiday. I was playing tennis in my head, whether I wanted to go or stay, and I want to give this a shot while I’m young enough to hoop and holler and get rolling. I think I’ll need all that energy here and I can’t wait to do it.’

The timing was right to scratch that itch. There was only one opening he found appealing.

“If I’d have sat back and stayed, it would have been wonderful. What I’ve had at Many is what coaches dream of having. I know that. I’m lucky, I’m blessed. But at the end, I’da said ‘what if?’ and I’m not a ‘what if?’ guy. We’re going to go do it, we’re going to see, we’re going to take a swing at it.”

“I wanted to try something different, at another level. Natchitoches Central gives some pull here with these new facilities, the (enrollment) numbers they have. I don’t have to move across the state for a great opportunity. It’s here. It’s a 5A opportunity in my backyard.  The kids here are a lot alike those we have at Many. Can we get them to buy into what we do, down the road? We’ll see. I think we will.”

By the time friends and coaching colleagues were texting and calling asking why he would move to NCHS, Curtis had been through the ringer.

“It was tough. I give credit to Micah Coleman for giving me time, and he did. If he had pressured me to make a decision, I would probably still be in Many. It took me that long to piece it together.

“I talked to them multiple times, and Dr. Eloi was here on most of those talks. It’s impressive to sit with a superintendent who is that invested in seeing great improvement in the football program, and to team up with a principal who has won state championships as a coach. Micah knows how to win here. It’s a great combination of leadership.

“You see an administration that’s hungry for football to win, to be significant, to have the kids have a great experience, and that’s why I’m here, to try to give them what they want, and to accept a new challenge,” said Curtis.

He couldn’t imagine a negative to staying at Many. The program was built on rock-solid foundation. The support was tremendous. He loved the town, the school, his team, and had everything he needed – except a big challenge. The Tigers program takes nothing for granted, but it’s at the level and has such returning talent that the 2023 season and beyond is shaping up as more of the same top-level success.

Knowing what is in place at MHS provided some comfort for Curtis as he considered moving east. The history teacher in him as well as the football guru knows there are no guarantees when there’s a change in leadership, but there’s every reason to have faith in the Tigers’ future.

The most difficult part, he said, was telling his players. Since, it’s been  coping with consternation and frustration from back home, from good people who just don’t see it the way he does. He understands, and hopes in time, they will, too. There was nothing about his decision that was easy.

He’s got to wrap up things at Many High, where his brother Moses is principal and he will assist in picking his successor. That may take a couple weeks, he said, but he’s already building his new staff. His son Jesse will quickly get involved leading the Chiefs’ strength and conditioning program, what he repeatedly cites as the key on the path to a consistently winning team.

“That starts immediately,” he said.

But he’s never turning his back on the Tigers.

“I’ll have a big part of my heart there, hoping for the very best for those kids, that program,” he said. “Anything I can do to help, there’s no doubt. It’s my alma mater, my hometown. They’ll get a great coach, no doubt.”

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