It was the middle of August, just three weeks before the start of the high school football season. The changes around John Curtis Christian School were starting to take shape.
A sparkling new trophy case, boasting 26 football state championship trophies, greet you as soon as you walk in the doors of the River Ridge school.
Walk past that shrine of trophies and you enter J.T. Curtis’ new office, at least quadruple the size of his old one. It’s the office that John Curtis Sr., who founded the school in 1962, used to work in. He passed away in 2005.
“J.T. never felt comfortable working in there, but he decided to go ahead and move in there after 10 years,” said Lydia Curtis, J.T.’s wife.
But there is another move causing a bigger buzz. The Patriots will be playing in the Catholic League this season.
“When we had the meeting with the other coaches, I told them we were going to convert it to the Christian League,” Curtis said.
He was joking.
But the longtime coach hopes the decision to join District 9-5A with Brother Martin, Holy Cross, Jesuit, Rummel, Shaw and St. Augustine will help unify the Louisiana High School Athletic Association. The LHSAA’s split playoff format of select and nonselect schools, implemented two seasons ago, is something Curtis hopes goes away.
It’s the reason, when the LHSAA decided to allow teams to play up in competition, he jumped at the chance.
“I figured if we played in the top level, it will smooth everything out, and we can work it out and make it equitable for everybody,” Curtis said. “The bottom line for me is, if we don’t end up putting the state back together, it’s going to end up hurting high school football across the board.”
Last season, the Patriots competed in Class 3A during the regular season but were allowed to play up in Class 5A (known as Division I for the select schools) in the playoffs. They reached the championship game, falling to Jesuit.
Curtis, the nation’s winningest active coach, said last season’s success had no bearing on the decision to play up this year.
“We have always played good competition, so we’ve always felt like we can compete,” he said. “From year to year, we’re going to be a little stronger or a little weaker, but we are going to compete.”
History won’t argue with that.
Curtis is 18-4 all-time against the current members of the Catholic League: 3-0 against Brother Martin, 2-0 against Holy Cross, 7-1 against Shaw, 6-2 against St. Augustine and 0-1 against Jesuit. The Patriots have never faced Rummel, which makes the last weekend in October one of the most anticipated high school games of the season.
“We knew joining the league was going to create a lot of interest,” Curtis said. “I think that’s good for high school football. And I go back to the split. I think the split diminishes that interest.”
Jesuit coach Mark Songy, one of two Catholic League coaches to beat Curtis last season, knows the addition of the Patriots will strengthen the district even more.
“It’s already a real tough league where you can’t take any breaks,” he said. “We all know how well-coached and what type of players they have. I know some people probably get worried about it, but I think it’s exciting. As hard as you work in the offseason, I think you should be playing the 10 best teams you can find, and we certainly have seven of those in the league now.”
Rummel’s Jay Roth agreed.
“It makes everybody even better — including them,” he said.
Curtis linebacker Tariq Pierce, who wasn’t born the last time the Patriots didn’t make a state championship game (1995), awaits the opportunity.
“We have been waiting for a long time for this,” he said. “We finally get the chance to show that we can play in the Catholic League.”
It’s unlikely Curtis will be as dominant in its new district as it was in the past, when it steamrolled league opponents week in and week out. Curtis has won so many district championships that the school has lost track.
Dating to 2007, the Patriots have reeled off 38 consecutive district wins, and they have won 58 of their past 59 district games since 2002. You have to dig deep into the record books, turning all the way back to 1974, to find the last time Curtis lost more than one district game in a season. They once won 136 district games in a row from 1977 to 2001 until O. Perry Walker ended that run.
But the Patriots always made up for that easy district schedule with a brutal nondistrict slate, including games in recent years against St. Augustine and Karr, as well as out-of-state powerhouses.
Curtis, looking to add to his 540 career victories, said his team has prepared no differently this season.
“We do what we do, and we are going to do the best we can to have our team prepared physically and mentally,” he said. “That’s not based on who we play. That’s based on who we are.”
Who they are is no secret. It welcomes you as soon as you enter the building.
The trophy case boasts only state championship and runner-up trophies. (There is a separate display down the hallway for other trophies.) The oldest trophy in the case turn 40-years old this year.
Can they add to the collection this year?
“I can’t tell you if we will win two games in the league or five games in the league,” Curtis said. “But I can tell you that we are going to line up and compete.”
Curtis posed for a picture in front of the trophy case, then returned to his office.
He proudly pointed at a an old framed photograph on a desk.
“I sure wish you could’ve had the chance to meet him,” J.T. said.
Three people were in the old picture.
His son Johnny.
And John Curtis Sr., who surely would be awfully proud to know his son finally moved into his old office.
And J.T. knows his father would have been just as proud about the decision to move his team into the Catholic League.
“My father was a competitor who loved to compete,” J.T. said.
“He would’ve loved it.”