SI Vault
James Murray
September 22, 1958
Cactus Jack Curtice talks like Tennessee Ernie, but he is awakening memories of the 'Vow Boys' and the 'Wow Boys' in defeat-conditioned Stanford alumni
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September 22, 1958

A Cactus Plant In Stanford's Ivy

Cactus Jack Curtice talks like Tennessee Ernie, but he is awakening memories of the 'Vow Boys' and the 'Wow Boys' in defeat-conditioned Stanford alumni

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Stanford University is not the kind of institution a career football coach would naturally gravitate to. It is a school where the alumni once gave the coach a new automobile for posting the worst record in its history. It once banned football altogether for 12 years (1906-1918) as too tough for scholars, and in 1949, when it beat Harvard 44-0, it almost died of embarrassment after Harvard haughtily canceled the remaining game of a home-and-home series.

It is the place where a president once signed a football coach and then waited two years for him to show up because it was unthinkable to ask him to tear up the contract where he was. And it is the place where another coach once posed for a picture sleeping on a football on the practice field—and then sued when a newspaper used the picture to prove he didn't care whether he won or not. He collected; but then went out and lost seven, won one and tied one.

It is small wonder that when Stanford announced last winter it was looking for a football coach the football intelligentsia on the West Coast asked simply, "Why?"

But the facts are that Stanford is also a school where the football team went to the Rose Bowl three times in succession. It is also the school where five footballers—four players and a coach—were elected to the football Hall of Fame, and it is the school which once fielded a squad known melodramatically as the "Vow Boys," a bit of bravura worthy of Burt L. Standish, as the players vowed never to lose to rival USC (they never did).

In short, Stanford is the kind of school chronically in the grip of athletic schizophrenia. It is in the West, where winning is a compulsion, but it can never quite reconcile itself to the accidents of chronology and geography which prevent it from being a member of the Ivy League, and one of the highlights of suspense each season is whether Stanford will be fielding a football team or a bunch of nice kids off the dean's list who can't see very well without glasses.

The surprise in the football world last January was not so much that Stanford had signed on as football coach Jack Camp Curtice, then at the University of Utah (SI, Oct. 28, '57), as the fact that Curtice had signed on with Stanford. At Stanford the coach is known as Director of Football, which, all things considered, seems an embarrassed attempt to hide the real nature of his business. Jack Curtice is a football coach, one of the members in the best standing of a hardy and determined breed. He comes to win, not to direct, and if anybody ever catches him asleep on top of a football, it will be at 2 o'clock in the morning in the privacy of his bedroom.

Most of the other Directors of Football at Stanford (Chuck Taylor, the present assistant athletic director, is an exception) have been career businessmen dabbling in football on the side. The more mortifying aspects of the trade—such as hardnosed recruiting or scrambling after able-bodied boys—they have left to unsqueamish alumni. They were so circumspect about it, in fact, that Stanford was almost the only school which went uncaught and unpunished in the recent rash of proselyting scandals on the West Coast. Stanford's coaching staff was pure and had the won-lost record to prove it.

A football coach for 28 years and a head coach for 14, Jack Curtice seemed hardly in the mold. Moreover, he is a man who likes to sprinkle his conversation with colloquialisms which seem more suited to Tennessee Ernie than the cultured San Francisco peninsula.

This is to report that a close examination of the facts in the case reveals that neither Stanford nor Coach Curtice seems to have made a mistake. In a sense, Coach Curtice is as suited to and as suitable for his new surroundings as the Hoover library, which rises 280 feet in the air from the middle of the Stanford campus, the most arresting piece of architecture in all of Palo Alto.

He was selected for the job only after Stanfordites had carefully observed him coaching the West squad in the East-West Shrine games of 1956 and 1957. "We liked what we saw," says Stanford's sports publicist, Don Liebendorfer. "Curtice had short practices, a sense of humor, was light and airy and put no pressure on the kids." In short, about the only thing that might have given a true Stanford man pause for thought was that Curtice won both times—7-6 in 1956 and 27-13 last year.

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