New NCHS football coach drawn by the challenge

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

By DOUG IRELAND, Journal Sports

Why would Jess Curtis leave the powerhouse small school football program he built at his alma mater, in his hometown of Many, to take over as coach at perennially-struggling Natchitoches Central High School?

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.

Why make a move that shocked prep football coaches and observers around the state?

That 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.

“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. In 2019 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’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.