Sorting through conversations about Jess Curtis and Chiefs’ football

The news reported here Friday, which was floating around town and elsewhere for days, stirred up conversation and consternation around the Natchitoches Central High School football program.

But come Monday, everything looked alright out on the Highway 1 Bypass. New coach Jess Curtis and his staff put the Chiefs through an energetic first workout of spring practice. More will follow.

Will Curtis be the man running them? Very likely, yes. There is a sliver of doubt, because he is among a group of applicants hoping to take over the vacant West Monroe High School football post.

Curtis interviewed for that job last Thursday, along with two others. More candidates have been interviewed since, with those conversations expected to wrap up today. Presumably, West Monroe’s new principal, Don Lane, will coronate the new ruler of the WMHS kingdom Wednesday or Thursdsay.

The fact that there are several people interviewing – most with ties to the Monroe area, and Class 5A football, and even with experience in the Rebels’ powerhouse program – makes the odds longer for Curtis to get the call.

That’s good news for NCHS, despite reactions to the contrary by some Chiefs’ supporters who cried “traitor” whenever they heard their new coach might be their former coach.

In January, when the Journal broke the news that Curtis was leaving his dominant Class 2A program in his hometown to take over on the La. 1 Bypass, there was sheer jubilation around town, and justifiably so. His 13 seasons in Many saw him quickly convert a mediocre program to a magnificent one.

Can he do something along the same lines at NCHS? Unlike previous hires this century, Curtis has tons of credibility that suggests he can. He’s only done so at one place, his alma mater, but he’s done it so spectacularly, while blasting bigger schools in non-district games, that it wouldn’t be surprising if the Chiefs finally emerge as a consistent championship contender with Curtis in charge.

Let’s tackle some pressing questions. I’ll offer my opinion. Yours may be different.

Was Curtis disloyal by applying for the West Monroe job? You can make the argument, but I’d say this is the rare exception. WMHS has every resource needed to continue as one of the state’s greatest Class 5A programs. How attractive is the job? It’s as good as any in Louisiana. It’s what NCHS dreams of being.

Important to note West Monroe reached out to select coaches statewide to encourage applications. I don’t believe Curtis chased the job; I think he only got involved when assured the search was open and he was a strong candidate. This is a unique situation. He’s not looking for a way out of 71457. The West Monroe post is a destination job with everything a coach could need already in place. That level of job opens maybe every 5-10 years. They’ve had two coaches in 30-plus years at WMHS. They’ve won eight state championships.

Is it unsettling that he decided to apply and interview? Sure. Complicating the natural reaction was the inevitable twist of the rumor mill, already spinning wildly before last Friday’s story in the Journal. When neither Curtis or administrators offered any public statements, what was there to do other than speculate? It would have been simple enough to say, “I was contacted and asked to apply for one of the great jobs anywhere in high school football. I am completely enthusiastic about what we can do at Natchitoches Central. What I’ve learned in conversations with West Monroe will help us progress faster to build a championship Chiefs’ football program.” Wouldn’t have mitigated all the angst, but would’ve helped. Hold that thought – that message could come in handy in the days and weeks ahead.

Will he get the West Monroe job? Curtis would be a great pick, but it would be a leap of faith along the Ouachita River. Pundits note he’s never coached in a 5A game. He has beaten 5A foes at Many, soundly, but not game-after-game. West Monroe doesn’t have to roll the dice. Most of the finalists are coaches with experience either in the Rebels’ program, in the highly-competitive Monroe area, or in 5A ranks elsewhere. Odds are strong that somebody who’s been there will be the choice.

Will he be the Chiefs’ coach this time next year? Yes (unless he emerges as a compromise candidate if local favorites logjam in West Monroe). Here’s an absurd thought: since he applied for another job four months after getting the one he has now, he should be terminated.

Curtis was a dream come true for the Chiefs in January. NCHS was the talk of the state for the coup. The coaching staff he’s put together is varied and accomplished. When the 2023 season kicks off, few if any high school football programs in the state will have gathered as much new respect and attention as NCHS, and Curtis is 100 percent responsible.

The fact that West Monroe sought him out and interviewed him attests to what a respected figure he is statewide. They know what it takes and believe Curtis has it.

Building the Chiefs into a successful program will take time. It will take steadily improving support from  the community and alumni base. It will take progressive thinking and bold decision-making from leaders capable of that, parish schools superintendent Dr. Grant Eloi and NCHS principal Micah Coleman, and other key personnel. It will take unprecedented flexibility. Can all that coalesce into the best-case scenario? That’s the challenge ahead. But there are no questions about the quality of the coaching.

Why should Chiefs fans trust him? He only spent 13 years coaching at his alma mater.  He made the move east, stepping out of his comfort zone, because the challenge, and the potential, intrigued him. Plenty of people in Many were mad he left. Some still are. Now no small number of folks here are miffed he got involved with West Monroe, but opportunities of that caliber are rare. Curtis is not somebody who waffles. He is extremely confident. He didn’t make the move to NCHS on a whim. He believes he can make magic happen here – just not overnight.

How can the players believe in him? They already do. They’ve seen his passion daily since early January. They’ve seen their progress in offseason conditioning, and other areas. It’s their team, really, and Curtis is the best opportunity they’ve ever had to achieve things unattainable for prior NCHS squads.

Best route from here? Everyone associated with NCHS should hit the reset button. The Chiefs have hired a great, not good, football coach, a proven winner of championships. He’s going to push for things that haven’t been done here before. He’s going to need help to build a Chiefs’ program that reaches its potential.

What’s that? It’s pretty good.

These things sometimes come full circle. At the peak of his success, amid collecting those eight state championships, the late, legendary West Monroe coach Don Shows was very interested in…  the Natchitoches Central job after Mike Cieslak’s departure. As an assistant coach under Sam Goodwin at Northwestern in the late 1980s, then staring down the Chiefs across the field in district battles, Shows knew the landscape.

Shows saw the potential. He had made it happen at West Monroe. He thought it was possible at NCHS. Ponder that.

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