Ball State linebacker coach leaves family ties to join Neu in Muncie
In January, Ball State linebacker coach Johnny Curtis was the football team's defensive coordinator and baseball team's head coach at John Curtis Christian School in River Ridge, Louisiana.
He was in the school's workout room when his friend Mike Neu was hired as the Cardinals' head football coach.
Later that same night, Curtis said, Neu called to persuade the decorated Louisiana high school football and baseball coach to join him in Muncie.
“If it was just me, the answer would be yes immediately because I think that much of [Neu],” Curtis said. “But on the other side, I needed to make sure that my family dynamic would be right. I went back and forth.”
It was a tough decision for Curtis to leave for Muncie. The Louisiana native was named after his grandfather, the founder of John Curtis Christian School. His father, J.T. Curtis, is the head coach of the football team there and his brother Jeff is an assistant coach.
Johnny has the support of his family, but he knows they're going to miss him.
“Of course, in the beginning, like anything else, it was probably hurtful for him because he didn’t want to see me go,” Johnny said. “But now that time has gone by, our conversations have been much easier and I think he’s more excited and proud.”
Johnny's grandfather was a Baptist missionary who ventured through small communities to establish churches. He went home to New Orleans and began teaching to support his family, but suddenly resigned after a number of “immoral” incidents occurred at the school. It was then, in 1962, that John Curtis decided to open up his own school.
Johnny said people often ask why his grandfather would name a school after himself.
“He felt so convicted about starting the school he felt that if the school was going to succeed or fail, it was going to succeed or fail on his name,” Johnny said. “It’s how he always did things, a very honest, forthright, no barriers type of man.”
J.T. was a high school freshman when Curtis Christian opened, but he didn't attend until it had a football team his sophomore year. He went on to play college football at the University of Arkansas and immediately became the head coach of the Curtis Christian football team when he graduated in 1969.
In his 45 years and counting as the head coach, J.T. has the most wins as an active coach in high school football in the country. He hasn't had a losing season since going 0-10 in his first season.
Johnny followed in his father and grandfather’s footsteps at Curtis Christian. He played as linebacker at the school before going on to play three seasons at Mississippi State University. He transferred to Tulane University and red-shirted before being named captain as a fifth-year senior.
After graduating in 1995, Johnny returned to his roots to coach at John Curtis Christian School with his father.
For 19 years, Johnny worked and coached with his father. J.T. said he’s sad to see his son go but knows Johnny can succeed.
“Am I happy that he is gone? Absolutely not," he said. "Do I want him to do well? Absolutely.”
Johnny has already made the nearly 890 mile drive to Muncie, and his wife and three sons plan to move to Muncie at the beginning of the summer.
Many coaches jump at the chance to turn their winning program into a higher-profile job, but Johnny never left Curtis Christian. He had offers, but none of them seemed right for him and his family.
“You want to know that your craft and what you do, you can do it at the next level," he said. "It's always intriguing as a coach because you see yourself kind of succeeding in those roles."
That's why it took a special person and family friend to persuade Johnny to leave Curtis Christian — Mike Neu.
Curtis and Neu became friends through Danny Wimprime, the quarterback for the New Orleans Voodoo, when Neu was the Arena Football League team's head coach in 2008. Wimprime played for Curtis Christian and was a member of the first set of teams to win four state championships in a row. Years later, Neu’s kids also attended Curtis Christian.
Johnny said he and Neu were in the same line of work, but hadn't discussed working together before.
“We’re friends, our wives were friends, our kids were friends, but we never really talked professionally,” he said.
When he was hired, Johnny said, he had multiple discussions with Neu about his plans and goals. After all, he was making a decision that would affect his whole family.
“I don’t want to come here and then in a year we uproot and we roll, or two years we uproot and we roll.” he said. “[Neu] could go on and he might not take me with him, it’s the nature of the business.”
Johnny, however, believed in Neu's plan.
"He wanted a family atmosphere," Johnny said. "He wants to have your children involved there. So when he laid those things out, I felt comfortable enough to say this is something I can do.”
Success won't happen overnight, Johnny said, which is why he likes Neu’s “ladder process.”
Still, even if the Cardinals start contending for Mid-American Conference titles, Johnny said he will never forget where he got his start.
“I think before its all said and done, I’ll wind up back at Johnny Curtis school,” he said. “Where my family is and that’s where my career will finish.”