MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Canute Curtis makes his living chasing after 17-year-olds working as a defensive line coach for the Towson University Tigers. He knows the fickle nature of high school teenagers because he was once 17 and, yes, just like them.
A few years ago, West Virginia lost a linebacker to Rutgers because the coin he flipped landed on tails. Well, the circumstances were almost similar when Canute was being recruited by the same two schools back in the winter of 1992.
“If I told you the story of the reason why I came down here you would think I was the most ignorant kid in the world,” he laughed.
“First of all, I was going to go to Rutgers, but I had a huge fight with my dad. For some reason he wouldn’t give me a call that week so to spite him I said, ‘you know what, I’m not going to Rutgers.’ That crossed Rutgers off.
“What happened was West Virginia was recruiting me and then they stopped all of a sudden. I had to call Coach (Dave) McMichael back and ask him what the heck was going on. He said, ‘Hell, I didn’t think you were interested,’” Curtis recalled.
Like many 17-year-olds not too strong in geography, Curtis, from Amityville, N.Y., mistook West Virginia for Virginia. He had cousins living in Richmond and he thought it would be easy to go see them whenever he wanted.
“I told Coach McMichael that I could go see those guys every day from West Virginia, it can’t be that far from Richmond. He was like, ‘oh yeah, you can get to Richmond real quick,’” Curtis chuckled. “So I go to my mom, ‘guess what, West Virginia is real close to Richmond.’ I came down there thinking I was real close to Richmond and I can get my laundry done all the time and see my cousins on the weekend. My mom didn’t know any better, she was like OK.”
There you have it – some misinformation and a little spite got one of the best rush linebackers in school history to Morgantown, and today one of the newest members of the West Virginia University Sports Hall of Fame.
Curtis still owns the school record for sacks in a season with 16 ½ in 1996, earning consensus All-America honors that year by anchoring a defense considered one of the best in school history.
Nobody could consistently move the football on that unit and Curtis was a major reason why. He fit perfectly at rush linebacker in defensive coordinator Steve Dunlap’s new zone-blitzing scheme that he got from Dick LeBeau at Pittsburgh.
Dunlap envisioned Curtis doing for the Mountaineers what Greg Lloyd and Kevin Greene were doing for the Steelers.
“I was going to be a sam linebacker when I got there and they went up to the Steelers and changed the scheme,” Curtis said. “That’s when they changed me to a rush linebacker and I was smart enough to know that it was a defensive end that dropped off. They said, no, it’s a rush linebacker, so I agreed to play it.”
Curtis had some awesome games during his four-year career, accumulating 192 tackles, 34 ½ sacks and 26 tackles for losses. But it was a fantastic senior year when he really made a name for himself.
Curtis might as well have huddled with the Pitt offense in the ’96 opener in Pittsburgh because he was in the Panther backfield as much as quarterback Matt Lytle was. He also had great games against Maryland, Miami and Boston College, but the performance that really showcased his all-around talents came at Purdue.
Curtis was all over the field that day, rushing the quarterback, playing the run and dropping off into pass coverage. He had three sacks, six tackles, and a phenomenal one-handed interception while landing on his back. If not for a late Boilermaker touchdown, the Mountaineer defense would have pitched another shutout.
“They did a great job with me,” Curtis said of his defensive coaches. “They let me rush when it was time to rush, but I did have to drop and cover guys and things like that. There was Darrick Wiley and then Tarris Alexander - those guys were the rush linebackers my redshirt year and they sort of helped mold me into the player I became.
“When I made mistakes they made sure they talked to me about it,” Curtis said. “Then I had Coach (Donnie) Young. He was great – he was like a father figure to me.”
If you recall, West Virginia in ’96 also had Gary Stills, then a sophomore, on the other side of Curtis in third-down pass rushing situations and the two combined for 20 ½ sacks that year. The defense had 59 sacks in all.
“Physically Gary was quicker and more athletic,” Curtis said. “He was a speed guy, but I think I had a better concept of the defense and what it took. When we played, I promise you, I got a lot of credit but it was 11 guys playing together and doing their jobs. That’s one of the reasons why we were so good that year. We all kind of had an idea about the concept of the defense and the coaches did a good job of teaching us the defense and we all wanted to play well. No one wanted to think they were bigger than the defense.”
The two big keys to the great success the Mountaineer defense enjoyed that season were having an exceptional front four and a veteran, experienced-laden secondary. Curtis believes the secondary was really the secret to his ability to get to the passer.
“I tell guys all the time half the sacks I got were coverage sacks,” he said. “Those guys back there did such a good job. Over a two-year period we had guys like Aaron Beasley, Mike Logan, Vann Washington, Charles Emanuel, Charles Fisher and Perlo Bastien. We had guys back there that could really play.”
Despite his amazing production in college, Curtis wasn’t drafted until the sixth round by the Cincinnati Bengals, where he spent six seasons playing mostly on special teams (Curtis played sam linebacker in the pros). When he retired after the 2002 season, the last thing in the world Curtis ever thought he would do was get into coaching.
“You ask Dunlap this, when I was playing – every coach has a different approach with players and they motivate guys differently - and I couldn’t stand Dunlap,” Curtis laughed. “He would ride me so hard and he would say this and that to me and I would say, ‘You know what, if being a coach makes me as sour as you I never, ever want to coach.’”
So of course Curtis became a college football coach, first at Towson in 2004, and then making stops at Hampton with former Mountaineer Jerry Holmes and then at Tennessee State before returning to Towson three seasons ago.
“The first time (Dunlap) saw me out on the road recruiting when I started coaching he said, ‘I thought you told me you never wanted to coach!’” Curtis recalled.
The biggest challenge Curtis has encountered as a coach is trying to get kids to do things that came so easily to him. He was told right away when he got into the profession that he was going to have to realize that most of the kids he works with won’t be able to do the things he did on the football field at West Virginia.
“Someone told me when I first got into coaching that that was going to happen and then it was no big deal after that,” Curtis said. “I realized it, and when I saw myself in moments like that I said, ‘wow, this is what they’re talking about.’ It’s frustrating at times but it never became a problem.”
Curtis says he still follows the Mountaineers whenever he gets a chance, bringing his son Logan (named after WVU teammate Mike Logan) to WVU basketball games in the wintertime when he gets a break from recruiting. Curtis is also a big fan of West Virginia University President James P. Clements. The two got to know each other when Clements was working at Towson.
“He’s a great guy; a good football guy and a good athletics guy,” said Curtis. “He is going to do great things at West Virginia University.”
Curtis is hopeful his schedule works out and he is able to come to the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies the morning of the Connecticut game on Oct. 8. Towson plays Richmond later that evening in Baltimore.
“If the ceremony is early enough in the morning and I can drive back and be here in time for the game, then I’ll do it,” Curtis said.
You can be sure Canute will do everything in his power to return to the place that has meant so much to him.
“I’ve got a whole lot of Mountaineer in me,” he said. “My wife just can’t understand how excited I get whenever I get into the state of West Virginia. The whole state was great to me. Everyone treated me great there, and there is nothing like it anywhere.”
Things turned out pretty well for Canute Curtis at WVU, even if the school happened to be a little farther away from Richmond than he originally thought.Follow John Antonik on Twitter: @JohnAntonik