Lessons Learned as a Wildcat Helped Fuel Curtin's Climb
June 28, 2014
By Mike Sheridan
Villanova Media Relations
CHESTER, Pa. -It is a sun splashed June day on the pitch at PPL Park. Members of the Philadelphia Union are putting the finishing touches on a training session ahead of a U.S. Open Cup contest as they look to gear up for a second half push to help ease the pain of a sluggish start to 2014 that resulted in a change of field leadership.
Standing at midfield at the center of it all is the freshly minted interim Union manager, a just turned 35-year old whose soccer flight began in earnest as a Villanova Wildcats standout from 1997-2000. Jim Curtin, a local product from Oreland, Pa., has navigated that path from undergraduate defender to Major League Soccer field leader in what feels like a blink of the sporting eye.
Yet there is much more to the story and to help understand the ascent it is instructive to consider a low moment which played out on a long ago Sunday afternoon on West Campus. On this September day in 1998 the Wildcats were hosting the nationally ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish in a pitched BIG EAST tussle. The underdog `Cats were more than holding their own before an enthusiastic throng. The game was deadlocked as the drama built late in the match. One goal figured to spell the difference between victory and defeat.
In the end it did
The game-winning play began when Villanova's star center back - Curtin - committed an ill-conceived miscue that wound up in the back of the Wildcats' net. It is the reality of a back's life - when he or she makes a critical mistake in front of their own goal, the error can loom large.
None of that made Curtin feel any better as the Fighting Irish celebrated a 2-1 victory.
No words were exchanged between Curtin and his coach, Larry Sullivan, that day. In a sense, though, none had to be - the sophomore understood fully what had transpired. Sixteen years later, at least one informed observer believes that was a turning point, an afternoon when a polite and unassuming young man began to transform himself into a world class player.
"He never made that kind of mistake again," states Sullivan, Curtin's coach for the entirety of his career as a Wildcat.
Back at PPL Park, the Union is nearing the end of its training session under the direction of their new mentor. Where he once willfully patrolled the area in front of his own goal both at Villanova and through a nine year professional career that included an appearance as a 2004 Major League All-Star, these days Curtin is tasked with a whole new set of responsibilities.
"It's been kind of a whirlwind," he says with a smile after greeting a visitor and taking a seat in his new office adjacent to the Union's spacious locker room.
He still looks the part of the first team All-BIG EAST performer he was at Villanova before becoming the program's initial MLS draft pick in 2001. His arrival as the man responsible for the on-field work of Philadelphia's youngest pro sports franchise may have been a thunderbolt of sorts but it's a role Curtin began contemplating early in his pro career as a member of the Chicago Fire playing for Bob Bradley (who later became the U.S. National Team coach).
"It was probably around my third year in the league when I started to look around and it clicked - as a center back you kind of see everything, make little tweaks and communicate," states Curtin. "I think during your first few years in the league you're just happy to be there. Then you start to think about the future and fortunately I was playing for a great coach in Bob Bradley. You really listen to the messages you get from someone like Bob."
Curtin also benefitted from being part of a Fire club that featured experienced veterans willing to mentor younger players, among them current Villanova associate head coach Zach Thornton. At the time Thornton was the in early stages of a long and decorated career as an elite goalkeeper. He quickly took a liking to the young center back.
"He was great," states Thornton of his former teammate. "As a young player he listened and was humble. He brought a great attitude into the locker room and we had a good group of guys that I really enjoyed playing with. As time went on, Jim became a leader himself."
After he wrapped up his career playing two seasons for Chivas USA in 2009, the next chapter beckoned for Curtin.
"I think for most pro athletes, you're never ready for it to be over," he says.
Yet he adapted quickly.
During his career Curtin maintained his roots in Pennsylvania, getting married (Jen) and beginning a family that today includes three children. Once he accepted the notion that his days as a player were over, Curtin began to actively contemplate a role in the game and he pursued it with the working class persona that defined his game. He pursued his coaching certification and began coaching at the youth level while also volunteering in the fall of 2010 on his alma mater's staff at Villanova.
"It started with young kids," Curtin says now. "You got to see them get better and better. Now it's the pros, which is more challenging because you're trying to get the most out of guys doing this for a living. You lose a little bit of the innocence of watching a kid get better. But you also appreciate how skilled players are at this level and what they have to put into it to succeed."
The climb began at the YSC Academy in Wayne in 2010 and Curtin later joined the Union at the academy level. He served as head coach of the Union's U-18 unit and directed that club to the 2012 Generation Adidas Cup. On Nov. 29, 2012 he was elevated to the role of assistant coach with the Union MLS unit.
Then came the events of June and an IPhone box full of congratulatory texts and emails.
"It came way faster than I thought it would," states Curtin of his dramatic rise. "But this is the business part of pro sports. Things happen quickly and you have to make adjustments on the fly. It's been a challenge but it's a challenge I'm up to."
In his introductory press conference at PPL Park Curtin noted that he is a product of the Philadelphia sports scene with the accompanying emotional scars to prove it. He brings with him not only an understanding of the community in which he coaches but an understated command of the action that was born of a work ethic, smarts, and yes, even a few low moments.
The youth soccer scene in suburban Philadelphia during the 1990s was markedly different than it is today. Club programs were active but the identification process that exists now thanks to the Olympic Development program was far more random. Mostly there were word of mouth recommendations from club coaches.
The first thing most observers noticed about the soccer novice Jim Curtin was his length. He would eventually top out at 6-4, which made him seem more suited to the basketball court than the soccer field. But this was an exceptional athlete with the kind of deft footwork that gave him a rare blend of size and skill on the pitch.
At the age of 16 Curtin earned a roster berth on the Pennsylvania state team. College coaches paid close attention to this elite roster and suddenly the specter of college scholarship dollars loomed for the Bishop McDevitt student. Among the college coaches he came in contact with was Sullivan, the man in charge at Villanova.
Curtin was operating in the midfield in those days but Sullivan believed central defense would be his ultimate destination. There were offers on the table - Princeton and Notre Dame among them - but Sullivan convinced Curtin to become a Wildcat.
"We were lucky," states Sullivan. "We were local and a Villanova education meant something to him and his parents."
"I was a bit of a late bloomer," adds Curtin. "Something clicked between Larry and me. We didn't talk a ton when I was a 16 year old. But I think he trusted me then and it turned out to be a great decision. It was down to maybe a half scholarship at Notre Dame but Larry showed a real commitment to me to try to go there and build something."
Sullivan was a former central back himself, a Philadelphia native and Vietnam veteran who preferred the direct approach. Curtin was a child of the suburbs, polite to a fault, suddenly thrust into a position of leadership from the day he arrived.
"I told him at the start - you can't be a freshman," Sullivan says. "We don't have the time for that. You need to play like a sophomore from Day One."
It was quickly apparent that Curtin was a difference maker. He earned BIG EAST Rookie of the Year honors while starting all 20 games as a rookie, helping lead the Wildcats to the BIG EAST Tournament for the first time since 1993. Yet that isn't to suggest that every day was a breeze.
"We had our moments," notes Sullivan.
"It was an eye-opener in a lot of ways," adds Curtin of his early days in college. "I learned a lot fast. He knew how to motivate me. It wasn't always a pat on the back. When there were games I thought I played well, he made sure to show me on the tape where I had made mistakes. In the games where I thought I was bad, he put his arm around me and showed me the positives. He was a nurturing kind of coach and Bob Bradley was the same way - but they had very different deliveries."
Curtin developed into one of the BIG EAST's best performers over the next three seasons, the misstep against Notre Dame notwithstanding. He was recognized as a first team all-conference choice as a senior in 2000 but the Wildcats were unable to add the goal scoring spice to challenge the elite in one of America's top soccer conferences.
"We didn't win a ton of games when I was there," states Curtin, "but I learned so much from Larry Sullivan. He was always very direct and honest with me. I was a young kid when I came to Villanova and had a lot to learn. It was humbling."
One particular message from his college coach resonates with Curtin to this day.
"I'll never forget him saying it: if you don't learn to hate losing, you can never learn to love winning," says Curtin. "That was something that stayed with me. Let's just say I grew up a lot under his tutelage."
When Curtin's senior year was over, Sullivan phoned Bradley in Chicago.
"I told him this kid could be a good pro back," recalls Sullivan. "They brought him out there and the rest is history."
The athlete who left Villanova produced a solid pro career as part of successful Fire sides. In part, Sullivan believes that had to do with his transformation from a soft-spoken youngster into a confident leader.
"He was one of us but he was the quiet guy who liked to sit in the back during his time with us," Sullivan explains. "We had to encourage him to assert himself. But that situation helped him - it allowed him to grow into that role. He was a real loyal and a smart guy with a very subtle sense of humor who always cracked my wife up. The confidence was the final piece."
Curtin's new position brings with it a set of assignments that might have seemed daunting to him during his days on West. He sat before a roomful of cameras and microphones and coolly handled questions during his debut press conference alongside Union CEO Nick Sakiewicz. There have been numerous media hits tied to the 2014 World Cup, including one with WIP Morning Show host Angelo Cataldi.
"I actually don't mind the press conferences and media stuff," says Curtin. "Soccer is selling itself right now with the World Cup and the interest in the U.S. National Team. I'm a Philadelphia guy and I think I understand what it means to be a fan here."
The Union won a pair of hard-fought U.S. Open Cup matches in the first two games played with Curtin at the helm but more substantial challenges await in the remaining 18 games on the MLS slate (Philadelphia carries a 3-7-6 mark in MLS action a contest at New England on June 28). And while there is a natural focus on his relative lack of professional managerial and coaching experience, there is a flip side to that - he is only a few seasons removed from a respected playing career. He has been where his players are now, eager to extricate their club from a tough spot.
"There is such a fine line between winning and losing at this level," he notes. "It comes down to attention to detail. In our sport that means both boxes. It means being great defensively with clearances, blocks, and side tackles. When we get chances inside the other team's 18, we have to finish them. That's been the difference for us this year. We've been a little bit unlucky but I'm a big believer that you are what your record says you are. So we have to sort that out.
"From a team standpoint, I just think we need to get back to competing the right way. We've played a good 75 minutes, a good 80 minutes, a good 85 minutes but we've come up short in these five or six minute periods. We need to eliminate that and if we do that we will turn things around. We've got a good group of guys."
Of course, there is the matter of the prefix before his title. Curtin is an interim manager at this point and while he is a candidate for the full-time position, Sakiewicz has said that the Union will study a wide range of options for the slot before making a final decision.
"It's day-by-day and I understand that," Curtin says. "Nick Sakiewicz and I had a great talk. He asked me what I thought about the interim tag, if I was nervous about it. My response to him was: every coach is an interim coach. I think he appreciated that. He's been very honest with me that they are going to open up this search and that there are tons of quality candidates.
"But I also know what the organization thinks of me and I'm comfortable with that. I just want to win - that's all I care about."
That part of Curtin's approach has never wavered through his travels from Philadelphia to Chicago to California and now to a leadership position with a franchise in a major market hoping to make its way to the top of MLS. Sullivan once helped teach Curtin about winning and losing in an elite conference and remains a trusted mentor to him. He believes his one-time pupil is well-suited to this new role.
"It was always in him," states Sullivan. "We just tried to help him see it."