Commentary

Jim Curtin: A Philly guy in charge

Photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz

Jim Curtin said all the right things at his first public appearance as Philadelphia Union’s head coach.

More importantly, it was clear he meant them.

Curtin addressed hard topics head on, didn’t dodge tough questions, and at times talked almost without a filter between his brain and his mouth.

That’s a good thing. That’s how many people talk in Philadelphia. It’s one of the things I’ve always loved about this town. My family is from Brooklyn, N.Y., and they — and therefore I — typically operate the same way. You know what you’re getting with people like this: Blunt, straightforward, no BS.

Here’s what else you’re getting in Jim Curtin.

He’s a crazy passionate Philly fan too

First off, you’re getting someone who understands the demands and desires of Philadelphia fans as well as or better than any coach in any sport in Philadelphia’s history. Why? Because he’s a native, apparently just as passionate a Philly fan as the rest of you, and he understands what motivates it all.

“We have the most passionate fans in the league, I believe,” Curtin said Thursday. “I’m a Philly fan as well. My wedding revolved around fourth and 26th with Freddie Mitchell, so I know what goes on there. I was at the Matt Stairs home run game in LA. I was there for that game, I barely got out of Dodger Stadium alive. I know the ups and the downs, the tough moments.  Eric Lindros getting knocked out in Game 7 by Scott Stevens, I was at that game. I know the passion that the fans have.  I know the emotions that they have and I know that the thing that they want is winning. That’s what this is about. We need to win. And, we’re going to do that with accountability. Accountability on and off the field. That sounds like a simple message and I can sit up here and talk tactics and formations and all that stuff, but at the end of the day what matters in this town is winning.”

He has no illusions

Second, he also understands he has a pretty slim resume as a coach. Curtin, 34, has less than two years experience with the senior team, preceded by time with the Union youth academy. He was still an active player when the Union came into existence and actually had hopes of playing for the team. He has no illusions or entitlements when it comes to holding onto the head coach job on anything more than a truly interim basis.

“I know I’m a 34-year-old coach,” Curtin said. “That’s the reality of this situation. I have things to learn, but I do think I know what it takes to win in this league, that’s for sure. We joked about it, but I understand that there’s going to be a search for a coach to come in here. That’s going to happen. All I asked was that Nick keep me informed… I know that there’s a search that has to happen. That’s the process in pro sports. A lot of the guys that are going to be interviewed are my friends, that I’ve played with in the league and I know them personally, and that’s just the way it is. Again, I don’t care if I’m fourth in command, third in command, second in command or first in command, I care about winning in this city.”

If Curtin wants the job, he has to earn it by doing far more than just restoring the Union to mediocrity, and earning it won’t be easy after the last interim-turned-full coach was fired earlier this month.

That doesn’t mean Curtin is not capable, however. Tactical management is a big part of managing a sports team, but so too are leadership, management of people, motivation, and holding players accountable. Curtin will prove one way or the other what he can do in terms of tactics and leadership, but all you have to do is listen to the guy for a while to tell he has the other tools.

It also helps that he was an all-star in this league before injuries prematurely ended his career. He knows the league, knows the realities of it — travel, trades, etc. — and knows the difference between thriving and failing in it.

Addressing difficult issues

Third, he sounds willing to willing to address the big issues. When I asked him whether Amobi Okugo was a midfielder or defender (or both), he dodged the question a bit, but he did it in a way that made clear he was doing so in part because he wanted to make this decision after talking with Okugo. This shows an open mind, and it shows he thinks the player needs to be part of the conversation.

Not that John Hackworth didn’t do this, mind you. But it has always been fairly clear that, while Hackworth saw Okugo best as a central defender, Okugo sees himself as a midfielder. (Of course, if Okugo is a holding midfielder, what does that mean for Maurice Edu? That’s a topic for another day, but suffice to say, the option-to-buy that came with his loan looks much less a formality than it did a few months ago.)

Either way, Curtin said flat out that he thinks Okugo is a Best 11 player regardless. If the Union can prevent him from going overseas, Okugo should be the core around which this team is built.

Accountability is required

Fourth, Curtin sounds willing to hold players accountable, and he better, because Union chief executive Nick Sakiewicz certainly wants to.

“The last time I made a coaching change, it wasn’t on the players. This time, it is 80 percent on the players,” Sakiewicz said.

“In this business, you’ve got to take accountability as a player. I know that, because I was a player. You need to look yourself in the mirror and say, ‘Hey, my bad’ when it’s your bad. That honesty is really important. The players need to be accountable for the situation that we are in. And they also need to be accountable for getting us out of it.”

The knock on Hackworth from many is that he did not do this enough and that he played favorites. That may be unfair to a degree, but at this point, it’s irrelevant to the current situation.

Curtin said some good players on his team have had very poor starts to the season. He didn’t name names, but it’s fair to say that some of those guys are probably named Sheanon Williams, Austin Berry, and maybe even Maurice Edu. For example, take Curtin’s comments on Ray Gaddis and Sheanon Williams, and you basically pick up the following: Ray Gaddis is the starting right back, he earned it with good play, and Sheanon Williams better get awfully good at center back if he wants to stay in the lineup.

Close the door with class

Finally, Curtin treated Hackworth and now-former assistant coach Rob Vartughian in a classy way when he correctly noted that both left the Union in better shape than when they arrived.

It’s true. They did.

Whether you identify that time of arrival as the first season with Peter Nowak or June 2012, when Hackworth took over as head coach, the statement is true. Yes, the Union’s record is pretty poor right now, but Hackworth cleansed the organization of Nowak’s toxicity and restored its credibility among players and fans. This isn’t to say the Union are completely lacking in dysfunction, but that isn’t on Hackworth. He was and is a class act, and there remains a segment of Union observers (me included) who think he could have put this team in the playoffs this year despite the team’s current record. His final half in charge shows that.

But that’s done with. Curtin gets a clean slate. Let’s see what he and his team can do with it.

 

Author’s note: For those interested, Curtin has appeared twice on the KYW Philly Soccer Show. To hear those podcasts, click here and here.

19 Comments

  1. UnionDues says:

    Curtin hardly has a clean state when he was as much involved with the failures over the past few years as Hackworth was. Hackworth didn’t run his own practices but delegated this instead to Curtin. So when the players look like they don’t even practice together, what does this say about Curtin? Blaming the players is taking the easy way out.

  2. Looking forward to seeing how Curtin sets his team up tomorrow night.

    BTW – Is it 6 PM yet?

  3. james lockerbie says:

    Can’t wait for 6pm end of my work day and just in time to head home for the game!

    Question was Curtin running the practice with his lesson plan or trying to teach Hackworth’s plan?

    Sometimes its easier to teach your own strategy

  4. Southside Johnny says:

    Talk is cheap. Whenever Hack was at his worst, I often wondered if his staff were as lost as he was or simply ignored by him. Time will tell.

  5. This article was not very informative. Too many questions left unasked/unanswered: Has Curtin ever been the head coach at any level? If so, what were the results? Does he have a preferred style of play or formation? Is there someone he played for or coached under who had a special influence on how he thinks about the game? What is his vision for the Union this season? In the years ahead? Does he have any immediate plans to do things differently than his former boss? Etc.

    Based on this report, all we know about Curtin is that he’s a Philly guy who wants to win and who thinks Edu and Williams have been under-performing this season. That’s fine as far as it goes, but you could probably describe most of the Sons of Ben the same way.

    • I love the Union’s “local guy” agenda. It’s really some amazing stuff.

      “Forget about Jack…Wenger is local!”

      “Jim Curtin will be a good coach…because he’s local!”

    • MSG – to be fair, I’m not sure that much is known about him yet. He’s an interim coach in every possible way (I think there’s no more than 5% chance of him getting the full time gig). He just retired as a player a few short years ago, worked with the Union Academy, and as an assistant for a couple of years now. There’s no head coaching record to review, and probably very little insight into his plans for the team so far, outside of what was offered in his very first press conference. The one thing that did come out in initial press conference comments is a desire to stick with a steady back 4, which can’t hurt. Your questions are good questions, and I suspect we’ll get much more detail addressing those over the next few weeks.

      • Thanks, Scott. Perhaps my questions about Curtin’s coaching resume reflect my own ignorance about the Union Academy. Is the Academy strictly a training group, or do the players there compete as a team against other academies? If the latter, what role, if any, did Curtin have in coaching with the Union Academy?

        Good point about the new coach’s desire to maintain a steady back four. The constant roster turnover has been a real problem for the Union this year. Some of this was due to injuries, of course, but the former coach’s desire to tinker with the lineup also played a big part.

      • MSG – they definitely compete against other academy programs, by age group. I haven’t followed the U’s academy closely enough to know the extent of what his role was there.

      • Thanks. Your posts have been very informative.

    • Dan Walsh says:

      No, he hasn’t been a head coach. As noted above, he was only an assistant with the Union.
      .
      All those other questions — Jury is out.
      .
      So yeah, that leaves the local guy thing. And that is pretty interesting.

  6. Congrats, Jim! You haven’t even managed your first game with the Union yet, and commenters are already getting on your case. Welcome to the job!
    .
    Okay, time for some pregaming! Let’s go, USA!

  7. james lockerbie says:

    I am not ” getting on his case “, just trying to get down to the meat and potatoes. What are his chances of making it as a coach? Does he got “it”

    • kingkowboys says:

      Only time will tell, but while I completely agree that those questions need to be asked they are for farther down the road. I wouldn’t ask those questions until the end of this season. There has been a huge shake up. Curtin must focus on winning games and the team. The visionary stuff comes if he is permanently made the manager. He must operate in a hear and now mentality. He can’t look down the road more than the next game.
      .
      Critical displays of ability as a coach will be motivating players, selections, tactics, and in game adjustments. Everything that can directly influence a win, lose, or tie. Everything that most believe Hackworth failed at while manager.

    • I’m not saying we don’t need to know more about him. I’m just saying it’s been a week. It was an introductory press conference. They just handed him the syllabus. Let’s not start grilling him for finals.

  8. Unless they go undefeated the rest of the way he CAN NOT be the head coach next year. They need new blood. At this point interim coaches are tainted with this organization. Not a knock on him and I think he’s smart enough to realize that. Ideally if they don’t do something great after the first 5 games back then he plays with lineups and players so the next coach knows exactly what he has.

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