From the Army to the sidelines, Curtis Luper is the key cog behind TCU’s recruiting

TCU co-offensive coordinator Curtis Luper (left) with his Stephen F. Austin coach John Pearce (center) and Pearce’s son/ WR Mike Pearce (right).
TCU co-offensive coordinator Curtis Luper (left) with his Stephen F. Austin coach John Pearce (center) and Pearce’s son/ WR Mike Pearce (right). Courtesy of John Pearce

Curtis Luper has always had a knack for recruiting.

Just ask John Pearce, the first coach Luper worked under in a coaching capacity at Stephen F. Austin in 1995-96.

“We were recruiting a kid out of Dallas Skyline and it’s between us and Kansas State,” Pearce said. “SFA is not going to beat Kansas State many times because most kids want to play in the bigger conference. But the parents really liked Curtis and we made our pitch.

“We didn’t get the kid, but you wouldn’t believe this – the parents gave Loop a puppy. They just loved him so much that they gave us the damn dog. That’s Curtis.

“I just think Curtis Luper is one of the most special people I’ve met. I’m 71, coached 33 years with stops at schools like UCLA, Texas A&M, SFA, and haven’t passed many people like Curtis.”

Luper is now working his recruiting charm and magic for TCU. He’s entering his sixth season on Gary Patterson’s staff, and was promoted to co-offensive coordinator and running backs coach before last season.

Luper is one of the Frogs’ top recruiters and has turned the ground game around. TCU had the fourth-best rushing attack in the Big 12 last season, averaging 174.1 yards per game (4.6 yards per attempt).

Two running backs have topped the 1,000-yard mark under Luper, too, in Aaron Green (2015) and Kyle Hicks (2016). Darius Anderson was on pace for 1,000 yards last season before missing the final four games with an injury.

Green was the school’s first 1,000-yard rusher since 2010, and the consecutive 1,000-yard seasons by Green and Hicks was the first consecutive seasons with a 1,000-yard rusher since 2002-03.

“Coach Luper was a great coach, man, he brought a different type of swagger to that running back group when he became the running backs coach [in 2014],” said Hicks, the Arlington Martin product who is hoping to resume a professional career after undergoing ACL surgery in May.

“I contribute a lot of my success to him. He teaches you so much on and off the field, and knows how to work with your strengths and put you in the best position so you can be the best player on Saturdays.”

Added Green: “One of the best all-around guys I’ve had the privilege of meeting. A man definitely committed to turning a group of boys into men. That’s for sure.”

Army stint

Only a future Hall of Fame running back was better than Luper in the state of Texas in 1983 – Houston Willowridge’s Thurman Thomas.

Luper, who had a standout high school career at Sherman, ranked as the No. 2 running back in the state, and he and Thomas signed with Oklahoma State. But Luper found himself buried on the Cowboys’ depth chart behind Thomas and another running back by the name of Barry Sanders.

So Luper decided to join the Army.

“My stepfather was in the military and I guess I had an affinity for it deep down inside,” Luper said. “I didn’t know it, but I was at Oklahoma State with Thurman Thomas, Barry Sanders and myself … only one football … so ultimately I said military.”

Luper became an air traffic controller for the Army, a job he described as “fascinating.”

“It was gratifying. It was tough,” Luper said. “The training, the school, it was tough. Six months of air traffic control school, then a year of OJT [on-the-job training] before you’re FAA certified.”

The job took him around the country and world. He went through basic training and air traffic control training in Alabama with stops at Fort Rucker and the since-closed Fort McClellan.

He spent time at Fort Carson in Colorado, befriending pilots who took him to the most remote parts of the Rocky Mountains. And he spent 13 months at Camp Casey in Dongducheon, South Korea, about 10 miles from the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).

“Right by the 38th parallel,” Luper said, smiling. “It was a phenomenal experience. I learned a lot in the military. I was already patriotic before I went in and became even more patriotic. It was just a great chapter in my life.”

Back to football

Luper spent four years in the Army and had plans to become a civilian air traffic controller in his post-military life. But the competitive juices of being an athlete hadn’t left and he discovered he had a year of eligibility left to play college football.

Luper, just trying to find a school to play at, called his godfather who was a campus minister at Grambling State.

“I wanted him to talk to coach Eddie Robinson, it was the only person I knew at a college,” Luper said. “Then my godfather told me my high school coach at Sherman, John Pearce, was coaching at Stephen F. Austin, why don’t you call him?”

Luper did just that. Pearce had one question – can you still play?

“Curtis’ direct quote was, ‘I’m bigger. I’m faster. I’m stronger. And I’m older than I ever was,’” Pearce said, laughing. “But I gave him a scholarship over the phone. Sight unseen. I didn’t know what he weighed or anything like that, but I had that feeling about Curtis.

“I hadn’t seen him in five or six years. I trusted Curtis.”

It ended up being a win-win situation for all involved. At 27, Luper rushed for a team-high 1,054 yards with nine touchdowns and was named All-Southland Conference running back in 1993.

Curtis Luper (left) with John Pearce (center) and Mike Pearce (right) in 1993 at Stephen F. Austin. Courtesy John Pearce

The Lumberjacks went from a 3-8 season in 1992 to an 8-4 season in 1993, reaching the Division I-AA playoffs.

“That year was phenomenal,” Luper said. “I’m playing with guys who are 20 and we won a lot of games. I didn’t know it, but that’s really when I started coaching. If I had been 22, I would’ve been drafted in the second or third round, but who wants a 28-year-old running back? So I signed with Houston and it was a great experience.

Story in the Houston Chronicle about Curtis Luper resuming his playing career at age 27. Courtesy of John Pearce

“I accomplished all my goals. Coach Pearce told me, ‘When you finish playing, you’ve got a job coaching.’ So I went back as a graduate assistant in 1995 and we won 11 games and lost in the semifinals.

“I thought, ‘This coaching thing is easy.’ Winning as a coach is satisfying. Winning as a player is the ultimate, but winning as a coach is very satisfying as well.”

Coaching today

As stated, Luper has made a name for himself on the recruiting trails.

He discovered quarterback Cam Newton when he worked at Auburn as the running backs coach and recruiting coordinator from 2009-12. Luper went to Blinn College to look at a wide receiver, Dexter Ransom, when he noticed Newton and convinced the Tigers to sign him.

Newton, of course, went on to win the Heisman Trophy and helped Auburn win the national championship in 2010.

At TCU, Luper has been influential in bringing in players such as Ross Blacklock, Darius Anderson and Jalen Reagor.

In a sport that is ever-changing and evolving, Luper has adapted well. He’s still regarded as one of the top assistants in college football.

“We either change or we get left behind,” Luper said. “Gary Patterson is a perfect example of that. He’s a throwback, common sense, traditionalist kind of coach, but he’s also intelligent to know that … for instance, the social media era we live in now. He’s smack dab in the middle of it. He follows like 15,000 people and he interacts with lots. So, yes, we change.”

Hicks had nothing but good things to say about Luper’s coaching style. Players could see a military background, but not a drill sergeant by any means.

“Coach Loop was very straightforward,” Hicks said. “He was black and white. That’s one thing I loved is that he kept it real. In order to improve as a player, you need to know where you messed up. But he was cool and laid back, too, someone you could talk to.

“He is a cool dude, man. You can sit there and talk to him all day. He has stories for days.”

Green agreed that Luper had stories for days. He remembers almost every team meeting Luper would have a story from his childhood, playing days or military career to share.

But Green also remembered how hard Luper could discipline players for showing up late. Showing up late once usually did the trick to make sure it wouldn’t happen again.

“One time I rolled into a meeting a minute late and he made me hold a pushup position when we were watching film,” Green said. “He does things like that everybody -- you’re going to be in a pushup position for damn near 10 minutes if you’re late. And you still have to watch the film while you’re struggling to stay up.”

As with most coaches, Luper has aspirations to keep climbing the coaching ladder. He interviewed for the Cleveland Browns running backs coach job last offseason, and Patterson has mentioned him as a potential head coach one day.

Nobody who knows him would question if he’d be successful.

“One of the greatest things in my career is that Curtis called me that day in 1993,” Pearce said. “He had one year of eligibility left and he told me, ‘I’m bigger, faster, stronger and older than I ever was.’ We only had 63 scholarships and I gave him a full one over the phone because I believed that much in him.

“I still to this day believe that much in him. TCU is beyond belief lucky to have him.”

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