CHESTER — Jim Curtin remembers sitting on the upper floors of Veterans Stadium with his dad, watching baseball, watching football and, more often than not, observing fan behavior.
He’s seen winning teams and losing teams, legendary players and others struggling out of the Phillies’ bullpen. He saw managers and coaches cheered and booed, celebrated and guessed at, hired and ultimately laid off.
“We sat high, for five bucks,” the Union coach said, recalling times spent with his father, Jim Curtin Sr. “I’ll just say some different things happened. As a young as a child, you couldn’t help but grow up quickly, watching the things that happened.
Curtin saw it, memorized it, understood it, and enjoyed it all.
“I love the history of sports culture here in Philadelphia,” he said Thursday, before a morning practice session. “Our fans are well-informed and they have a bad reputation nationally with the stupid nonsense the media likes to come up with. But I think we have big fans. They are honest, but you have to earn their respect.
“And once you have it, it’s for life.”
Curtin has coached Union since taking over from John Hackworth in June 2014, and he’s used his experiences as a young sports fan growing up in Oreland to make it work. He was truthful and open, never criticized even the most disagreeable fans, good with the press, available to the community. And one more thing: He won. Not always, but enough. Not the MLS Cup — not yet, anyway — but the Supporters’ Shield for MLS’ best regular season record of 2020 and a berth in the playoff semi-finals last year, when his team was forced to play without 11 players due to coronavirus restrictions in a 2-1 loss to New York City FC.
“I want to win this Cup,” he said, “and I think we have a club that can achieve that.”
The progress is therefore real and measurable, with the Union going from a 2010 expansion team to a regular contender. For that, Curtin became the dean of major league coaching in the sports market he grew to appreciate. And the race is not tight. Since Curtin was promoted in 2014, 13 major league coaches or managers have been replaced about 15 miles north of Subaru Park. The list: Ryne Sandberg, Pete Mackanin, Gabe Kapler and Joe Girardi; Brett Brown; Craig Bérubé, Dave Hakstol, Scott Gordon, Alain Vigneault and Mike Yeo; and Chip Kelly, Doug Pederson and Pat Shurmur, despite only coaching one Eagles game. Among current Pattison Ave. bosses, John Tortorella has yet to coach a change, Rob Thomson has managed 28 games, Nick Sirianni has coached 18, and Doc Rivers has spent two seasons with the Sixers.
“It’s weird when you say it like that,” Curtin said. “But it passed quickly.”
Nor is Curtin’s longevity a reflection of a different pro-sports culture, as when he was hired he was the Union’s third manager in three years. And it has been found that seven MLS head coaches have been fired – mostly coincidentally – after losses to the Union since 2014, with one replaced last week.
So there’s more to Curtin’s longevity than timing.
“Part of it was because I had an ownership group that put a plan in place and stuck to it,” he said. “I think a lot of times in professional sports the message is, ‘We’ll give you time’, but once a few losses occur, there’s change. We started with a plan that was really, really focused on developing young people and young players from this region – from Philadelphia, New Jersey, Delaware, local players – being in our environment and improving and ultimately winning games .
“Winning is the most important part that obviously keeps you in a job, that’s for sure. But when I started this job, I never imagined I would stay this long. I owe the players all the credit in the world that, but also the property of having patience. There were losses in the beginning, struggles. But they let me learn on the fly.
“When I came to this position I was 34, I was the youngest coach in the league. I made a few mistakes. But I learned that coaching is more than Xs and O’s and being on the training ground. It’s about managing people, it’s about delegating, it’s about getting to know each player, inside and out. We have 15 different countries represented in this dressing room, with ages from 16 to 35. And you really better know these guys if you want them to fight for you.
That’s what Curtin understood as a youngster, watching games at the vet, realizing that it mattered little more to fans — and critics — than having players ready to fight to win.
“We are proud that the team represents the mentality of the city,” he said. “We are a blue collar team. We punch above our weight. And it shows in the fan base. After a big win, I could be in a coffee shop in Queen Village and someone comes up and says, “Big win last night.” But if we haven’t played well, they will let me know that we have to be better.
Curtin accepts everything — the handshakes, the grunts — because he was once that fan too. In many ways, the Bishop McDevitt graduate still is. That’s why he appreciated Brown inviting him into his Wells Fargo Center office to talk coaching before a Sixers game. That’s why the former Villanova soccer star admits he was “a little starstruck” when Jay Wright asked him to be a guest on the podcast. That’s why he enjoyed meeting Girardi, after throwing a first pitch at Citizens Bank Park.
“I can’t imagine coaching in any other city,” he said. “I can’t even know what it might look like. My heart wouldn’t be there like it is here.
For this, a Curtin family tradition of attending sporting events continues, as he can accommodate up to 50 ticket requests for friends and relatives for any Union game. Chances are his kids – daughters Ryan and Avery, 14 and 12, and son Miles, 10 – look a lot like him, watching the games but also the people.
Although Curtin has a desire to coach at the Olympics or perhaps in some capacity with the United States national team, he is exactly where he wants to be professionally at 43, despite rumors of offers from work in Europe or elsewhere in North America.
“I love Philadelphia,” he said. “And as long as the ownership group and as long as (sporting director) Ernst Tanner wants to have me here, I want to be here. I really want to win an MLS Cup here.
“I owe it to the fans to finish the job and do it.”
As well as anyone who has ever coached professionally in Philadelphia would know what that would mean.