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The Word on Coaching: Penn State's Char Morett-Curtiss on 'Heart'

by on July 02, 2017 8:00 PM

 Char Morett-Curtiss has been at the heart of Penn State athletics for the better part of four decades.

She's been its heart as well.

To say nothing of Penn State's soul.

She came to Penn State as a dual-sport star in 1975.

And, true, she left Happy Valley for playing opportunities (two Olympic teams) and coaching gigs at Old Dominion (three national title games in four years as an assistant) and Boston College (34-16-8 in three seasons as a head coach).

But Penn State has always been the home where Char's heart is.

Most folks know her as the long-time, ultra-successful head coach of the Penn State field hockey team. Her 500th career victory as a head coach — 466 of them in 30 seasons at PSU — came when her squad beat Maryland on the Terps' homefield to win the 2016 Big Ten championship.

But she made her first marks at University Park as a field hockey and lacrosse dual All-American. She was a bona fide star on a campus that revered and supported and turned out in force for its women sports icons, like Ann Carr, Candy Finn and, later, Suzie McConnell.

She scored a stunning 175 goals — 125 in lax, 50 in field hockey — and was a linchpin of teams that won 84 games and lost just 18 times, with nine ties, in her time as a player at Penn State. Her five-goal game vs. Bucknell in 1977 still stands as a PSU field hockey record, shared with her former player Dawn Lammey. She was Penn State's first NFHCA field hockey All-American, a Char-info bit inconspicuously buried on page 42 of the team's media guide.

But it is her Penn State roots, and not the numbers, that have defined her. (As faculty mentor to her squad, I've spent countless hours with her and her team and staff at practices, at games, on a trip to Holland. But not once has she ever talked about the stats. But the college experience, the lifelong relationships, the defining nature of Penn State, her hopes of making an impact? Yes, all the time.)

She's in halls of fame that are county, state and nationwide. Last season, she was named Big Ten Coach of the Year for the sixth time. Since PSU joined the Big Ten in 1992, she has had more first-team All-Big Ten selections, Big Ten Defensive Players of the Year, Big Ten Athletes of the Year and Big Ten Freshmen of the Year than any other program.

She trails only Russ Rose (1,210 wins, women's volleyball), Rene Portland (606, women's basketball) and Mark Pavlik (522, men's volleyball) on the all-time coaching list for victories at Penn State.

All of which is good and even great. But it doesn't get at the heart of Char, who is best known as a singular noun. She is at her best leading her team on regen runs that end at a windmill in the Netherlands. Or leading chalk talks to a room full of attentive players, their pens and notebooks at the ready. Or pedaling her bike to and from practice.

Because, victories and championships aside, for Charlene Francis Morett-Curtiss it's always been about the heartfelt joy — and occasionally heartache — that comes with the ride.


Morett-Curtiss is Part 3 of our "The Word on Coaching" series, in which Penn State’s athletics director and a half-dozen of PSU’s most successful current head coaches discuss their philosophy on athletics and life, summarized in a singular word of his or her choosing. The line-up:

Sandy Barbour, Director of Athletics  —  "Why?"

Russ Rose, Women’s Volleyball — "Commitment"

Char Morett-Curtiss, Field Hockey — Today 

Guy Gadowsky, Men’s Ice Hockey — Friday, July 7              

Erica Dambach, Women’s Soccer — Monday, July 10         

James Franklin, Football — Friday, July 14

Cael Sanderson, Wrestling — Monday, July 17                         

CHAR AND HER ONE WORD What's your word?

Morett-Curtiss: I would say that in almost everything you do in life, if you're expecting success you have to put your heart into it. To me, as a competitor, I think of my heart beating really fast. And then there's the emotion of it, how you feel in your heart, whether you win or lose. Your heart aches or your heart feels good.

We always talk to the players about playing with heart. It has to be sustainable. It has to be there every day in practice, and then it's pre-game, during the game and post-game. When I think of my players who have been successful, they have played with a big heart. There's a joy in them. You can see it in them. And within that heart lies passion and commitment.

(Husband) Doug and I gave some money to the program, and with part of it we've put up a sign when you walk onto the field, that says, "Play With Heart." We want to always remind the players of that, the pride for your school that is in your heart. Your teammates are in your heart. The emotion of the competition starts there for me. If your heart is in it, you're going to be committed. Is it difficult to transfer and translate the heart you had as a player over to your players?

Morett-Curtiss: Not so much, because I think when you have heart you care — you really care, and that's a message that is fairly easy to get across if you really believe it. So you can pull those strings. How can you tell if a kid's heart is really in it?

Morett-Curtiss: I told the team one time, "When I go home every day and I see (Char's dog) Ziggy, he's so happy to see me and his tail is wagging. When you guys walk up to the field, I can't tell if you guys are happy to see me." So after that, they started acting like they had tails and wagged them at me.

Showing heart comes with a level of intensity and it's definitely emotional. It's the effort and giving a true 100%, no matter what. Again, if you're playing with heart you want to win that game — and it shows. In the Big Ten title game last fall, at Maryland (when PSU scored two second-half goals to beat the Terps 2-1), that win was all heart after being down 1-0 at halftime.

Morett-Curtiss: When we went into the locker room at halftime, we weren't playing great hockey, but we were pretty much toe-to-toe with them. We really didn't have that "edge." I tried to tell our girls that we should be confident, that they're no better than we are: "We need to come out punching them in the face right now. We need to be the aggressive team."

And within a minute or two into the second half, we got the corner (penalty) and Aurelia (Meijer) scored to tie the game up. That's heart. We came out with emotion, sustained it, kept the pressure was go, go, go. There was no fear. You need players who, while maybe not playing their best game, will continue to put all their heart into it while they're out there. That rubs off on the other players. With that team, the camaraderie was a key factor in our success. An important part of who you are, who your program is and how you coach, is your Penn State heart. That's very evident in all that you do.

Morett-Curtiss: I agree. Heart to me is love. I love Penn State. I'm so grateful for what Penn State has done for me. I was a poor kid coming out of Philly and Penn State gave me the opportunity for an education and to compete here.

I love my job. I love the people I do it with. I love where l'm doing it. I'm really living the dream. What I love about competing here, is that when I go out there with the team, we are together. I'm one of you. Together we're Penn State, and I constantly try to deliver that message to the girls. The idea of continuing to get better, and having everyone focused on that, is exciting. You spoke at the Special Olympics opening ceremonies at Penn State a few weeks ago. In what way was "heart" part of your message?

Morett-Curtiss: It was a real honor to do that. I told them three things: Do your best. Play with heart. And have fun.

A couple days later, I met with some of the athletes at the closing ceremonies. And I asked them, "Do you remember the three things I told you?" They were really excited. And they remembered about playing with heart.

It's like when I listen to Cael (Sanderson). I love that. I tell my kids that, to listen to Cael. Listen to his kids who won national championships. Right after they win, the reporters want to know, "What did Cael say? What did Cael tell you to do?" His kids don't answer that he told them to wrap around their leg around the other guy's neck or something like that. They always say, "Have fun." Where did your own heart, your love of sports, your love of field hockey come from?

Morett-Curtiss: My love for sport really evolved as a means for me to compete against my brothers and the boys on my street. I had five brothers plus cousins and neighbors — all guys. I was the only one in the neighborhood wearing a dress. It was probably dirty, too, from playing sports all the time.

I always wanted to compete. I always wanted to play. I wanted to do what they were doing. If it was street hockey, that was my sport. If they played ice hockey, I wanted to play that. It really helped me grow from a competitive aspect. Field hockey was unique in that it was something the boys didn't do. I remember running home in seventh grade with my field hockey stick, and my dad asked me, "How do you play that sport?" And I said, "I don't know. But I sure want to learn!"

I had outstanding coaches and mentors. My coaches in high school went to Ursinus and West Chester, the hotbeds of field hockey at the time. It was something that I loved and still love. I was fortunate that when I came to Penn State, I got a scholarship to play field hockey and lacrosse.

At that time, field hockey was on the verge of getting much bigger. It became an Olympic sport in 1980. We (the United States) went from 11th in the world in 1978 to No. 3 in the world in 1980. Only five teams qualified for Moscow, and we were one of them. It was a huge jump in a year or two. We had a chance to go to the Olympics and then we boycotted. We did go back in 1984 and won a bronze in Los Angeles. Did the boycott break your heart?

Morett-Curtiss: It's still tough to talk about.

Dr. (John) Lucas (the late Penn State professor and renowned Olympics historian) would always have me talk to his classes about it. It was hard. All the time you put into training to do something you love, and then to have this dream of going to the Olympics and perform on the world's biggest stage — probably the biggest dream that most athletes in the entire world have — pulled from you really does break your heart.

That was especially true for a sport like ours. We didn't really receive that recognition or the hype. It was a matter of grinding it out every day. I had a bunch of odd jobs to pay for my training. We weren't subsidized by the government, they weren't giving us money to train. Then for them to say we weren't going, it was like, "Who are you to tell us we're not going?"

I was lucky because I was young enough to come back and train for '84. There was nothing in my world where I see telling myself, "No, I can't train the next four years because I have to get a job." I didn't look to join corporate America or look to get into something like pharmaceutical sales.

That wasn't me. I followed what was my passion, what was in my heart.

Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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