Tom Curran recalled taking over as Tomah Area School District Athletic Director in 1989.
“I was 26 years old,” he said. “Every coach was older than me.”
Thirty-one years later, he leaves the district as an elder statesman of Tomah sports. He retires effective July 1 after guiding the athletic department through fundamental changes in the high school sports landscape. Curran said he was very fortunate to pursue a career that matched his interests — dating back to when he was a 5-4, 135-pound student-athlete at Dover-Eyota High in Minnesota, where he competed in football, wrestling and baseball.
“I played a lot of sports growing up, and I always seemed to have a connection to athletics,” he said.
Curran learned a work ethic from his father, who was a barber for 58 years.
“He would find jobs for us,” said Curran, the youngest of six children. “We weren’t going to just sit around and lollygag.”
He earned his teaching degree at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and was hired as a Tomah High School social studies teacher by high school principal Norm Fjelstad in 1986. When the job of athletic director opened up, Curran jumped at the chance despite his relatively young age.
“I didn’t know if something like this would ever open up again,” he said.
His most immediate challenge was finding a new football coach after Ken Jakubowski resigned three weeks before the start of the 1989 season.
“That was a wild start,” Curran said.
The sudden coaching change came as Tomah was transitioning into the Mississippi Valley Conference after decades as a South Central Conference member. Tomah’s administration had long opposed the move, but Curran believed Tomah was ready to compete with its new La Crosse-area rivals.
“I think the transition went smoothly,” he said. “We had to find a lot of nonconference games, but we made it work. We still kept our ties with Baraboo, Portage and Reedsburg.”
It wasn’t long before Tomah was competitive with its new MVC rivals. Tomah girls volleyball put together a run of MVC titles and four state tournament appearances in six years, the boys basketball team reached the state tournament in 1994 and Tomah won its first MVC football championship in 1995.
“I’m a true believer you’ll rise to the level of your competition,” Curran said.
He mentioned Jeff Foss’ state title in 1990 as one of his most memorable moments in Tomah. Curran was still an assistant wrestling coach when Foss pinned his opponent just 55 seconds into the title match.
Other memorable moments:
- November 7, 1998—Tomah defeats defending champion Menomonie 14-10 in a WIAA Level 3 football playoff game.
- May 30, 2006—Tomah softball wins the sectional at Beaver Dam and advances to state.
- March 1-3, 2007—Tomah competes in the state team wrestling and boys hockey tournaments the same weekend in Madison.
- June 6, 2017—Tomah baseball rallies for two runs after two outs and nobody on base to defeat Middleton in a WIAA baseball sectional semifinal.
Two of those memories involved family. His daughter Kayleigh (third base) and step-daughter Jill Martin (centerfield) were starters on the state softball team, and his son, Casey, scored the winning run at the baseball sectional.
Family has always been important to Curran. His first wife, Sara, died of cancer in 1993, and he remains close to her family. He married Kari in 1995 and brought her children Jill and Ryan into his family before they had Ellie and Casey together.
Curran said he is fortunate to have found happiness in a blended family.
“Family is super, super important, and our family is so blessed,” he said. “I couldn’t have done this without Kari’s support.”
Two other major changes occurred during his second decade on the job. He became activities director in 2006 when non-athletic extracurriculars were brought into the athletic code. He said it was important to hold athletes and non-athletes “to the same standard of behavior” despite logistical challenges.
“We adjusted,” he said. “It was something that had to be done.”
A year later, Tomah retired its Indians nickname and became the Timberwolves. Curran said the change allowed students to have fun with a mascot they could readily display.
His tenure also included the WIAA-WISAA merger and the impact of open enrollment on athletics. He said the latter has changed the culture at some levels of high school sports.
“If I had to go play with kids from a different school to play on a winning team — no thanks,” Curran said. “I would rather lose with my friends.”
Curran is most proud of the number of sports that have been added during his 31 years. They include boys and girls soccer, boys hockey (elevated to WIAA status), girls hockey, boys and girls bowling, gymnastics and boys and girls powerlifting. At the middle school, several sports were expanded to include sixth-graders.
He said it’s critical to offer a wide variety of extracurricular activities.
“3:30 to 5:30 is such a crucial part of the day for kids — they’re under the supervision of an adult,” Curran said. “It’s very important that we hold on to these opportunities we’ve created for them.”
His career will end with a big hole after COVID-19 wiped out the 2020 spring sports season. He said it was difficult for athletes, particularly seniors, to lose their final sports season.
“If this would have happened to me when I was a senior at Dover-Eyota, it would have been absolutely devastating,” he said.
He believes the position will be in good hands when Brad Plueger replaces him July 1. He said Plueger, a Tomah graduate and long-time football and boys basketball coach, represents the strength of the athletic department — coaches with local ties who “bleed white and gold.”
“I’ve had a lot of great people to work with, and the administration has always had my back,” Curran said. “It makes it easier for me to do my job because we’re on the same page.”
He said that includes office assistant Karen Betthauser and her successor, Deb Reid.
“They have such a passion for what they do,” Curran said. “I couldn’t have done it without them.”
COVID-19 has made Curran’s retirement plans uncertain. He will definitely spend more time with his family, which now includes grandchildren, and is hoping to visit the Minnesota Twins spring training camp in Florida.
“This will be the first time since I was 10 years old that I won’t have a job,” he said. “I’m going to miss this place, but I’ll be leaving it in good hands. You don’t just walk away from this position. I’m always a phone call away.”
Tomah Journal editor Steve Rundio can be reached at email@example.com.
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