Southside’s Renaissance: Three-Time State Champion Coach Takes the Helm to Propel Sharks to New Heights

by William Weathers // Contributor

The football program at Southside High in Youngsville has exploded much like its rapidly developing community.

To continue the trend built by first-year coach Josh Fontenot, who resigned for an administrative position with the Lafayette Parish School System, the school turned to one of the state’s most successful coaches to keep the Sharks swimming in the deep end of the Class 5A/Division I nonselect pool.

Following one season at Natchitoches Central, three-time state champion coach Jess Curtis, 53, accepted the vacant position head coaching position with the intent of building on Fontenot’s success which included a state quarterfinal appearance in 2022 and regional showing last season.

“It’s a great opportunity and a program that really fits me,” said Curtis, who began work at the school last week. “It matches the things that I believe in, the core values that I believe in, and what football needs to be. It’s like a perfect match. The community of Youngsville seems to be where Lafayette’s growing. Just the opportunity what this school can do if we can come in and continue to do the things they’ve done in the past. I feel like we can get things going even further and quicker. It just fit me better.”

Southside’s the newest public school in Lafayette Parish that opened its glistening new campus in the fall of 2017. The Sharks have been a part of the state’s highest classification – Class 5A – which is a byproduct of one of the state’s fastest growing cities.

According to the U.S. Census, Youngsville experienced a 300% growth in population from 1990-to-2005, and with a population of approximately 16,000, is among the state’s top 30 most populated cities.

Fontenot led Southside to a 34-19 record and five appearances in the state playoffs. The Sharks advanced to the ’22 state quarterfinals, falling to state power Zachary (48-37), and followed that last year with a trip to the regionals with a setback against Airline (36-35).

“Building a school from step one and then you see what they’ve done here,” Curtis said. “I told coach (Fontenot) it takes schools decades to become relevant in sports, especially football. Then you’re playing here in Lafayette with all the great teams. What they’ve done is build a culture here. It’s a culture which kind of fits me as well. That’s one of the reasons I was excited when I saw this job come open.”

Southside athletic director Dwayne Searle believes the program will continue to thrive under Curtis.

“We feel that with coach Curtis’ past success that the future of the program is in great hands,” he said. “He will continue to build on the great foundation that coach Fontenot has started. Although we are truly sorry to see coach Fontenot leave, we are excited for the future.”

Curtis, a graduate of Many High and Northwestern State, joined the coaching staff of Keith Menard at Many as defensive coordinator and rose up through the ranks until he became head coach as his alma mater.

Curtis elevated Many’s program, leading them to a record of 142-32 in 14 seasons and to six state championship appearances. The Tigers won Class 2A/Division III nonselect state titles in 2013, ’20 and ’22 and were state runners-up in ’13, ’19 and ’21.

“We climbed that mountain three times at Many,” Curtis said. “You want to see if you can do that here in a different situation. You want to challenge yourself. That’s one of the big reasons why I left Many. I feel good about this opportunity. I just want to get these guys to start believing, pushing this thing toward December. I think Josh has done a great job of getting them to the quarters the year before last and a point away from that last year. That’s impressive. We want to continue to push for that and hopefully beyond in the coming years.”

Curtis opted to leave his alma mater for the lure of coaching at the Class 5A level at Natchitoches Central in 2023. The Chiefs, 3-7, suffered one-point losses to District 1-5A opponents Haughton (36-35) and Parkway (27-26) and dropped league games to Benton (42-35) and Captain Shreve (32-24).

Instead of continuing with the Chiefs, Curtis was intrigued by the steps Southside made under Fontenot, a coach he held in high regard.

“There are other reasons that brought me down here but talking to Josh, this staff, I wanted this job,” Curtis said. “I knew when I left here (after the job interview) that I wanted to be here. It’s felt like home since I’ve been here. It’s a tremendous (coaching) staff of Lafayette guys that have been here with Josh and they’ve welcomed me with open arms. I’m lucky to have a staff like that.

“This is definitely not having to come in and throw a grenade,” Curtis said. “Things have been done right. I’m going to put my spin on it and continue to push it forward. It’s not going to be all sunshine and rainbows. You’re going to lock horns with some of the best. If that’s not what you want to, why are you in this business.”

Philosophically, Curtis is a line-of-scrimmage type coach that believes a program’s success is rooted in being able to run the ball and stop the run.

That’s where he gives Fontenot high marks after Southside ran a ‘flexbone’ offense that he plans to continue running because of the alignment with his values.  

“I love their offense and what they’ve been doing here in the past,” he said. “We were more of a Wing-T, multiple formations in Many but it was the same mindset of trying the control the flow of the game offensively. That’s kind of what I like to do. In the age of spread and being fast and (up) tempo and that’s all great, you have to be comfortable in your own skin. That’s what Southside is.

“I think it was a great fit in the sense, that I like to be physical, I like to control the ball on offense,” he said. “I like to be fast on defense and get off the field. I think that’s what they’ve been doing here for the last couple of years. After watching some film, I think we can continue the progression that’s been happening here. I know we’re not getting away from what they do offensively. I really like that. The kids believe in it.”

Curtis said that spring practice will begin April 29 and conclude in May with a spring game with Teurlings Catholic, a Division II select semifinalist in ’23.

Southside will travel to reigning Division I select state champion Catholic High in Baton Rouge for its fall scrimmage before opening the regular season at Notre Dame of Crowley, a Division III state quarterfinalist last year, followed by home games with Division I nonselect staple Neville and Division II select power Madison Prep Academy.

The Sharks will jump into District 3-5A play where they were fourth a year ago, a league widely regarded among the state’s best led by six-time state champion Acadiana and Carencro, the Division II state champion in ’20.

With a brand new on-campus stadium on its way for the ’25 season, this will be Southside’s final season of playing its home games at St. Martinville High School.

“There isn’t a place where you can take a deep breath,” Curtis said of his schedule. “It’s basically like being parachuted in behind enemy lines. It’s going to be a challenge. It’s neat what (head) coach (Matt) McCullough and them have done at Acadiana. It’s unbelievable. To have them in your district and be able to measure yourself against them annually is good in my mind. Carencro won state a couple of years back. It’s a good district. It’s going to be fun and it’s definitely going to get us ready for the playoffs.”

Curtis recalled his first team meeting and coming away impressed with the engagement of his players and their offseason in the weight room.

“I think every kid came up and shook my hand,” Curtis said. “I told them what I felt about coach Fontenot and what they had done here. I told them my plans and they were excited. I love coaching. I don’t have any plans to get into administration. I want to come here, set my roots and probably give them another 10-15 years like I did at Many. That’s what I want to do.”