St. Thomas (Minn.) senior center Curtis James is taking the lessons he has learned from playing for a winning football program and applying them as a coach. But, it isn’t football that James is now coaching – or any other sport. James is coaching his high school alma mater’s speech team. 

James’ involvement with Edina High School’s speech team began when he was asked to join it the in the eighth grade, and it has been a passion of his ever since. 

“I fell in love with it instantly,” James said. 

One of six siblings, three of them were also involved debate team (two brothers coach debate at the Eagan High School – the No. 1 team in the nation), but since it is a fall activity and conflicted with football, James tried the speech team. 

Speech and debate are competitive in Minnesota with four of the top five speech teams in the nation hailing from the state. James compares Minnesota high school speech to football in Texas. 

During James’ career at Edina, he saw a solid program crumble before his eyes due to coaching changes and lack of commitment.  

When Curtis was a high school student, he was always involved in leadership activities and always looking to be one of those students that stood out. He was somebody who you knew who would be really successful ...
-- Eric Nelson

After graduation, James was off to the University of Minnesota as a football walk-on, and believed his speech team career was over. But after the 2008 season with the Gophers, he decided playing Division I football was not the path he wanted to take.

With a little more free time, he returned to Edina H.S. to volunteer his time as an assistant coach for the speech team in the winter of 2009, a role in which he served for four years. During his tenure, James saw the once-crumbling program regain respectability with the help of some dedicated coaches.

When the latest head coach switched school districts for a new teaching job during the summer, it was James who Edina’s assistant principal Eric Nelson looked to take the reins of the program. 

“When Curtis was a high school student, he was always involved in leadership activities and always looking to be one of those students that stood out,” Nelson said. “He was somebody who you knew who would be really successful because of the dedication he had for everything he did. That really stood out in high school. The program had gone through some lean years. He was one of those guys who held everything together. I knew he would keep things going in the right direction.”

With an already busy schedule as a student-athlete, the new responsibilities were a lot for James to consider.

“The question was could I manage the workload,” James said. “As a head coach, I had to start planning in the summer and work on recruiting and have meetings about budgets and all of the extra stuff you really don’t see when you are an assistant coach.”

At 22 years old, James became the youngest high school head coach in the state of Minnesota. He spent the summer recruiting team members – there are currently 35 and he hopes to increase that number to 40 or 50. 

“My biggest thing when I took over was that I didn’t want to take a step back with the program at all,” James said. “I obviously have very strong ties to the program and am passionate about it.”

Practice will gear up in December, and Saturday competitions start in January. The competitions begin first thing in the morning and can last all day. There are three different main categories – political questions, which is a lot like debate; public speaking as persuasive or informative; and competitive theater, which is what James competed in.

James is already taking cues in coaching style from St. Thomas (Minn.) head football coach Glenn Caruso, who has guided the Tommies to the Division III playoffs in each of the last four seasons.

Sept. 1 at UW-Eau Claire W, 27-24
Sept. 8 UW-River Falls W, 43-9
Sept. 15 at Saint John’s (Minn.) W, 43-21
Sept. 29 at Carleton W, 47-24
Oct. 6 Gustavus Adolphus W, 28-14
Oct. 13 Bethel W, 37-0
Oct. 20 at Hamline W, 51-9
Oct. 27 Augsburg W, 30-14
Nov. 3 at Concordia-Moorhead W, 21-7
Nov. 10 St. Olaf W, 35-21
Nov. 17 St. Norbert* W, 48-17
Nov. 24 vs. Elmhurst* 1 p.m. ET
* Division III playoff game  Bracket

“Coach Caruso has been a major influence on me as far as my coaching, whether he knows it or not,” James said. “The way he runs the football team with discipline and uniformity – I’m trying to carry that over to the speech team. When you are building a team, sometimes discipline falls through the cracks because you want more kids to be involved in the program. Now, that we’ve gotten past that, I’m working on how we become more disciplined and unified.”

James has first-hand experience how a disciplined coaching style can lead to success. During his four-year career, the Tommies are 47-4 and have advanced to playoffs each year, including a run to the semifinals last year. James has helped block for 41 100-yard rushing performances in four years, while the offensive line has allowed just 39 sacks in 51 games.

“He’s one of the sharpest guys I’ve ever coached,” Caruso said. “He is the quarterback of our offensive line. So a lot of the adjustments and changes run through him, which is, as a coach, refreshing. It makes life a lot simpler.”

James was recently named as one of 10 finalists for the Gagliardi Trophy, given annually to the most outstanding Division III football player.  The award recognizes excellence in athletics, academics and community service. James is St. Thomas’ fourth finalist in the last four years.

“We nominate the player who can ‘think critically and work skillfully to advance the common good,’ ” Caruso said. “Those words are from our football team’s mission statement and they are entirely appropriate when talking about Curtis.”

The Tommies host Elmhurst on Saturday looking to advance to the NCAA quarterfinals for the fourth consecutive season. But this team has a different offensive look than the last three with new starters at QB, RB and WR.

“We’re finding out ways to win and ways to compete against teams that we have never done before,” James said. “We don’t necessarily come out every week and pound the ball, and then throw the ball deep to Fritz. We’ve come out with a balanced attack, and we’re spreading the ball out more than ever. Our depth has really become a huge part of our offense.” 

The Tommies have posted an 11-0 record despite starting 20 different players on offense this season.

“They have great mental toughness,” Caruso said. "We lost five All-Americans to graduation. We’ve had some amazing players step in, but were also hit by a lot of injuries … The younger guys continued to step up.”

As football enters the final weeks of the season, and Edina’s speech team season begins, James may have to juggle a little more if the Tommies continue to win in the playoffs, but he certainly doesn’t mind. 

“At this point, the more conflicts we have, something is going very, very right,” James said.