Char Morett-Curtiss’ distinguished Penn State coaching career shared a common mantra with her outstanding career as a two-sport collegiate athlete, a mantra that came to permanently define Nittany Lion field hockey. “Come out and compete,” Morett-Curtiss said when announcing her retirement in February, after 36 seasons on the Penn State sideline. “Just compete.”
The first All-American in Penn State field hockey history and a star for the women’s lacrosse team, Morett-Curtiss ’79 H&HD took over for her former coach, Gillian Rattray, in 1987. She led the Nittany Lions to Atlantic 10 championships in 1989 and 1990 and to Big Ten championships in 1993, 1997, 1998, 2005, 2008, 2012, 2013 and 2022. Her 575 career wins, 541 of them coming at Penn State, rank fifth in Division I coaching history.
Morett-Curtiss helped the United States Olympic team to a bronze medal in the 1984 Games and is a member of the U.S. Field Hockey Hall of Fame. She was an assistant coach with the U.S. National Team and started a youth field hockey program for elementary school children in State College. The Aldan, Pa., native inspired many of her players to become coaches themselves, including her long-time assistant, Lisa Bervinchak Love ’89 H&HD, who was named her replacement. “She pushed you, she loved you, she cared for you, she laughed with you, and she would cry with you,” says Tracey Larson Arndt ’01 Edu, co-director of athletics and head field hockey coach at The Hun School of Princeton.
Arndt came to Penn State on a $1,000 partial scholarship in the fall of 1997 and left as a first-team All-American. In 1999, she played for the U.S. National Team and was trying to get back from a game in Argentina to go to the senior banquet. After a series of travel snafus left her stranded and frustrated, she called Morett-Curtiss collect at 4 a.m. State College time. She answered right away. “I think almost every decision I make as a coach is from what she’s taught me,” Arndt says.
Laura Gebhart ’15 Agr was a four-time All-American as a player at Penn State and returned to the program as an assistant coach in 2021. “It wasn’t until I stepped away and experienced things at other programs from a coaching perspective that I recognized how special this place is and how unique this program is that Char has built,” Gebhart says.
Gebhart was content to watch and listen during the early part of her first season as an assistant but says Morett-Curtiss empowered her to have more of a voice and bring new ideas to the table. Gebhart recalls a moment during a game last fall when one of the Nittany Lions turned the ball over multiple times. After the second turnover, Morett-Curtiss approached Gebhart on the sideline and hissed, “Get her off the field.” But Gebhart, who believed the player was having one of her better games as a playmaker despite the turnovers, replied “No.”
“It surprised me when I said that,” Gebhart says, laughing.
It was a tense moment, but Morett-Curtiss relented, and the Nittany Lions went on to win the game. Gebhart notes it as an example of the humility that Morett-Curtiss brought to the sideline and the trust she placed in her assistants.
One of seven children, Morett-Curtiss grew up honing her athletic skills and her competitive spirit in street hockey games against her older brothers. At Penn State, she became the school’s first field hockey All-American (in 1977, 1978 and 1979) and was an All-American in lacrosse in 1978.
“She had a passion to play, a passion that I hadn’t really seen before,” says former teammate Candace Finn Rocha ’83 Com, who also starred in both field hockey and lacrosse. “She just loved playing. She loved teaching others and ensuring that others improved and could become the best they could.”
Part of Morett-Curtiss’ strengths as a player, Rocha believes, was her ability to read the game. That helped her adjust to playing alongside young players—as Morett-Curtiss did during her senior season, when Rocha, a then-freshman who would go on to be a two-time All-American in field hockey and four-time All-American in lacrosse herself, played in front of her as a forward—and then make the transition to coaching. She was a graduate assistant for Rattray and the Nittany Lions in the fall of 1979 while staying on campus to train for the 1980 Olympic Games.
Morett-Curtiss coached under Beth Anders at Old Dominion for four seasons, with the Monarchs reaching the national championship game in three of them. She landed her first head coaching job with Boston College in 1984 and brought that same competitive spirit to the job. Occasionally, as was the case when she threw her shoes off and confronted the officials on the field during a game, that competitiveness got the better of her.
“It took some time to figure out the balance,” Morett-Curtiss says.
In 1987, following Rattray’s retirement, Morett-Curtiss returned to Penn State as the program’s head coach. From the beginning, she ensured her players were in peak physical condition and instilled in them a focus on the details of the sport, like precision passing. She also urged them to succeed in the classroom, producing nearly 300 Academic All-Big Ten selections since 1992, and to get involved in the Penn State community. “It was always about life balance, because my experience at Penn State was always about that,” she says.
Morett-Curtiss was famously known for her love of potato chips and her willingness to break into a dance. She loved her alma mater and supported Penn State’s other sports, whether that was showing up to watch a game, offering a coach an encouraging word after a tough loss, or rallying players and coaches during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Of all the coaches, she was the one who made the most effort to bring us all together,” says Penn State women’s soccer coach Erica Dambach. “She was ever-present.”
In addition to remaining in an advisory role for the field hockey program, Morett-Curtiss hopes to help launch a fundraising initiative for women’s sports at Penn State similar to those that have recently been established at UCLA, Louisville, and North Carolina. The longtime golf fan hopes to attend The Masters tournament and do some traveling in her additional spare time but isn’t ready to fully retire from Penn State. The imprint she left on her players isn’t likely to fade anytime soon, either.
“When things get difficult, some coaches deviate from their values,” Gebhart says. “I have never seen Char go away from her values. That’s what’s allowed her to build this program, and generations of players have been able to experience the same thing.”
Lisa Bervinchak Love '89 H&HD will be Penn State Field Hockey's sixth head coach beginning in August. Read the full story.