Whenever Kurt Roper’s father got home from work and opened conversation with “we need to talk,” the boys already knew what was coming. They may as well have started packing their bags at that point. Their dad would tell them they were moving, and they need to be ready for the next city he would coach in.
Some moves were harder than others for Roper, especially as he got older and developed more friendships. The kids in the family would fall in love with the city they lived in, but whenever dad got them all together for a talk, they knew it was on to the next place.
“I always thought that was just part of it. I didn't mind it,” Roper said. “There were tougher moves than other moves when you got older, but I enjoyed it.”
It allowed Roper to have a great childhood, one that he wouldn’t trade for anything. He was able to live in College Station, Corvallis, Knoxville and Pittsburgh while growing up, seeing multiple parts of the country. Roper struggled to decide where home was while growing up, and even to this day, the longest he has lived in a city is six years -- doing that twice while coaching at Duke and Ole Miss.
But those two stops happened when he was coaching, had a family and was in charge of where the family lived. That wasn’t the case when he was young and moving all over the country.
“I didn't think there was anything better," Roper said with a grin. "I thought I was the lucky guy in school that everybody thought 'wow, he gets to go out on the football field' or 'he gets to go in the locker room after the game.' I just thought I was so fortunate and everybody was -- whether they were or not -- you felt like everybody was envious of that situation.
“I got to live coast to coast, north to south and learned a lot and had friends all over the country. I don’t think I could have had a better childhood.”
During all the moving and the busy life spent as the son of a college football assistant, Roper fell in love with being around the game. So did his brother Zac, who currently serves as the tight ends coach and special teams coordinator at Duke.
They watched every step their father made on the field, no matter which field it was, during his career. And it didn’t take long before realizing Roper wanted to do the same thing.
Before that, he had a playing career of his own. Roper signed to play quarterback at Rice, but that didn’t last long. He remembered being in his first meeting with Rice offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger, a former Florida assistant, and Roper realized he was in way over his head.
"He starts talking to me about defenses, and I’d never even thought about defenses,” Roper said with a laugh. "I’m sitting there going, ‘Hey wait a second, what play are we running? Tell me the play.’ And he’s talking to me about how a defense is going to be manipulated by this formation and it’s going to remove this guy.
“I’m already looking out the window and I see the other guys going to eat dinner. I’m thinking what am I doing? What’s going on here? I think I think it was all eye-opening.”
Soon after, Roper found himself working out with the defensive backs in practice. That didn’t last when his playing career was over. Roper fell in love with the offensive side of the ball, starting as a graduate assistant at Tennessee from 1996-98.
His dad’s inspiration helped him get that first job at a school where his dad once worked as an assistant. That’s not the only imprint Roper’s father made on his career. He learned intensity and what it meant to have a business-like approach on the field.
“My dad was a defensive football coach,” Roper said. “He was really a no-nonsense guy. He was really intense and tough to grow up around if things weren’t necessarily going well all the time on the football field, but again, I had the perfect childhood. It was great. His intensity to the football field I think is probably what rubbed off on me the most.”
Other than his father, Roper pointed out two other football assistants that made an impact on his career. The first was John Latina, who is currently the offensive line coach at Duke. The two also worked together at Ole Miss, and Latina took Roper under his wing early in his coaching career.
Roper was 26 years old at Ole Miss while coaching quarterbacks and still learning on the job. Latina made sure that happened easily.
“He was really instrumental in how to put together a system to help a offensive line,” Roper recalled of Latina. “He always said, "systems make good offensive lines not just players across the board." You have to build a system where offensive linemen continually do the same thing. They repeat whatever it is over and over. You have to be multiple enough in what you do, but those five guys up front need to have a lot of repetition of the same thing. He was very influential on me.”
When he was at Ole Miss, Roper also got close with Rich Bisaccia, who served as the running backs and special teams coach in Oxford. Roper learned from him what it meant to have a good relationship with players. If the players didn’t respect their coach or believe he was for their best interest, the players wouldn’t respond to him.
Basaccia is now the special teams coordinator for the Dallas Cowboys, but that impression on Roper was an important one.
The list continues with more coaches, including the most obvious selection in Duke head coach David Cutcliffe and former Florida receivers coach Joker Phillips, who worked with Roper during their time at Kentucky.
The relationships Roper has built at different spots during his career have turned him into the coach he is today. But without growing up around the football field and following every step his father made, Roper wouldn’t have followed his path into the coaching industry.