- Dave Wilson is an editor for ESPN.com since 2010. He previously worked at The Dallas Morning News, San Diego Union-Tribune and Las Vegas Sun.
CHRIS HATCHER REMEMBERS the first time he knew Kirby Smart was going to be a great defensive coach.
Hatcher, the current coach at Samford, was hiring his first staff at Valdosta State in 2000, and had used up much of his salary pool for assistants before hiring a secondary coach. His defensive coordinator, Will Muschamp, who was pulling down a cool $31,000, suggested they use their last $8,000 to hire someone he trusted.
Muschamp reached out to Smart, who had played with him as a defensive back at Georgia and finished his career with 13 interceptions. But there were three that jumped out to Hatcher.
“I knew who Kirby was because I was the quarterback coach at Kentucky for Tim Couch, and I think Kirby picked him off like three times in a game,” Hatcher said of Smart’s role in the Dawgs’ 23-13 win over Kentucky in 1997. “We knew we were hiring Kirby no matter what, because we just had that money left, but Will and I decided that it’d be good for him to come down, put the suit on and interview and do it right.”
So he put his new candidate in front of the whiteboard and asked him to diagram the Georgia base defense that Kirby had run as a player.
“He got out there and he drew up the diagrams and he backed up,” Hatcher said. “He’s sweating, and Will and I are laughing, and I finally said, ‘Coach, that looks good, but if you play with 11 men, you got a better chance of stopping ’em.'”
Smart, who had left a player off, nervously drew the last guy in and apologized. (For the record, Hatcher knows Muschamp tells the story with 12 men instead of 10. While they both agree Kirby was off by one guy, Hatcher insists the way he remembers is correct.)
“I told everybody, if he was confident in stopping ’em with 10, I was like, man, there’s no telling what he’d do if he played with 11,” Hatcher said.
Hatcher knows Smart will need all 11 on Monday night when Georgia takes on upstart TCU for the College Football Playoff National Championship (7:30 ET, Monday, ESPN/ESPN app). Because he’s also one of the guys most responsible for teaching the Air Raid offense to Horned Frogs coach Sonny Dykes.
For a five-year period from 1997 to 2002, Hatcher lived with Dykes for three years then worked with Smart for two. Hatcher and Dykes joined Hal Mumme’s first Kentucky staff, then after landing a head-coaching job at his alma mater, Valdosta State, Hatcher hired Smart and Muschamp to their first jobs, where he worked with Smart for two seasons.
He’s the only man who can say he sold pizzas with Dykes and built lockers with Smart when they were all broke coaches.
“They’re both intense, but in very different ways,” Hatcher said. “Sonny’s very laid-back, got a great sense of humor. Kirby can talk smack with the best of ’em.”
HATCHER ARRIVED AT Kentucky a few months before Dykes. He was a star quarterback under Mumme at Valdosta, where he won the Harlon Hill Award, the Division II equivalent of the Heisman Trophy.
He was ready to hit the ground running coaching Couch, who would go on to become the No. 1 overall pick in the 1999 NFL draft. Dykes, who had previously been a jack-of-all-trades assistant at Navarro Junior College in Texas, was considering getting out of coaching, because he was young, single and broke. Then his dad, legendary Texas Tech coach Spike Dykes, suggested he call Mumme.
Mumme hired him over the phone, and Dykes showed up a few months later once a graduate assistant spot opened up. He had nowhere to live, and Hatcher, who was 23, didn’t either. They didn’t know each other, but Hatcher said he’d once seen Spike speak at a clinic and “was mesmerized.” So he couldn’t wait to meet the younger Dykes.
They rented a house but didn’t have any furniture or money. Hatcher said they bought mattresses from a flea market and then, he claims, Dykes hatched a plan one summer when they were working as football camp staffers to supplement their income.
Hatcher was the camp director. Dykes, his assistant, saw dollar signs when he realized Tubby Smith was also having his basketball camps during the same time, and other sports like volleyball did, too, therefore there were thousands of hungry kids staying overnight in the dorms in Lexington.
“Sonny’s a hustler, always worked hard,” Hatcher said. “I had an ’84 Ford Ranger five-speed that my dad sold me for $1 when I graduated from high school. He said, ‘You know, instead of just selling pizzas to the football campers, why don’t we just load up your truck, park it in the middle of the quad and every night we’ll just sell pizza.”
Dykes didn’t deny it, instead portraying himself as a savvy businessman.
“There were 8 slices in there,” he said. “We made ’em a hell of a deal. You could pay $1 a slice, or we’d sell ’em the whole pizza for $10.”
“I had a South Georgia education,” Hatcher said. “That deal on the price, that was that West Texas education coming through. That was Sonny’s idea.”
The two said they’d go door to door in the dorms the rest of the night selling the rest.
“We were rolling in the dough,” Hatcher said. “You would have thought we were millionaires out there selling all those pizzas. Straight cash money back in the day.”
Dykes and Hatcher, who didn’t have offices, found an old storage room — “That thing was nasty, with blocking dummies probably from when Bear Bryant coached there,” Hatcher recalls — bought desks from a surplus store and created their own little room, adding spots for the student workers.
“We were living the good life, man,” Hatcher said. “We did all the grunt work, but we didn’t have all the pressure that goes along with game day. Sonny and I had it made back there, buddy. We had our own desks, all the volunteers and student assistants kind of felt like they owed us because we got them offices as well. We were living large back then.”
MIKE LEACH GOT the Texas Tech head-coaching job in 2000 after a year as offensive coordinator at Oklahoma, and brought Sonny with him, ironically to replace Spike. Meanwhile, Hatcher landed his own head-coaching gig that same year back at Valdosta, where Smart was once again back to coaching with 11 players.
Now, there was a more pressing issue.
The locker room was a sad state of affairs. But a place like Valdosta State wasn’t in the facilities arms race. If the football staff wanted new lockers, it was on them to figure it out.
“We had a guy donate some wood,” Hatcher said. “A young coach on our staff and his dad were carpenters on the side. So they built a template and we did it assembly-line style and everybody had their own job.”
He said Smart had a key role.
“You had to high-gloss [paint] the finished product to make it shiny,” Hatcher said. “Kirby was our high-gloss guy.”
Both Smart and Muschamp are known for their fiery temperament. Hatcher recalls it all coming into focus when the three of them — Hatcher was just 26, Muschamp was 25 and Smart 24 — would do anything competitive, especially basketball.
Smart could poke and poke and poke and get Muschamp fired up. “He could back it up on the court, too,” Hatcher said.
One day, Smart got Muschamp so angry, he fired the basketball off the gym wall and stormed out. “We didn’t see him for the rest of the day, so Kirby and I had a good time with that for a while,” Hatcher said.
But they all worked hard, too. Muschamp used to paint stripes on the field on Sundays to get ready for practice before he left Valdosta after one year to join Nick Saban’s staff at LSU. Smart, after only one year as a coach, became the defensive coordinator, with a big raise from $8,000 up to about $30,000.
That season, Valdosta went 12-2 and had the No. 2 defense in the country. One of those two losses came in the Division II national championship game.
Now, Muschamp, who has been a head coach at Florida and South Carolina, is an assistant for Smart as the Dawgs try to win a second consecutive title.
“When I hire young coaches, I always tell them there’s no job too small,” Hatcher said. “Back in the day, these are the things that we had to do. Here’s two coaches from the same staff, Kirby and Will, playing for the national championship, that used to paint the field and high-gloss lockers.”
BOTH DYKES AND Smart say they learned a tremendous amount when working for Hatcher, who is 172-95 in 24 years as a head coach and won a national championship at Valdosta in 2004 during a 76-12 run there. This year, he led Samford to its first outright conference title since 1936.
In September, before Georgia beat Hatcher and Samford 33-0, Smart said what he learned from Hatcher was how to use his charisma and how he formed strong relationships.
“His disposition with the team was always confident,” Smart said. “[He] just believed we could win every game. He embodied that. He embraced that. His players love playing for him because of the energy he exudes.”
Smart was asked at SEC media days this year what he remembers most about his time with Hatcher.
“How long you got?” he said, smiling. “Because I could tell you about a 20-hour bus ride I took to Arkadelphia. I could tell you about Texarkana. I could tell you about all the places I went in Mississippi that I didn’t know existed. But that’s where I cut my teeth as a coach. There were some really long bus rides. We built our own lockers.
“I learned a lot while I worked at Valdosta State. You only learn trial by fire. And I certainly appreciate Coach Hatcher for giving me that opportunity.”
For Dykes, the lessons he learned from his time with Hatcher are especially important this week as he attempts to take on an incredibly talented Georgia team. Because, Dykes said, he was a skeptic that Kentucky could ever take on the top of the SEC, and Hatcher convinced him anything is possible.
“I didn’t know anything about the Air Raid and what it entailed,” Dykes said. “So my indoctrination really was Chris, just kind of sitting around the house talking about it. The one thing that matters is that you’re armed with this tool that was going to enable you to climb the highest mountain.”
Dykes said it’s a tribute to his time with Hatcher that he has been able to get TCU to this point this quickly by employing what he learned there.
“It took me a while to become a believer. Chris’ confidence rubbed off on everybody,” Dykes said. “Mike Leach rubbed off on me. Hal rubbed off on me. All the guys that were there, that had been in the offense for a while, all had this unrelenting confidence that it was going to work and it’s going to work against whoever. It didn’t really matter who you’re playing against.”
Dykes added after the Horned Frogs’ 51-46 upset of Michigan in the Vrbo Fiesta Bowl that he was thinking a lot of Leach and his dad in the final seconds of the game. Inevitably, he’ll lean on those lessons from his early days again Monday.
“Chris was just one of those guys: He’s undersized, wasn’t a great athlete, won the Harlon Hill, was a great player. I remember looking at Chris going, how in the world did he do it?” Dykes said. “And then once I got to know him, he just had so much confidence and belief in the system and himself and how if you have this unrelenting, undying belief, people will follow you. When you have a leader that has that, it can be contagious and permeates a whole program. That’s kind of what the magic of it is.”
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