Chris Hatcher remembers The first time he knew Kirby Smart was going to be a great defensive coach.
Hatcher, current coach SamfordThis was his first staff appointment Valdosta State in 2000, and used much of his salary for assistants before hiring a secondary coach. His defensive coordinator, Will Muschamp, who was pulling in a cool $31,000, suggested they use their last $8,000 to hire someone he trusted.
Muschamp reached out to Smart, who played with him as a defensive back Georgia and finished his career with 13 interceptions. But there were three who jumped at Hatcher.
“I knew who Kirby was because I was the quarterbacks coach kentucky for Tim Couch, and I think Kirby picked him off three times in one game,” Hatcher said of Smart’s role in the Dawgs’ 23-13 win over Kentucky in 1997. “We knew that no matter what we were recruiting Kirby, because we were just that. There was money left, but Will and I decided it would be best for him to come down, put on a suit and do the interview and do it properly.”
So he put his new candidate in front of the whiteboard and asked him to describe the Georgia base defense that Kirby ran as a player.
“He gets out there and he draws diagrams and he backs up,” Hatcher said. “He was sweating, and Will and I were laughing, and I finally said, ‘Coach, that feels good, but if you’re playing with 11 guys, you’ve got a better chance of stopping them.'”
Smart, who had dropped a player, nervously took the last man in and apologized. (For the record, Hatcher knows that Muschamp told the story with 12 people instead of 10. They both agree that Kirby was alienated by a man, Hatcher insists that the way he remembers it is correct.)
“I told everybody, if he’s confident in stopping them with 10, I was like, man, there’s no telling what he’s going to do if he plays with 11,” Hatcher said.
Hatcher knows Smart will need all 11 men 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 one of the guys most responsible for teaching Horned Frogs coach Sonny Dykes the Air Raid offense.
For five years from 1997 to 2002, Hatcher lived with Dykes for three years then worked with Smart for two years. Hatcher and Dykes joined Hal Mumm’s first Kentucky staff, then after landing the head-coaching job at his alma mater, Valdosta State, Hatcher recruited Smart and Muschamp into their first jobs, where he worked with Smart for two seasons.
He’s the only person who can say he sold pizza 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 cool, got a great sense of humor. Kirby can talk smack with the best of them.”
Arrived at Hatcher Kentucky a few months before Dykes. He was a star quarterback under Mumm at Valdosta, where he won the Harlon Hill Award, the equivalent of the Heisman Trophy.
He was ready to hit the coaching couch running into the ground, becoming the No. 1 overall pick in the 1999 NFL Draft. Dykes, formerly a jack-of-all-trades assistant at Navarro Junior College in Texas, considered quitting coaching because he was young, single and broke. Then his father is a legend Texas Tech Coach Spike Dykes suggested he call Mme.
Mumme hired him over the phone, and a few months later Dykes showed up when a graduate assistant spot opened up. He didn’t have a place to live, and neither did Hatcher, who was 23. They didn’t know each other, but Hatcher said she once saw Spike speak at a clinic and was “mesmerized.” So he couldn’t wait to meet little Dykes.
They rented a house but had no furniture or money. Hatcher said they bought mattresses at a flea market and then, he claims, Dykes hatched a plan one summer while they were working as football camp workers to supplement their income.
Hatcher was the director of the camp. Dykes, his assistant, saw the dollar sign when he realized Tubby Smith was also at his basketball camp at the same time and also played other sports like volleyball, so there were thousands of hungry kids overnight in Lexington’s dorms.
“Sonny is 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 high school. He said, ‘You know, instead of selling pizza to football campers, why don’t we just load up?’ ? Your truck, park it in the middle of the square and we’ll just sell pizza every night.”
Dykes did not deny this, instead portraying himself as a savvy businessman.
“There were 8 slices,” he said. “We got them a hell of a deal. You can pay a slice for $1, or we’ll sell them a whole pizza for $10.”
“I had a South Georgia education,” Hatcher said. “The deal with Price, that was through West Texas Education. That was Sonny’s idea.”
The two said they would spend the rest of the night going door-to-door selling.
“We were rolling in dough,” Hatcher said. “You’d think we’d be millionaires selling all those pizzas. Straight cash back a day.”
Dykes and Hatcher, who didn’t have an office, found an old storage room — “That thing was crappy, probably with dummy blocks from when Bear Bryant coached there,” Hatcher recalls — and bought desks from a surplus store. And made their own small rooms, adding spots for student workers.
“We were living the good life, man,” Hatcher said. “We did all the grunt work, but we didn’t have all the stress with game day. Sonny and I made it there, dude. We had our own desks, all the volunteers and student assistants felt like they owed us because we got their office, too.
Got Mike Leach The Texas Tech head-coaching job in 2000 followed a year as offensive coordinator Oklahoma, and brought Sonny with him to replace Spike. Meanwhile, Hatcher landed his own head-coaching gig at Valdosta that same year, while Smart returned to coaching 11 players.
Now, there was a more pressing problem.
The locker room was a pathetic state. But places like Valdosta State were not at the mercy of the arms race. If the football staff wanted a new locker, it was up to them to figure it out.
“We had a guy donate some wood,” Hatcher said. “We had a young instructor on staff and his dad was a carpenter on the side. So they made a template and we did it assembly-line style and everyone had their own job.”
He said Smart had a key role.
“You had to shine high [paint] products to make it shine,” Hatcher said. “Kirby was our high-gloss guy.”
Both Smart and Muschamp are known for their fiery tempers. Hatcher thinks everything was focused when the three of them – Hatcher was just 26, Muschamp 25 and Smart 24 – were doing something competitive, especially basketball.
Smart could punch and punch and punch and sack Muschamp. “He can back it up in court, too,” Hatcher said.
One day, Smart angered Muschamp so much, he threw the basketball off the gym wall and walked out. “We didn’t see him for the rest of the day, so Kirby and I had a good time with it for a while,” Hatcher said.
But they all worked hard. Muschamp laced up on the field Sunday to get ready for practice before leaving Valdosta a year after joining Nick Saban’s staff at LSU. Smart, after just one year as a coach, became defensive coordinator, a salary increase from $8,000 to nearly $30,000.
That season, Valdosta went 12-2 and had the No. 2 defense in the nation. One of those two losses came in the Division II national championship game.
Now, Muschamp, who was the head coach at Florida and South Carolina, is an assistant to Smart as the Dawgs try to win a second straight title.
“When I hire young coaches, I always tell them no job is too small,” Hatcher said. “Back in the day, those were the things we had to do. Here were two coaches on the same staff, Kirby and Will, playing for national championships, who painted the field and the high-gloss lockers.”
Both dikes and Smart said they learned a lot while working for Hatcher, who went 172-95 in 24 years as head coach and won a national championship in 2004 during a 76-12 run at Valdosta. That year, he led Samford to its first straight 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 builds strong relationships.
“His disposition with the team was always confident,” Smart said. “[He] I just believed we could win every match. He embodies that. He embraced it. His players love playing for him because of the energy he gives.”
Smart was asked at SEC media days this year what he remembers most about his time with Hatcher.
“How long have you got?” He said with a smile. “Because I could tell you about the 20-hour bus ride to Arkadelphia. I could tell you about Texarkana. I could tell you about all the places I went to in Mississippi that I didn’t know existed. But that’s where I cut my teeth as a coach. Some really long. There were bus rides. We made our own lockers.
“I learned one a lot When I worked at Valdosta State. You only learn by 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 tries to take on an incredibly talented Georgia team. Because, Dykes said, he was skeptical that Kentucky could ever rise to the top of the SEC, and Hatcher convinced him that anything was possible.
“I knew nothing about air raids and what was involved,” Dykes said. “So my instinct was really, Chris, to sit around the house and talk about it. The one thing that’s important is that you’re equipped with the equipment that will enable you to climb the highest mountain.”
Dykes said it’s a tribute to his time at Hatcher that he was able to use what he learned there to bring TCU to this point so quickly.
“It took me a while to become a believer. Chris’ confidence rubbed off on everyone,” 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 unwavering confidence that it was going to work and it was going to work against anybody. It really did matter who you were playing against. No.”
Dykes was added after the Horned Frogs’ 51-46 upset Michigan at the Vrbo Fiesta Bowl that he was thinking a lot about Leach and his father in the final seconds of the game. Inevitably, he will again lean on those lessons from his early days on Monday.
“Chris was one of those guys: He was undersized, not a great athlete, won the Harlon Hill, was a great player. I remember watching Chris go, how in the world did he do that?” Dykes Dr. “And then when I got to know him, he just had so much confidence and belief in the system and in himself and how if you have this unrelenting, unwavering belief, people will follow you. It becomes contagious and permeates a whole program. It’s kind of magic. “