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The Chris Hatcher Chronicles

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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Through it all, Chris Hatcher, and few of his buddies, haven't forgotten where they came from.

It boils down to having a little bit better Jimmys and Joes and making sure those guys know that you love them and are doing what you have to do to put them in a position to to succeed.
~Chris Hatcher

When it comes to recent gridiron history in the Deep South, Chris Hatcher is a thread in the pigskin stitching. Birmingham by way of Murray, Kentucky and Statesboro and Valdosta, Georgia, the former star signal caller has a reach that extends well beyond, including all the way to the top of the national polls. The purview of Hatcher's career, scheme, staff and style, is prominently featured every Saturday in the fall. Hatcher is a champion, a leader and an innovator, all with a rounded cap brim and a warm southern drawl. He's football meets hey y'all.

A Macon-native, Hatcher may sound like a weekend stroll; his influence, however, carries like I-75.

This upcoming season at Samford, for Hatcher, is lining up to be one of his best. Hatcher has the Bulldogs fresh off back-to-back playoff appearances for the first time in school history and slotted in the top ten of the summer FCS Coaches Poll. Picked as the favorite in the Southern Conference, Samford has emerged as a national power and, additionally, has been quite close to even more; the Bulldogs' last four regular season FCS losses have come by a total of ten points.

With Hatcher entering year four at Samford, it's worth noting the progress he has made and what he accomplished a half-decade into his first coaching gig, alike.   

Though Hatcher's story is still being written, it's a tale that starts, fittingly, in Titletown, U.S.A. There, suiting up for the NCAA Division II Valdosta State Blazers, he set fire to the Gulf South Conference record books. Hatcher then-set some new national marks and is still the league's all-time leader in passing touchdowns and completions, holding countless other season and game highs as well. As a senior, he threw for 4,076 yards and 55 scores, completing 72.2% of his passes. Hatcher, that fall, won the Harlon Hill Trophy, the equivalent of the D-II Heisman.

"It wasn't his measurables, what made him so good were the intangibles, his leadership and his competitiveness. That was evident in every aspect," recalled Hatcher's former VSU roommate and record-setting receiver Sean Pender. "We used to have neighborhood wiffle ball games and Chris would do whatever he had to do to win. If he was losing, we couldn't finish in six innings, we had to go ten or eleven. If you had to go to class, you forfeited and he won. He was always all-in."

Furthermore, Hatcher was the CoSIDA Academic All-America National Player of the Year and was awarded a postgraduate scholarship from the National Football Foundation and the College Football Hall of Fame. He was honored with the Gulf South Commissioner's Trophy, given to the top student-athlete in the conference, twice. 

Hatcher learned diligently on and off the field at Valdosta State. At the start of his career, the head man was former Kentucky head coach Hal Mumme, the offensive coordinator was Washington State head coach Mike Leach, the offensive line coach was former UK and Baylor head coach Guy Morriss and the volunteer coach on offense was Dana Holgorsen of West Virginia. After one of the most productive playing careers in college football history, Hatcher followed in their footsteps. His own coaching tree also has strong, deep roots.

Starting his professional tenure as a quarterbacks coach tutoring the likes of future Pro Bowler Daunte Culpepper at Central Florida, Hatcher followed Mumme to Lexington where he worked with SEC Player of the Year Tim Couch, the number one overall pick in the 1999 NFL Draft. Hatcher, as an up-and-coming assistant, was part of and responsible for considerable offensive and overall achievement at his stops. In the spotlight in the game's toughest conference, he helped take the Wildcats to their first New Year's Day Bowl in nearly 50 years.

Still in his mid-20s, Hatcher's first head coaching opportunity came at his alma mater at the turn of the millennium. He, following a 4-7 season for Valdosta State, promptly debuted with a 10-2 effort. One full recruiting cycle in, Hatcher, five years after being hired, won the program's first-ever national title. The Blazers defeated Pittsburg State in a triumph that at least contributed to ESPN giving the Azalea City its now more famous nickname back in 2008. Not long after leading the way at quarterback, his stint at head coach changed the status quo at Valdosta State, elevating expectations with six playoff bids in seven seasons.

"I tell my team all the time that you have to go somewhere where you enjoy being part of the team," Hatcher explained. "I enjoyed my time at Valdosta State as a player, but to be able to go back and be a head coach at such a young age was just a blessing to me. We learned a lot, we were very successful and it was fun to see how far the program had come since I played."

While in the process of making a name for himself, Hatcher's ripple effect was felt well beyond the Lowndes County line; it became a proverbial down-and-distance marker at the game's highest level. In changing the direction of Valdosta State, he indirectly changed the course of history. Even if you don't know Hatcher, you are most likely familiar with some of his offensive schemes and defensive assistants. Hatcher gave the sport a jumpstart and gave a pair of college football frontrunners their first head starts. 

Two of Hatcher's first hires with the Blazers were Will Muschamp and Kirby Smart, obviously now the head coaches at South Carolina and Georgia, respectively. Hatcher brought on the duo, both former safeties for the Bulldogs, to be part of Valdosta State's defensive staff, with Muschamp serving as coordinator and Smart teaching the defensive backs. Before competing against each other in the SEC, Muschamp and Smart worked side-by-side in south Georgia.  

Hatcher had developed a relationship with Muschamp during his time in the Bluegrass State, their paths crossing briefly. 

"I met Will when he was a defensive coach at Eastern Kentucky under the great Roy Kidd and I was coaching at Kentucky," Hatcher shared. "It's kind of funny, I interviewed two guys for the coordinator job, I guess I just had an eye for talent, one of them was Will and the other was Wesley McGriff, who is the defensive coordinator at Ole Miss. I couldn't of gone wrong with either one of them, but I'll tell you what, Will just had it."

With Muschamp opening the door for his now friend and rival, the circumstances surrounding Smart's introduction were a little more modest.

"We had $8,000 left over in the budget and needed a defensive backs coach. That was all we had left," Hatcher acknowledged. "Will knew Kirby, I guess Kirby had just gotten cut by the Colts and wanted to get into coaching. Maybe he had been at Georgia for a year in an analyst-type position. He decided to take the job. We gave him nine grand, we decided to give him an extra $1,000 to be the camp director."

Muschamp has since become the defensive coordinator at Auburn, LSU and Texas, the assistant head coach of the Miami Dolphins and the head man at Florida and, currently, South Carolina. In 2012, he was named SEC co-Coach of the Year. Fresh off a conference championship and a trip to the College Football Playoff Final, Smart won four national titles as defensive coordinator at Alabama, was the winner of the Broyles Award in 2009, was recognized as the AFCA Assistant Coach of the Year in 2012 and, last fall, was named SEC Coach of the Year. 

"I think we got a pretty good bang for our buck with those two guys," Hatcher chuckled.

For only having coached in the states of Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Kentucky, the scope of all that Hatcher has done is far more widespread. His version of Mumme's famed "Air Raid" offense, often dubbed the "Hatch Attack", is mimicked at football's every level. Hatcher was a leading figure in the schematic revolution of the 1990s. Whether coaches are aware or not, Hatcher's concepts, from his playing and coaching days, are referenced in meeting rooms across the country.   

Then there's the impression Hatcher has and continues to make on both his players and his peers. Hatcher is appreciative, gracious and perceptive. There is much more on his resume than merely stats and wins; Hatcher very much counts memories, even as they are being made. Last season, his Samford Bulldogs played Smart's Georgia Bulldogs in Athens in a game that was a special moment for both. In the eyes of one of the most respected coaches in the game, the relationships are worth more than the rings.

"I am very excited for both of them. You know, they are both tremendous coaches or they wouldn't be where they are, they wouldn't be successful," Hatcher smiled of Muschamp and Smart. "I am very fortunate that we are still friends to this day."

While Muschamp and Smart worked for Hatcher a near-generation ago, they were also positive influences on his formative years.

"I was 26 years old when I got the job in Valdosta. I didn't know anything. I knew how to coach a little offense. I had never been a head coach, I was just lucky that I hired two really good coaches. I think the success of the program even after I was there, to win two more titles, a lot of that you have to give credit to Kirby and Will because they really put a good foundation on how to play good defense and it just carried on. They were good coaches before I got them, they just had the opportunity to showcase their talents a little more at Valdosta State."

Smart is currently 2-0 versus Muschamp in two meetings between Georgia and South Carolina with the two former Bulldogs and Blazers at the helm. On September 8th, the Gamecocks will host the third-ranked team in the nation in a critical SEC East showdown at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia. The outcome will help shape the conference and national picture.

"I pull for them each and every week, except when they play each other," Hatcher nodded. "I really don't have a dog in that hunt."

Hatcher's chase begins with Shorter, Florida State and then a key SoCon opener with Mercer in mid-September. Expectations are high for the Bulldogs, especially with the return of All-American quarterback Devlin Hodges. An incredible full-circle replication for one of the most productive passers in college football history and a proven quarterback guru, Hatcher now guides Hodges, who has a chance to finish his career with the most passing yards in FCS history, breaking the record of the late Steve McNair.  

Ahead of his senior season, Hodges, who completed 26-of-35 passes with two touchdowns at Georgia, is currently at 10,301 passing yards with 79 touchdowns, paralleling Hatcher's career totals of 11,363 yards and 121 scores. With 4,196 more passing yards, not at all unreasonable considering Hodges threw for 4,088 in 2016, he would surpass McNair's iconic mark. Culpepper to Couch, Hodges is Hatcher's latest pupil.

"Like I told him at the beginning of the year, if he beats McNair's record that means we had a really, really good season, so I'm pulling like crazy for him to make that happen," Hatcher beamed.

At a place where the likes of Bobby Bowden, Terry Bowden and Pat Sullivan, Hatcher's predecessor, once led the way, Samford's current head coach has brought the program to unprecedented heights. The Bulldogs are considered by pundits to be a major contender for the national championship. To date, Samford has never made it past the semifinals of the of the 1-AA or FCS playoffs. Consecutive postseason trips, however, have these Bulldogs primed and ready for a run.

"It's helped our culture a lot within our team. As a coach, you can be a good guy and work them hard and all of that and if you're not successful a lot of times, the buy-in takes a little bit longer," Hatcher stated. "Fortunately for us, we have made the playoffs back-to-back years, so our guys are excited and understand what it takes."

Another football season, for Hatcher, only adds to individual legacy. In addition to his famed playing career, Hatcher's record as head coach stands at an impressive 142-71, with a winning postseason record to boot. He, in Division I stints with Georgia Southern, Murray State and Samford, has a running tally of 66-59. Hatcher has improved the team's win total in all of his three seasons with the Bulldogs.

Each year on the sidelines for the former employee of Industrial Mine and Pipe Supply has been a lifetime in the making. Born and raised around the game, Hatcher reached for a box score not long after reaching for the bottle. His childhood was measured ten yards at a time. Even when he was just "Chris", Hatcher was, in some ways, still "coach".  

"My dad was a high school coach in Macon for over 40 years, I grew up Friday nights being the ball boy. I learned how to tape ankles before I was ten years old," Hatcher shared. "I was just the do-it-all guy for him, I just loved it."

Long before there was a coaching tree, a simple seed was planted. Water and sunlight weren't the only basics soaked in. 

"I just saw how he treated his players and I saw, once I got old enough to realize it, how much the players respected him and saw him as a father figure. I just wanted to emulate him," Hatcher reflected. "I don't think there's any magic formula to being a good coach; you have to be genuine, you gotta have no ego and the best thing is: if you have really good coaches and really good players, it tends to make you a whole lot better."

All that Hatcher has seen helps make up who he is today. The end result is a coach who can go deep inside any playbook, but also a man who can relate with any person. 

Hatcher, a scholar as a student-athlete and a champion as a coach, really is one of a kind. In an archived interview with Southern Pigskin from when he was the head coach at Georgia Southern, Hatcher said his hidden talent was being a yard man, his favorite musician was Alan Jackson and described his ideal lazy Sunday as going to mass, picking up a bucket of chicken, getting in the mule and grabbing the fishing poles. As we speak, Hatcher's star quarterback is an accomplished duck caller.

Through it all, Hatcher, and few of his buddies, haven't forgotten where they came from.

"Kirby, Will and I, we talked a couple of weeks ago and that was one thing we talked about, the good, ol' days at Valdosta State. We just had better players than everybody else and that was the reason we won," Hatcher stated. "That's what it boils down to, having a little bit better Jimmys and Joes than your opponent and making sure those guys know that you love them, care for them and are doing what you have to do to put them in a position to to succeed."

As scenes change for Hatcher, the setting remains exactly the same.

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is SouthernPigskin.com's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Kevin Thomas and Ben Troupe on the "Southern Pigskin Radio Network". Email: bj@espncoastal.com / Twitter: @BJBennettSports