‘Dreams do come true’: Kirby Smart faces the coach who gave him his start

Kirby Smart - Cris Hatcher
Left: Kirby Smart during his Valdosta State days. Right: Chris Hatcher turned Valdosta State into a Division II national power.

Chris Hatcher was a young head coach, putting together his first staff. Valdosta State was a small Division II school, and Hatcher was given a small Division II budget. His first hire, defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, would earn $31,000. Next up was defensive line coach Mike Pelton, who was hired at the cost of $15,000.

That didn’t leave much.

“Will, we’ve got $8,000 left, man,” Hatcher recalled asking. “Do you know anybody that would coach the secondary for that?”

Muschamp thought a moment and then answered: “Yeah, what about Kirby?”

That would be Kirby Smart, a Georgia teammate of Muschamp and acquaintance of Hatcher, who thought it was a great idea. And so began the coaching career of Georgia’s current head coach, who now earns well more than $8,000 per day, and on Saturday will coach against the man who gave him his start.

Hatcher is now the coach at Samford, an FCS school in Alabama, and while the two don’t always have a chance to keep up, they’ve been “shooting up a good-natured banter this week on the texting circuit,” as Hatcher puts it.

“I’m just happy for the guy. He’s done it the right way,” Hatcher said of Smart. “I tell people that all the time. They say, Man you hired this guy and make it sound like when he got there I sprinkled magic dust on him and made him a great coach. He was 24 and I was 26, and I don’t think either one of us knew what we were doing.”

‘I just had a lot of fun’

Hatcher had been the quarterbacks coach at Kentucky, and at one point his quarterback, Tim Couch, was picked off twice by Smart in one game. That made an impression. A year later, Hatcher, poised to be hired as his alma mater Valdosta State’s head coach, spoke before the Georgia-Kentucky game with Smart and Mike Bobo, who were both student assistants at the time. Hatcher asked what their next move was in coaching; Smart didn’t know, and Hatcher filed that away.

Valdosta State had only won four games the year before Hatcher, Smart and company came aboard. They were literally building a program in many ways: The coaches built new lockers with their own hands, forming an assembly line to do so. They also lined the field, did laundry and handed out hamburgers at lunch, according to Muschamp. 

“I really enjoyed my time on his staff,” Smart said this week. “Some of my greatest memories are at Valdosta and Valdosta State. I was young then, and a whole lot different as a coach. For two years there I just had a lot of fun.”

Will Muschamp, right, suggested Kirby Smart for the Valdosta State assistant coaching job. Now they’re both SEC head coaches. (FILE PHOTO)

Hatcher was the offensive guru, while the UGA boys – Muschamp and then Smart – ran the defense, along with Pelton and other staffers. (Pelton is now Georgia Tech’s defensive line coach. Muschamp is South Carolina’s coach.)

Smart was the secondary coach the first year, then Muschamp left and Smart stepped into the defensive coordinator role. Valdosta State finished second in Division II in total defense during Smart’s season running the defense. Hatcher laughs now watching Smart’s defenses at Georgia blitzing from all over the field. That never happened at Valdosta State.

“I always gave Kirby a hard time: Man when are you gonna blitz? (Kirby answered), ‘Man, bad things can happen when you blitz,’” Hatcher said. “Hopefully he will remember that on Saturday and not blitz.”

And yes, Smart has always been that energetic on sidelines.

“Oh yeah, he hasn’t changed,” said Hatcher, who had stops at Georgia Southern and Murray State and before landing at Samford in 2015. “He’s not quite as skinny as he used to be. Of course, this profession will do that to you. And maybe he isn’t running as fast as he used to run. What you see is the way he was at Valdosta.

“And I’m just going to remind him before the game that he needs to remember that me and him were teammates at lunch basketball games, and we were partners in our Friday staff golf matches in the spring. And he needs to remember that come game time on Saturday.”

‘As good as I’ve seen on film’

Samford (2-0) has the typical Hatch Attack offense: Spread the field and pass a lot, and put up a lot of points. That would make for an interesting matchups with Georgia’s defense …

But Hatcher, like many people, is vastly impressed with Smart’s defense.

“I tell you what, their defense is as good as I’ve seen on film,” Hatcher said. “Now I haven’t studied Alabama because I haven’t played them. But I compare their defense to Tennessee’s defense in ’99, and Florida’s defense when they had Jevon Kearse, because I was coaching at Kentucky at the time. They play with a tremendous edge about them. And that’s a great credit to Kirby.”

Hatcher also opined that Georgia is playing “with a different edge this season.”

It’s been 17 years since Hatcher gave Smart his first job. Hatcher would go on to be the winningest coach in Valdosta State history, winning a national title in 2004. Smart was gone by then, helped by Muschamp to hook on with Nick Saban.

When the two head coaches meet at midfield before Saturday’s game, Hatcher may remember back to that conversation when he asked a young man what his coaching plans were.

“The guy wanted to be a college coach,” Hatcher said. “He started at the Division II ranks for $8,000, and worked his tail off, and paid the price, and here he is leading his alma mater in the SEC. So dreams do come true.”

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