Hatcher 1Georgia Southern coach Chris Hatcher speaks to the Effingham Eagle Club.
Hatcher 2Georgia Southern head football coach Chris Hatcher.
Hatcher 3Georgia Southern head football coach Chris Hatcher.
When he agreed to become Georgia Southern’s seventh head football coach since the program was restarted in 1981, Chris Hatcher knew what he was getting into.
Hatcher led Valdosta State to a Division II national championship and a runner-up finish in seven years at the helm of his alma mater, where he was an all-American quarterback. Mere hours after Brian VanGorder turned in his resignation as Georgia Southern coach, after barely more than a year on the job, to become the Atlanta Falcons linebacker coach, GSU officials were on the phone to Hatcher.
Less than two days later, he was announced as the Georgia Southern coach — not that the transition didn’t take work.
“It’s been pretty smooth,” he said. “But a lot of people don’t realize you have a life, that you are a daddy and a husband, and you have to uproot your family.”
After seven years at Valdosta State, Hatcher was ready for a move up when GSU athletics director Sam Baker called and approached him about the Eagles job.
“I was ready to leave,” he said. “It was probably time for me to go. Then again, it was a difficult decision to leave.”
Though Hatcher knew Georgia Southern’s reputation, having played against the Eagles in 1992 (a 24-13 GSU win) and recruited against them over the years, there was a lot about the campus and Statesboro he didn’t know. And still doesn’t, by his own admission.
“Everything here is new to me,” he said. “I didn’t know anything.”
Hatcher watched two Georgia Southern game tapes before meeting the team for the first time, but not so much to judge his own team as to judge the competition and to see what he was up against. He watched the Eagles’ games against Furman and defending two-time national champion Appalachian State.
“I didn’t get any preconceived expectations,” he said. “I watched the other teams because I wanted to see what we needed.”
In fact, he jokes to fans, he knew so little about the Eagles that when he saw there was more speed on offense than on defense and wanted to shore up the secondary, he asked running back Chris Covington to move to defensive back — not knowing Covington was the leading rusher a year ago.
The Eagles finished spring practice a week ago, and Hatcher kept things simple, especially since the Eagles were going through their third different coach in 24 months.
“We wanted them to go out and play fast, so we could get a good evaluation,” he said. “This is their third system in three years. With all things considered, they picked it up very well.”
Former Effingham County star Lynon Jefferson has been slowed by injuries but has impressed Hatcher. Former South Effingham kicker Patrick Bolen had a solid spring for a unit that was much maligned a year ago.
Hatcher also moved former backup quarterback Chris Rogers to safety and former wide receiver Lionel McGriff to cornerback and praised the work of both. He also moved former starting offensive lineman Ricory Green to defense.
“Ricory Green could have been an all-American at offensive line,” he said.
Senior Jayson Foster is staying at receiver, the first time in his career he’ll return to a position he played the year before. Foster, perhaps the Southern Conference’s most dynamic player, ran for 21 touchdowns and 1,481 yards as a quarterback in 2005. Last year, he caught a team-high 33 passes for 368 yards. He had a touchdown catch of 85 yards, a touchdown run of 83 yards and a punt return of 78 yards.
“Jayson Foster is as good as advertised, or better,” Hatcher said. “You can’t catch him in a phone booth.”
He also lauded the offensive line, a veteran group even without Green —“the real strength of the team is the offensive line,” he said. “I’m real pleased with the way they have performed since we got here.”
The quarterbacks, led by returning starter Travis Clark and backup Kyle Collins, have picked up his system, dubbed the “Hatch Attack,” quickly. There will be plenty of competition at quarterback, with Northern Illinois transfer Billy Lowe expected to enroll.
Hatcher and his staff had to hit the ground running — literally. They had 10 days before national signing day to put together a recruiting class, and they were able to land highly regarded Greater Atlanta Christian quarterback Lee Chapple and Dalton punter/placekicker Adrian Mora.
“We’ve got some good players on the team,” he said. “We don’t have a lot of depth. For us to be successful, we’re going to have to have a lot of luck.”
He also knows Eagles fans — hungry for a seventh national championship since the last one in 2000 — weren’t happy with last year’s 3-8 record. The fans have greeted him warmly as he made his way through the Eagle Clubs and around Statesboro.
“They have been very receptive,” he said. “Georgia Southern fans, in a good way, are spoiled. Other teams have won more championships, but not one every four years. They’re used to winning, but so am I. We’re hoping we can get Southern back to the top where it used to be.”
Hatcher posted a 76-12 record at Valdosta State in seven years, having taken over a program in turmoil after the firing of Mike Kelly. He’s used to rebuilding, and he’s accustomed to winning.
He knows those are the expectations of Eagles fans, too.
“We expect to win and win big,” he said. “Whether or not that happens, only time will tell. We play to win in everything we do.”