Chris Hatcher first became familiar with Kirby Smart’s defensive acumen while Hatcher was a graduate assistant at Kentucky.
Smart, a safety at Georgia, made things difficult for Hatcher, who was working with Kentucky quarterback Tim Couch.
During a two-year span from 1997-98, Smart picked off Couch, a future No. 1 draft pick in the NFL, four times — twice in each season. Hatcher knew then that Smart was gifted in this sport.
A couple of years later, Hatcher got his first head coaching job at Valdosta State. Former Georgia linebacker Will Muschamp, now South Carolina’s head coach, was hired to be the Blazers’ defensive coordinator.
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After spending most of the money on other assistants, only $8,000 was left in the football budget, and Hatcher needed a defensive backs coach. That’s when Muschamp suggested hiring Smart, the man who made his and Couch’s days against Georgia difficult.
Before taking the job, Smart had a year of experience as an administrative assistant at Georgia. His $8,000-per-year job at Valdosta State would be his first full-time opportunity. It didn’t take long for Hatcher to realize he made the right decision.
“He’s an unbelievable coach, and he’s a very good friend of mine,” Hatcher said. “I think the misnomer is that I helped him become the coach he is. He was a good coach when I hired him.”
After Valdosta State, Hatcher, a former Mount de Sales standout, had stints at Georgia Southern and Murray State before taking the Samford head coaching job in 2015.
Smart became Valdosta State’s defensive coordinator in his second season under Hatcher. Smart then became a longtime assistant, which included nine years — eight as the defensive coordinator — at Alabama under Nick Saban.
Smart took his first head coaching job with Georgia in December of 2015. In his second season, Smart is set to take on his former boss when Samford steps foot inside Sanford Stadium on Saturday night.
“I’m very thankful of the opportunity he gave me,” Smart said. “I really enjoyed my time on his staff. Some of my greatest memories are at 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, and he’s a great guy to work for.”
When Smart was promoted to defensive coordinator at Valdosta State, the Division II program posted a No. 2 total defense ranking in the nation, Hatcher said.
Hatcher also noted Smart has always been someone who could get the best out of his players.
“He’s just one of those guys that took advantage of the opportunities, and everywhere he’s been, he’s been very successful,” Hatcher said. “His teams kind of play like he coaches, and that’s with a really hard edge about themselves and a lot of fire.”
While Hatcher commended Smart’s defensive prowess, Smart said Hatcher’s offense is a tough one to slow down.
Hatcher comes from the Hal Mumme air raid style of offense, which has the quarterback throw the ball quite a bit. Hatcher’s style has been dubbed the “Hatch Attack.”
Through two games, Samford quarterback Devlin Hodges has thrown for 558 yards and seven touchdowns. With Georgia facing a couple of run-first teams in Appalachian State and Notre Dame to open the year, Samford will be the first team Georgia faces that looks to throw the ball primarily.
Adding intrigue to this matchup is the fact Smart’s father, Sonny Smart, was the starting center for Samford from 1968-70.
Smart and Hatcher are both looking forward to reuniting Saturday, even if their teams will be going against one another.
“We’ve had a little fun this week, we’ve texted back and forth,” Hatcher said. “We’ll see how it goes on Saturday.”
Samford at Georgia
7:30 p.m., Saturday
SEC Network Alternate