You ought to feel good about Georgia Southern’s football future.
And not because the Eagles beat West Georgia 45-21 on Saturday night in Statesboro after scoring 35 unanswered points in the second half.
But rather because of the men leading the program – coaches like Chris Hatcher and players like Jayson Foster, who came to Georgia Southern as a quarterback and as a sophomore in 2005 was one of the Southern Conference’s most dangerous players.
He was moved to wide receiver last year by football genius Brian VanGorder – and for Eagle fans, the less said about VanGorder the better.
Foster still made plays, just less of them. This in large part because of an offensive scheme that seemed more intent on stopping Georgia Southern in general and Foster in particular than in putting points on the board.
But it hasn't taken Hatcher long to figure out the more times you get the ball to Foster, the better.
"I like him a lot," Hatcher said during the school’s media fan day last month. "I think he’s a great player."
Foster certainly played great on Saturday, piling up more than 300 yards of offense – he ran for 231 and threw for 124 more while accounting for four touchdowns as the Eagles wore out the outgunned Wolves.
Foster’s also been unselfish, almost to a fault. He has kind words to say about his former coach and even went so far as to call him a great guy during a recent interview.
Foster also noted he’s had no regrets about spending last year in limbo at wide receiver.
"A lot of people are going to ponder that a long time," he said. "I’m not even going to think about it. Changes occur. If I’d played quarterback for three years, maybe I would have rushed for so many yards, maybe we would have won so many games. But it didn’t happen like that, so you’ve got to go out there and try to be the best receiver you can be. You’ve got to be versatile in what you can do. Hopefully, I’ve done the best job I can do at it."
Foster's tenure as a receiver seems over, and Georgia Southern's football team is far the better for it being over. And it's not surprising it took an offensive-minded coach to see it.
A highly touted offensive genius in his own right, Hatcher was a former star signal caller at Valdosta State, where he won the Harlan Hill trophy, the Division II equivalent of the Heisman.
Then he took over as coach of the Blazers, where Hatcher’s 76-12 record with his alma mater includes a national championship. Once VanGorder bailed for a job as linebackers coach with the Atlanta Falcons, Hatcher was the immediate and obvious choice for GSU athletic director Sam Baker – who many feel was a year too late in offering Hatcher the job.
There's no doubt Hatcher's arrival has sent a bolt of enthusiasm through a program that fell to uncharted depths last fall, finishing 3-8.
"I think the biggest difference is everybody is having fun, everybody is loose and we’re having a good time playing," senior guard Marcelo Estrada said when asked about the difference between Hatcher and his predecessor. "I think last year we were pretty uptight. I think they’re both really good coaches, but the big difference is Hatcher is more personable, I guess."
That personality has won over fans. Some have compared Hatcher’s down-South persona -- he grew up in Macon -- to the homespun charm of the late Erk Russell. Hatcher’s flattered, no doubt, noting that after his father, Russell is on a short list of coaches he's looked up to.
"Lot’s of people have a perception of a guy they don’t really know. Coach Russell, even though I met him a couple of times when he was alive, you just thought he was a great story teller, he made everybody laugh and he was a great motivator and a great football coach," Hatcher said. "Then on the other side, he was a competitor, hard driven and worked his guys hard. If I had to pick a couple guys to be like, he’d be one you’d want to be compared to. That would be a great compliment."
Still, it's clear that Hatcher, who brought back traditions like the yellow school buses, has to produce at Georgia Southern – a place where for so long winning happened so often it almost came to seem commonplace, or at least a birthright of some sort.
Those high expectations probably prompted one reporter at media day to ask Hatcher if he thought this team had the stuff to win a championship.
Hatcher didn't blink, but he did grin a little bit.
"It’s way too early to tell," he said. "To win a championship, you’ve got to be mighty lucky. One thing about Georgia Southern is you’ve won six, an average of winning one every four years, so it’s become easy. Let me tell you, winning a championship is one of the hardest things to do."
And a few sentences later, Hatcher gave it another spin.
"When I came here I sad we’re going to add to our championships," he said. "That’s our goal. I never said we’re going to do it but that was our plan. Who wouldn’t plan on doing that? You wouldn’t want me to come in and say we’re planning on getting our eyes beat in each and every week. We plan on winning them all. Whether we do that or not is another thing, but that’s what we plan on doing."
Shades of Erk, you bet.
Jeff Whitten is editor of the Bryan County News.