ATHENS, Ga. — The first few weeks in December are always a hectic time for assistant coaches. From the early stages of bowl preparation, usually against an unfamiliar opponent, to the crucial stretch drive of recruiting season, the list of demands on a coach’s time is extensive.
What’s rare this time of year, however, is for a coach to set aside time between recruiting visits and film preparation to type a 10-page paper for one of his classes, but that was the chore for Todd Hartley last week.
“It can get a little overwhelming, but that’s part of it,” said Hartley, Georgia’s 24-year-old graduate assistant who will fill in for departed defensive coordinator Willie Martinez by coaching the Bulldogs’ secondary in their bowl game against Texas A&M.
Hartley learned of his promotion last week while wrapping up an extensive paper on adult education in developing nations. As a grad assistant – one of two on-field GAs allowed in the SEC – Hartley is required to be in school, but the next few weeks will provide a far more exhausting type of education.
After Georgia dismissed three defensive coaches, including Martinez, head coach Mark Richt offered his departing assistants a chance to coach in the Bulldogs’ bowl game. Each declined, and Richt was forced to scramble for replacements. The result was giving a rare opportunity to Hartley and program coordinator Mitch Doolittle, who will coach Georgia’s linebackers.
The news of the coaching changes and the announcement about his temporary promotion all came as a surprise to Hartley, but he said the job, while immense, won’t change his or the team’s approach in the coming weeks.
“It’s really no different,” Hartley said. “We’re doing the same stuff as Coach Martinez. All it is is a different guy leading the drills and leading the guys onto the field. It’s no different, it’s just a different guy doing it.”
A former quarterback at Jones County High School in Gray, Hartley knew early on that he wanted a future in football, but at just 5-foot-10 and 160 pounds, he didn’t exactly look the part of an aspiring NFL star.
Academics were his strong point, however, and coaching seemed like something he would enjoy, so when he got to Georgia in 2004 he started looking into opportunities to work with the football team.
After a year as a student assistant for Georgia’s basketball program, Hartley interviewed with former offensive coordinator Neil Callaway and eventually landed the job of unpaid student assistant for former tight ends coach David Johnson.
“I always had an eye on football, and I got the job with Coach Johnson, and it’s been a continuous uphill climb since then,” Hartley said.
Hartley spent three years as a student assistant with the Bulldogs, then followed Johnson to West Virginia for a year where he worked as a graduate assistant after he finished his degree at Georgia. When an opportunity came up to return to Athens, he jumped at it.
The pay is minimal and the work is hard, but it’s all preparation for a long-term goal that isn’t easy to achieve, Hartley said.
“Most guys in my position, they look to get a foot in the door,” he said. “Once you do that, if you do a good enough job, you look to find a full-time job somewhere.”
Hartley has a full-time job at Georgia for the next few weeks at least.
In addition to his regular duties working on scouting reports for the upcoming opponent, breaking down film and working with the scout team, Hartley will now be leading practice with Georgia’s defensive backs and helping to implement the game plan when the Bulldogs take on Texas A&M at the Independence Bowl on Dec. 28.
It’s an incredible opportunity, Hartley admits, but a big challenge as well. He said he has spoken with Martinez several times in the past two weeks to get some tips and insight, but the best advice the former coach gave him was something Hartley already had in spades.
“He just told me to be confident, and I think if I wasn’t confident, I don’t think Coach Richt would have put that responsibility on my shoulders,” Hartley said.
Georgia safety Reshad Jones said Hartley has always had the respect of the players, so the transition this month hasn’t been particularly tough. Georgia’s players know what to expect of Hartley, and they trust he knows the game plan as well as anyone.
And if Georgia’s secondary comes away with a few interceptions and turns in a strong performance against the Aggies, Hartley said he might have to push for a full-time position on the staff, but in the meantime, he’s simply enjoying a rare opportunity to show that he’s ready to take the next step in his career.
The job comes with plenty of work, but the rewards are something Hartley has been dreaming of for years.
“It’s a blessing, it’s a great opportunity, you would hope it would look good on a resume,” Hartley said. “I’m just looking at it as a time to go out, have fun, get the guys flying around, and for me, it’s going to be a great learning experience. But I’m ready.”