Nate Allen is a columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of the University of Missouri, Allen is a voter for the Heisman Trophy, has been inducted into the Arkansas Sportswriters and Sportscasters Hall of Fame, and has authored three books about the Razorbacks.
Where Are They Now: Ken Hatfield
Ken Hatfield, former player and Arkansas football caoch, speaks Saturday, Aug. 19, 2017, during a celebration in Bud Walton Arena on the University of Arkansas campus in Fayetteville for the life of Frank Broyles, the former coach and athletics director.
FAYETTEVILLE Ken Hatfield watched a lot of film coaching a lot of football.
Though 14 years retired from coaching as a Tennessee, Florida and Air Force Academy assistant from 1968-78, and head coach at Air Force, Arkansas, Clemson and Rice from 1979-2005, Hatfield evaluated more film just last autumn than Steven Spielberg likely evaluates for years.
The Helena native and 1962-64 Razorbacks star defensive back/kick returner for Frank Broyles’ Razorbacks and Arkansas 1984-89 head coach was named last year to the College Football Playoff selection committee.
The committee, including Hatfield again for 2019, decides which four teams make the national championship playoffs and sets the table for the other major bowl games.
It is not a task taken casually. Hatfield said he was warned by administrators and former coaches he knows serving committees past.
“I wish they had told me how much time it took,” Hatfield said was the repeated advice he heard.
The committee starts its work with a clean slate.
“You don’t have anything new for about seven weeks,” Hatfield said about going to their first October meeting at the Dallas suburb of Grapevine, Texas. “We don’t take other polls into account until we have our very first one.”
Individually, though, they start watching mounting evidence with the season’s first kickoff. And they watch, and they watch, and they watch.
“They give you an iPad Pro which will hold over 400 football games,” Hatfield said. “And so every week I’ve got access to all the TV games that were done on different networks and also have all the coaches’ copies which are already cut up into offense, defense and special teams. I like the coaches’ copy because if you want to look at just one side for a while you get to do that. And I like the TV copy because you get from the announcers what you don’t see on the coaches’ copy like who is injured or something going on with all the outside information they are trying to present. So I enjoy watching both. But it takes time to do all that.”
Time that Hatfield enjoys intricately surveying the national scene, which he never could as a coach riveted weekly on a particular opponent.
“It’s interesting because you see different styles of ball and good players and see good teams that really play together well,” Hatfield said. “And you’ve got all these different time zones and different styles. You’ve got a chance to see all the players in America. I enjoy the heck out of that.”
Once the meetings begin, so does the committee’s conversational give and take. Things must get pretty spirited.
“Oh, yeah,” Hatfield said. “Just naturally as it would be. They’ve got guidelines they pretty much stick by every year for a free exchange of ideas. They are really committed to having a free exchange of values and ideas in the room. But pretty much when the meeting is over, you leave things in the room. So you don’t have to worry about who voted here or who said this here. There has been none of that, which gives you the freedom to say what you want to say. There are 13 people, so you get diverse opinions on everything.”
Thirteen selected as leaders in their field. Leaders tend to come with egos.
But Hatfield asserts egos stay in check within the direction of CFP Executive Director Bill Hancock.
“No problem with egos at all,” Hatfield said. “I’ve never found anything with that. People are free to express their opinion, but the beauty of it is knowing they are trying to fulfill a mission to have the best four teams play in the playoff and then the January bowl games that aren’t already tied into a conference. I enjoy it. You are trying to be fair to all the teams. Bill Hancock has done a great job. He was the first commissioner of March Madness and also the BCS when they had that format before they went to the CFP. The wealth of experience Bill has and the way he is, he’s always challenging us to do better and is the leader that asks the good question.”
Hatfield explained the evolution from introductory perceptions at the first meeting to the playoff decider in December.
“The first one is about seven or eight games in,” Hatfield said. “We look at enough film to make up your mind and then come in and see how 13 people vote. We usually have five meetings before our final selection, and then the conference championship games are played, and we have our votes the next day. You go down to Grapevine for about five weeks in a row. The meetings don’t start until Monday, but most folks come in on Sunday afternoon.”
The committee knows beforehand their decision will evoke outrage and would even if football’s current Final Four is expanded.
“We knew that going in that there is always the one right on the the cusp that doesn’t make it like Arkansas in the Women’s NCAA (Basketball) Tournament,” Hatfield said. “You are always going to have that.”
If the Razorbacks ever play themselves into CFP consideration, Hatfield certainly would adhere to the committee’s recusal policy.
Upon returning to Arkansas with his late wife Sandy in 2006, it seems Ken attends most everything Razorback.
The frosty parting with Frank Broyles — Hatfield’s Arkansas coach and boss — had long thawed.
Differences between the two that especially manifested in 1987 and festered.
Hatfield, in the 1990 winter after successive Southwest Conference championships, left Arkansas after a 55-17-1 six-year record that included six bowls, for the Clemson job without first even visiting Clemson, S.C.
Yet the ongoing mutual respect even through the frost was such that the Broyles family invited Ken to give one of the several poignant eulogies at Broyles’ funeral in 2017.
“Coach Broyles’ funeral was a time of celebration of his life,” Hatfield said. “That was easy to do. That was good. That was a time to recognize the life he had given to Arkansas.”
Reflecting on his own athletic life at Arkansas, Hatfield proudly not only refers to the great football times that brought Arkansas national acclaim during his playing days but also remembers the humble pre-Norm DeBriyn state of Razorbacks baseball.
It was often football players like Hatfield and fellow Helena native Bill Grady playing for the baseball team as an independent on the Fayetteville Fairgrounds. Football trainer Bill “Groundy” Ferrell used his spare time to double as baseball coach.
Quite a contrast to DeBriyn taking the Razorbacks from the Fairgrounds to the American Legion field to the old George Cole Field and finally to state of the art Baum Stadium that current Coach Dave Van Horn fills as Baum-Walker Stadium.
“Groundy may have had 12 people come to our baseball games if we were lucky,” Hatfield said. “We didn’t have to worry about the crowd getting in the way.”
Having been long gone from Fayetteville, what was it like coaching the Razorbacks when Broyles called him home?
“To coach where you’ve gone to school, not many get to do that,” Hatfield said. “The excitement every day of trying to carry on the tradition of the Razorbacks. Try to recruit good kids. People with character and the ability even if it was going to take them two years. Back then most everyone redshirted. You didn’t have to try to beat everybody with guys you were playing as freshmen. You’d try to redshirt them and get three good years out of them. That was our formula.”
Seems most of his greatest, like quarterback Quinn Grovey among many Hatfield alums to be inducted into the Razorbacks Sports Hall of Honor, excelled on into fifth-year senior campaigns.
“The Groveys, Steve Atwater, Wayne Martin, they all redshirted,” Hatfield said, as did spring Hall of Honor inductees Jim Mabry and Tony Cherico. “Wayne Martin was tall and skinny and was a basketball player, too. Five years later he was a No. 1 draft pick.”
Hatfield recalled inheriting Lou Holtz dropback passing quarterback Brad Taylor and fitting him into a unique version of the “Flexbone” offense running the option but also late game passing heroics to receiver James Shibest.
Taylor’s backup, Danny Nutt, then a fifth-year senior transfer from UCA, appeared even less wishbone oriented than Taylor but also got the job done when called upon for those 7-4 Hogs in Hatfield’s 1984 debut.
“We lost the first two (Southwest Conference) games to TCU and Texas,” Hatfield said. “And I told our team we would be playing for the conference championship, and we played SMU for the conference championship that night. That was a fun team. Brad Taylor was good. Brad did what he had to do. And Danny Nutt had the longest run we had all year.”
Hatfield laughed that Danny Nutt was so slow that befuddled over-pursuing Navy Midshipmen kept running aground.
“He took out against Navy and stopped,” Hatfield said. “He was so slow he reversed the field three times. We had (running backs) Marshall Foreman, Derrick Thomas, and Terry Tatum and Bobby Joe (Edmonds) and then Danny Nutt had the longest run.”
None of Hatfield’s Arkansas offenses could explode like his 1989 10-2 Southwest Conference championship Hogs, particularly in the Grovey vs. Houston Cougars and Andre Ware, Houston’s Heisman Trophy winning quarterback.
Ware would win the Heisman, but Grovey and the Hogs won the game 45-39.
It’s generally recalled as the greatest game of Hatfield’s Arkansas tenure. He finished with the best winning percentage of any Arkansas head football coach.
“One of the funnest games I’ve ever been involved with was that Houston game in Little Rock,” Hatfield said. “I had never been involved in one like that where either team could score on any play. That was a great game.
“I think there were three scores in the first two minutes. We really liked playing in Little Rock in those days, and we did as players, too. It was loud, and it was a bowl, and you couldn’t hear at all. Now the (Reynolds Razorback) stadium here in Fayetteville is gorgeous. You’ve got great facilities. It’s a great place to live and go to school and the airport and the 540 highway, it’s easy to get here now. It used to be hard.”
Since his retirement from coaching, Hatfield seems relaxed, happy and so Arkansas at home. Always involved in charity and church work, and avidly following the Hogs, Hatfield does all that plus by marriage became a grandfather.
After Sandy died of cancer in 2009, Ken was introduced by Loyd Phillips, an Outland Trophy-winning Razorbacks teammate and retired high school principal, to Cyndi Spencer, the widow of Lee Spencer of Springdale, the owner of Arkansas Transit and Springdale Warehouse.
As widower and widow, Ken said they hit it off respecting and treasuring each other’s past and present.
“I met Cyndi the first time at a golf tournament, and then Loyd Phillips talked to us, and we dated three years,” Hatfield said. “The great thing about us, we talk freely about our spouses. There hasn’t been an uncomfortable moment.”
He not only hasn’t had an uncomfortable moment but few unoccupied moments even while considered retired.
“I try to do two or three things a week along with playing golf, ride my bike and spending time with grandkids,” Hatfield said. “We’ve got one who has been in gymnastics and one who plays sports year round, and I go to a lot of those. I’m in a Bible study at Central Methodist Church and volunteer at the V.A. hostel and Wednesday Bread of Life food kitchen.”
That doesn’t seem to leave much time to watch football film. But come August he will find it, committed as always thoroughly to accomplish what he starts.
This article originally appeared in Hawgs Illustrated
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