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April 12, 2006

Position U: Kickin' it at Georgia

Vince Dooley always understood the necessity of the kicking game.

"There's no question it's the difference between winning championships and just being good," the former Georgia football coach and athletic director said. "That's the value of kickers."

Georgia won one national title and six Southeastern Conference championships during Dooley's 25-year coaching tenure, thanks in part to a tradition of outstanding Georgia kickers that continues to this day.

Much of the credit for that belongs to a former insurance executive who made himself one of the best bargains in college football history.

Bill Hartman, who died last month at the age of 90, began working as Georgia's volunteer kicking coach almost four decades after he made his last field goal for the Bulldogs. The former Georgia captain tutored future NFL standouts Kevin Butler, John Kasay and Todd Peterson.

"He was an institution," Peterson said.

Georgia's kicking guru already had enjoyed a distinguished football career long before he joined Dooley's staff in the mid-1970s. Hartman earned All-America honors as a Georgia player in the 1930s and later served as a full-time assistant coach on Wally Butts' staff.

Hartman was working in the insurance business in the 1970s when he decided to spend his spare time mentoring Georgia's kickers. During an era when most colleges had a position coach also work with the kickers, Hartman offered Georgia's kickers undivided attention.

"Anyone who's the coach of a position, when they take an additional duty, they see it as just that an additional duty," Dooley said. "They can't wait until practice starts and they can run back to the position they coach because that's where their focus is. Hartman's focus was totally with the kickers."

Hartman loved his job so much that he took an unusual step to continue it after the NCAA banned the use of volunteer coaches. The College Football Hall of Fame inductee returned to the classroom at the age of 77 to allow him to continue coaching Georgia's kickers as a graduate assistant.

Position: Kicker
School that rules: Georgia (John Kasay, Todd Peterson).
Coming attractions: Brandon Coutu.
Runners-up: Louisiana Tech (Josh Scobee, Matt Stover), Michigan State (Morten Andersen, Paul Edinger), Washington State (Jason Hanson, Rian Lindell), Nebraska (Josh Brown, Kris Brown).
Sleeper school: It's tough to call this school a sleeper when it actually ranks as a runner-up, but Louisiana Tech deserves extra credit as a non-BCS school that has produced two starting kickers in the NFL.
Why Georgia is Kicker U: Kasay and Peterson have a combined 27 years of NFL experience. Kasay, the only original Carolina Panther who remains on the roster, set a since-broken NFL record by kicking 37 field goals in 1996. Kasay is the Panthers' all-time leader in numerous categories, including games played. Kasay has 310 career field goals, and Peterson has made 235. Louisiana Tech also could make an argument that it deserves this honor. Both schools have two active NFL kickers, though the two ex-Georgia stars are approaching the end of their careers while one of the Louisiana Tech representatives (Scobee) is just entering his prime. The two programs also have a pretty long history of producing solid NFL kickers. Georgia's Kevin Butler the first pure kicker inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame - and Louisiana Tech's Chris Boniol retired in the 1990s after long NFL careers. Georgia gets the edge because its current kicker has a better shot of reaching the NFL. Coutu earned third-team All-America honors from the Associated Press as a sophomore last season after making a 58-yard field goal and going 3-of-5 from at least 50 yards away.
Although he finally stopped coaching in the mid-1990s, Hartman's legacy lives on when Kasay and Peterson take the field each Sunday. The two former Bulldogs both credit Hartman for helping them grow as kickers.

"He was able to boil it down to a few simple things, like having a good tempo not too fast and not too slow," said Kasay, a Carolina Panthers kicker and 15-year NFL veteran. "He was always a calming force and calming presence in the midst of a lot of chaotic situations."

That calming influence prevented Georgia's kickers from getting down on themselves.

"He was very, very good at helping me understand that a kick is a kick," said Peterson, a free agent with 12 years of NFL experience. "The circumstances surrounding a kick are really secondary. A kick is a kick, whether you're kicking a field goal to win the game, to open the scoring, or to move ahead or tie it. It doesn't matter. You hit the ball the same way, with a nice smooth stroke.

"Your mental capacity to overcome pressure and all those things is 98 percent of the game. It's two percent physical."

Peterson has helped continue the Bulldogs' rich kicking tradition by working as an instructor at a Georgia kicking camp. His students have included current Georgia junior Brandon Coutu, an Associated Press third-team All-American last fall.

Coutu could turn into Georgia's next NFL kicker. He replaced Billy Bennett, who never played in the NFL despite graduating with the most career field goals in NCAA history.

Bennett and Coutu both starred for their high-school soccer teams before playing football at Georgia. Bennett believes Georgia's status as one of the top states for high school soccer has helped the Bulldogs produce plenty of homegrown standout kickers.

"Georgia, Texas, California and Florida are probably the top four states for soccer,'' Coutu said. "Our soccer programs are right up there with the best of them. That's a big part of it. So many soccer players have been turned into kickers, and the whole state of Georgia has really good soccer players."

Coutu and Bennett have something else in common. Both began their college careers as walk-ons before eventually earning scholarships.

Perhaps it's only fitting that Georgia has succeeded with a couple of former walk-ons.

After all, this is the same school that didn't have to pay a dime for one of the greatest kicking coaches the game has ever known.

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