Jack Hatem: The Denison coach worth rooting for in Division III playoffs

GRANVILLE, Ohio — “Free football” had to end, at least for the night.

Denison coach Jack Hatem gathered the Big Red at midfield on Tuesday at Deeds Field-Piper Stadium, which is tucked on one of the many rolling hills on the school’s campus.

Temperatures dipped below 40. A clear black sky collided with the stadium lights to illuminate the huddle around where the team met. Hatem silenced the rustling shoulder pads when he riffed into this week’s test.


“We need to be one heartbeat,” Hatem said. “You can be good as I know you think you are. We need to be one heartbeat, all of us, together. You do that, and something special can happen.”

That’s a not-so veiled reference to what the Big Red are up against Saturday. Denison faces 13-time national champion Mount Union in Alliance, Ohio at noon ET in the Division III playoffs. The teams last met in the postseason in 1985; the Purple Raiders won that game 35-3 and have made 30 playoff appearances, this year included, since. Denison is back for the first time since that last meeting, part of an 8-2 season and a three-way tiebreaker that gave the Big Red the North Coast Athletic Conference (NCAC) championship.

One might look at that first-round draw and be disappointed.

“We’ve had the exact opposite mentality,” defensive coordinator Bert Bathiany said. “We’ve thought, ‘What a great opportunity.’ We’re going to see where we stack up.”

Bathiany is sincere. That’s the top-down mentality that begins to explain how Hatem has turned around the Denison football program. Bathiany would deliver that same message to the players in a defensive meeting Tuesday.

“For us to be successful we have to have the right mindset for this game,” he says.  

That starts with Hatem: He’s the coach who knows schemes change but personal relationships endure. When you ask former and current players what stands out most, it’s the same answer over and over again. 

The speeches. Practice. Halftime. Pregame. Postgame. Hatem is the master.

“I remember being a player when he talks to the team, I always felt like he was talking to me,” Bathiany said. “Even as a coach, I still feel like when he talks to the team, he’s talking to me. It’s kind of cool to still have that perspective when you have that as both a player and coach. It comes full circle. The big thing is he cares about his players.”

I know, firsthand, that is true. Because Hatem was my coach at Fisher Catholic in 1994.

Denison coach Jack Hatem addresses his players after practice (Bill Bender/Sporting News).

When I walked into Denison’s Mitchell Recreation and Athletics Center on Tuesday afternoon, Marti Halm, the academic administrative assistant, wouldn’t let me past the desk.

“Coach says you can’t come in here without your basketball shoes,” she said. “I can’t let you in.”

I was confused for a second, then Halm laughed when I realized what was happening. Hatem is the coach who lets others in on an almost-quarter-century inside joke. We’ll get to the shoes soon.  

That’s part of something special that happened at his Fisher Catholic — Hatem’s high school alma mater as well — in 1993. That helps explain what’s happening now at Denison.

“It feels very similar,” Hatem said. “It’s our first time in the playoffs in a long time, and we’re playing the team. It has a similar feel to me.”

In 1979, Hatem graduated from Fisher Catholic High School in Lancaster, Ohio a city 25 miles south of Granville. He attended what was then called Rio Grande College with one goal.

“I wanted to be the coach at Fisher Catholic,” he said. “That’s why I went to college.”

That’s sincere, too. Hatem in 1992 made good on that goal, becoming the head football coach for Fisher Catholic, a team that typically struggled to break .500. By 1993, Hatem led the Fighting Irish to a perfect 10-0 record and their first ever appearance in the playoffs.

My cousin Dusty Miller was a tight end on the team. My best friends Derek McGill and Andy Connell were in eighth grade, one year away from high school. We jammed into the backseat of our parents’ cars on the way to small towns like Lore City and Sugar Grove to watch the Fighting Irish play.  

The football success transformed the school. Enrollment went up. Community pride swelled. Hatem was at the center of that.

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He made students and athletes feel important. He ordered new uniforms, green jerseys, silver pants and an “FC” logo on an oval that looked like the San Francisco 49ers’ helmet. He then led that 10-0 Fisher Catholic team against a school for which he’d served as an assistant for when his coaching career started.

Newark Catholic was the small-scale Ohio high school version of Mount Union, with eight state championships at the time (the Green Wave added a ninth in 2007) to prove it. Future NFL safety Rob Kelly led the team to a runner-up finish in the appearance in 1992. That team was the standard. Kelly green jerseys. Gold pants. On every kickoff their fans would chant this phrase in unison:

“Every-body … hit some-body!”

Hatem made sure Fisher Catholic had the right mindset for that game, too. He had an All-Ohio defensive end named Brian Winders, a speedy receiver named Ian Wohrer and a dual-threat quarterback in Tony Clum. Twenty-five years later, Hatem rattled those names one by one when recalling that game.

“You know one of the things you wonder at this stage in your coaching career is, ‘What if I was coaching those guys now?” Hatem asks. “What if I ran this offense with those guys? If I knew now what I did then. Those are fun things to think about.”  

Not surprisingly, the Irish played over their head. It was close at halftime — a straight-on linebacker/kicker named Chad Littrell made a 48-yarder off the crossbar before halftime to cut the Green Wave’s lead to 7-6, which sent our side of the stands into hot chocolate-spilling bedlam. Inside the locker room, Hatem maintained composure.

“It wasn’t anything like you would expect,” Clum said. “It was all positive because we were down one point. We just talked about adjustments and what we needed to come out with a win.”

Newark Catholic won 21-6, but it took 45 minutes digging through old newspaper clippings to find the score — an article in which Hatem told the Lancaster (Ohio) Eagle-Gazette it was a “dream season.”

It still lives on today. Andy, Derek and I still talk about the field goal with J.D. Curry, who was sitting in the opposing stands deciding where to go to high school. He was our quarterback and my college roommate. That is the social network Hatem created on Nov. 12, 1993.

And now, on the same week a quarter-century later, Hatem is doing the same at Denison.

“It’s a high, high belief in my guys and my coaches,” Hatem said. “That’s how I feel. I’ve been in this game before. People might be like, ‘Oh, it’s Fisher Catholic-Newark Catholic.’ To me it’s the same game. It’s the same passion. It’s the same care. I’ve done it a few times at this point.”

Craig Hicks, Denison’s assistant athletic director for communications, shakes his head when asked about the impact Hatem has made for the Big Red. Look at the numbers since their last playoff meeting with the Purple Raiders: Denison won nine games in 1986, a year after that first playoff appearance, then never won more than six in a single season from 1987-2009.

“It’s unbelievable the turnaround that has happened here,” he said.

Hatem served as an assistant coach at Denison when the job opened after the 2009 season. Bathiany, a second-generation player and three-year starter at linebacker for the Big Red, made it his mission to make sure Hatem got a chance to be head coach. Bathiany wrote letters to the athletic director, provost and president. He even started a Facebook group.

There was no other choice for the job. There’s a perfect description why.

“He jokes with us that he’s been a coach since the third grade,” Bathiany said. “But he’s always going to be my coach. He has that quiet confidence. He that aura of what a coach should be. The thing is now he wants more, and we all know that.”

That moment is closer than ever as of Tuesday’s practice, but Hatem lets his coaches do their jobs. The enthusiasm is contagious in the offensive meeting. Offensive coordinator Austin Holter stops highlighting a formation on the projector to take in the moment one more time with the players.  

“We’re watching free football, baby!” he shouts. “Are you kidding me? Unbelievable. Let’s go. Let’s go!”

Hatem interjects to emphasize a paramount point for this week’s game.

“Understand the game plan,” Hatem said. “We want to win time of possession in this game.”

Hatem then paused before reassessing his own statement.

“We will win time of possession in this game.”

This is part of Hatem’s methodology. Since he took over in 2010, it has been a series of firsts. First win against a ranked team on the road. First seven-win season since 1986. This group of seniors beat every team in the conference at least once over the last four years. Denison is 30-10 in that stretch with Hatem.

Denison coach Jack Hatem addresses players in a positional group meeting (Bill Bender/Sporting News).

For junior defensive end Nate Keirn, who played in the Holy War between powerhouses Cleveland St. Ignatius and Lakewood St. Edward in high school, there was another first, in 2016, that set the tone for this year’s team.

“My freshman year before we played (Wittenberg),” he said. “We hadn’t beaten them since the ’80s, and then coming in and beating them at home for the first time they were a ranked team. That game was the catalyst to jump-start to what’s going on here.”

Keirn is the first of several players who points out the two losses this season have made a bigger impact than the eight wins. Denison opened the season at Southwestern in Georgetown, Texas, and lost 42-21. Four weeks later, No. 11 Wittenberg dropped the Big Red 68-66 in quadruple overtime. Senior quarterback Canaan Gebele saw that as a turning point.  

“After that devastating four-overtime loss at Witt, people always talk about a letdown,” Gebele said. “We played our best game the next week (against No. 22 Wabash).”

But the losses have had a bigger impact on this team than the wins. Hatem remembers getting off the bus after his team’s 48-20 win over Hiram on Oct. 27 and hearing Wabash had lost again. That opened the door for a much-more memorable bus ride a few weeks later.

But let’s talk about those shoes first.


Freshman will do anything to get a coach’s attention. By the time my class got to Fisher Catholic, we were over-the-top trash talkers. Hatem didn’t silence that. He encouraged it — even when it was directed at him.

That’s when I challenged Hatem and his younger brother Keith, our offensive coordinator, to a two-on-two basketball game. I had Connell, who played four years at Division III Muskingum University. I walked by Jack every day with my left arm in the air and posed like I’d just drained a 3-pointer. One day, he had enough. I’m almost sure he called Keith away from his job at lunchtime; this had to happen.  

We went into the school gym, and it was on. Jack and I exchanged taunts while trying to box each other out with a few elbows here and there. He knows the final score but won’t admit it — part of an off-beat competitive drive that his coaches and players insist still runs today.

“He has the same sense of humor now,” Bathiany said. “He is always poking and prodding for that competition. We definitely have that between the coaches.”  

Does he score matter at that point? Not if you heard Hatem’s speeches. I still remember the first time he said, “Derek McGill and Billy Bender are just starting their careers and … “

I don’t remember the rest of the sentence. Hatem said my name. Maybe the two-on-two game got his attention. Or he used it as a coaching tool.

It worked. Derek slammed into a running back in that scrimmage when it was our turn to play for the Irish.  We both laughed on the field. It’s a laugh only football brings out. It’s the same laugh I heard with my son and his friends when they played flag football this fall. It’s the same laugh I heard again at Deeds Field-Piper Stadium on Tuesday when players chirped back-and-forth through field-goal drills while smacking into each other in that 30-degree weather.

Two words echoed more than anything else.

“Free football!”

Hatem hovered over the special teams most at practice Tuesday. This is a phase where Denison can least afford a mistake against Mount Union. He flares up after a missed protection.

“Run the call,” Hatem said. “Don’t be Superman out here. Don’t be a hero. Run the call. Run the. …”

The synergy between the coaches sticks with the players. Hatem lets them play, and the players return the favor by sticking together. That doesn’t happen everywhere.

“We have built a relationship that can’t be broken,” Keirn said. “We know what everybody is thinking and what we are doing when are on the field together. It’s been a building process. This year is just a culmination we’ve been working for.”

That explains the turnaround, but it doesn’t do justice to that path to the playoffs and the bus ride last Saturday. Denison needed Wabash to beat NCAC opponent DePauw to force a three-way NCAC tiebreaker. That would favor the Big Red, which could represent the conference in the playoffs by virtue of their longest in-conference win streak.

After beating Kenyon in the final game of the regular season on Nov. 10, Denison players pulled up their phones. Bathiany listened to the radio on the bus with other assistant coaches. DePauw had a chance to win the game on the final drive.  

“We had audio, video, everybody out with it on,” Gebele said. “Once DePauw failed on that fourth down, everybody went crazy.”

It wasn’t just the bus. Senior receiver David Weimar said the graduated teammates from the last three seasons — and even several before that — have been texting him all week ahead of the game against Mount Union.

“Those guys have come back and said that is something we worked for and you guys achieved,” Weimar said. I felt that with the guys I played for the last three years. They’ve been texting us and saying, ‘Go out there and get it.'”

Hatem, meanwhile, was flooded with texts too, and that led to more flashbacks to 1993.

“My phone was crazy all weekend with those guys,” Hatem said. “They feel like they are a part of this, and we want them to feel a part of it. They are a part of it. This is really similar feel for me from back home.”

After practice, however, Hatem sends the first text to his son A.J., an assistant coach at Ohio Northern. He laughs.  

“They open with us next year,” Jack says. “That will be fun.”

A.J. Hatem has the unique vantage point of both social networks. He graduated from Fisher Catholic in 2005. His quarterback was Andy Connell’s younger brother Greg. We haven’t talked in person more than five times, but we know each other because of the Fisher Catholic connection. He was a ball boy in 1993, and the sports debates he has with his friends aren’t that different than mine. It’s endless notifications, but it’s part of a network that runs strong within those who played for the Irish. 

A.J., however, also served as an assistant at Denison for two years before taking the job at Ohio Northern. He sees the ties at both stops and says, “Those are the places he’s enjoyed the most.”

“The two greatest fits of his career are Fisher Catholic and Denison.” A.J. Hatem said of his father. “We have so many ties to Fisher Catholic because that’s where he went to school. There’s a bunch of connectivity in Division III, too. I think that’s the coolest part of what’s going on.”

That’s evident at Denison too. Jack Hatem can barely get between the offensive and defensive meetings because he’s stopped by so many people who give him fist bumps and hugs. He stops to give a message to Halm, the administrative assistant who played along with his running joke with me about the shoes.

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He has another one of those shoe stories in the works. A.J. talks about his own son, Tyler, a fourth-grader, and a secret shoe contract he has with Jack for each year he plays the sport.

Last week, a pair of Nike LeBron 16’s were delivered to A.J’s house.  

It was his turn to text his dad.

“For real? Did you buy these?”

“It’s in his contract.”

All A.J. could do was shake his head.

“He’s a relationship guy with everybody,” A.J. said. “Football is great, but he coached baseball for a long time before he went to Fisher. I’m sure if things changed and he coached basketball, things would be the same. He loves football, don’t get me wrong, but the priority is the guys he meets and interacts with. That’s never going to change.”

Denison coach Jack Hatem hugs offensive lineman George Carson in final moments of a 61-7 win over Kenyon (Courtesy of Denison University).

All of those relationships come full circle this weekend, but Hatem deflects the focus off himself. This is about those players. Denison plays Mount Union this week, and it’s a game that will be the next step for that program.

It’s the next week of a process that started in 2010.

“We prepare as hard as any D-I, D-II, D-III team in the country,” Gebele said. “We’re a bunch of smart kids. We take this almost like another class. You come in each week, learn the install and go out every day practice and progress and try to perfect it. That’s who we are.”

That was the overlying message from Hicks, Bathiany and the players, too. Everybody in the Mitchell Center — and in the campus community — has the right mindset for the challenge.

“We’ve all heard of Mount Union, anybody who has played D-III or been recruited D-III knows,” Weimar said. “We know they’re a great program, and we’re trying to get there. If that’s something we want to get to; we have to go out and compete with them.”

In other words, it’s 1993 all over again. The names might be different. Clum and Gebele. Keirn and Winders. Wohrer and Weimar. Denison is just the latest school to see how that works, and in some ways it’s even more impressive considering Gebele is from Annapolis, Md., Keirn is a from Medina in Northeast Ohio and Weimar grew up in Pickerington, a Central Ohio hotbed for college football talent.

A few minutes before Hatem’s end-of-practice speed, Hicks looked around one more time, amazed at the transformation of the football program. It is a strikingly bigger, faster and stronger team. It is team for the players. Keirn backs that up.

“I haven’t had a coach like him ever,” Keirn said. “I love the guy. He puts us first.”

“Everybody had a coach like that,” Hicks said, pointing at Hatem before correcting himself. “Well, not everybody. The ones who didn’t wish they had someone like Coach.”

A few minutes later, Hatem is warming up in his office. When asked to explain how, two seasons 25 years apart, he could come up with the same scenario, Hatem searches for the right answer. The offensive schemes aren’t that different. Society has changed, but the kids playing for him bring the same thing to the field: They want to play over their head. Hatem starts an explanation then stops before pausing.

“This is really corny and I know it is,” Hatem said. “Man, when I coached you guys, I loved all of you like you were my kids. I still do. I love these guys now. I think that’s it. That’s never changed.

“I love sports but it’s not my why,” he continued. “It’s not my why. I think that’s why Denison is a great fit for a Fisher Catholic kid. You want to be a great student. You want to be a great citizen. You want them to have a good life. You want to be a part of their lives. You want to hear stories like you guys are still great friends and still talk about it. There’s a bigger why, and that’s it for me.”  

“When that’s the case, you can get them to buy in and be part of something bigger.”

That’s why one heartbeat doesn’t stop at Newark Catholic or Mount Union. For me, it’s an inside joke, endless text chains and an attempt to coach my kids the same way. For the Denison players it’ll be about a conference championship, a playoff berth, a bus ride and the Mount Union game.  

It might end for the night, the week, the season or 25 years later. Denison’s figuring out what Fisher Catholic knew a long time ago.  

“Free football” never ends when Hatem is involved.

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