Georgia’s Todd Hartley living a dream with Bulldogs

Georgia tight ends coach Todd Hartley during Georgia’s practice session in Athens, Ga., on Thursday, Aug. 3, 2023. (Tony Walsh/UGAAA)

Credit: Tony Walsh/UGAAA

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Georgia tight ends coach Todd Hartley during Georgia’s practice session in Athens, Ga., on Thursday, Aug. 3, 2023. (Tony Walsh/UGAAA)

Credit: Tony Walsh/UGAAA

ATHENS — Todd Hartley has outlived his dream.

The Jones County High graduate came to the University of Georgia in 2003 with the goal of becoming a high school teacher and coach. Nineteen years later, he’s assistant head coach for one of the more successful college football programs, coaches one of the greatest players in Georgia football history, was named by 247Sports the nation’s top recruiter last month, and became the top paid tight ends coach in college football earlier this year.

It’s enough to make a man pinch himself. Hartley said his personal career path makes him a walking billboard for everything that’s great about UGA.

“What that illustrates is Georgia’s willingness to welcome people back,” Hartley said before a preseason practice this week. “(Attending UGA is) not a four-year decision, it’s a 40-year decision.”

According to Hartley, he is one of 26 UGA alums on Georgia’s expansive football staff. That, of course, includes coach Kirby Smart, offensive coordinator Mike Bobo, passing-game coordinator Bryan McClendon, and co-defensive coordinator Will Muschamp. It extends from there into the Bulldogs’ support ranks.

“That says, ‘I’m not just going to take care of you in your time in Athens, but (I’m going to) help you find a career,’” Hartley said, referring to the university.

Certainly, but Hartley has had a lot to do with his advancement, too. He credits former Georgia coach Mark Richt for setting him on this path. Richt offered him a student-assistant’s post as a UGA sophomore in 2005, and Hartley ran with it.

Hartley would go on to have two more professional opportunities with Richt. One came when Richt brought him back to Georgia as director of recruiting after Hartley’s stint as an assistant coach at Marshall. Then Richt took Hartley with him to Miami after Georgia dismissed Richt as football coach at the end of the 2015 season.

Hartley credits Smart for showing him how to be great. Smart brought him back to Athens to coach tight ends and special teams in 2019. Perhaps more important, Smart turned Hartley loose on the recruiting trail.

Smart does things a little differently in recruiting. Though not unique to Georgia, he has his assistants recruit by position rather than being assigned a specific geographic region.

This is where Hartley has distinguished himself. He recruited Darnell Washington to Athens from Las Vegas, Brock Bowers from Napa, California, and Oscar Delp from up the road in Cumming. At the time, all of them carried at least one recruiting distinction as the No. 1 tight end prospect in the nation.

Of his recruiting accomplishments, Hartley remains deferential.

“Well, the first thing I’ll say is recruiting is a group effort. It starts with the head coach,” Hartley said. “There’s not a better recruiter in the country than Kirby Smart, I’ll tell you that. ... It’s not as hard walking into a living room when you’ve got coach Smart behind you. The other thing is the power of the logo. When you’ve got the G on your chest and you walk into a school, you get instant credibility and instant respect.”

At every turn, Hartley talks likes he’s actively recruiting. Tuesday was his first opportunity to do it in a press conference environment. Because of Hartley’s recent appointment as assistant head coach, Smart trotted out the 37-year-old to field reporters’ questions as the Bulldogs entered Week 2 of preseason camp.

Once again, Hartley has one of the stronger position groups on the team. That starts with two-time All-American and longshot Heisman Trophy candidate Bowers. The 6-foot-4, 230-pound junior already has caught more passes (119) for more yards (1,824) and touchdowns (20) than any tight end in Georgia history. Having gained 942 yards last season, he’s in position to become only the second Bulldog to pass the 1,000-yard mark in a single season.

“I like the energy he brings,” Bowers once said of playing for Hartley. “I feel like he has mutual respect for his players also.”

The challenge for Hartley this season is keeping Bowers at bay during practice and meetings. He’s a do-everything player who knows no other speed than full throttle. At this point in his career, Bowers could teach a master-level class on the subtleties of tight end play in Georgia’s offense.

But Hartley is more concerned about getting his next batch of all-stars up to speed. With Bowers and Washington dominating playing time last season, Delp was left with scraps. With only freshmen Lawson Luckie and Pearce Spurlin to turn to besides, Hartley is hyperfocused on getting the backups ready to roll.

That has been difficult for Bowers, who tends to want to answer every question in the meeting room and take every rep in practice.

“When I take him off and limit some of his reps, he gets pissed off,” Hartley said with a laugh. “He says, ‘Well what did I do wrong?’ Nothing, buddy. Just stand right here. It’s OK. But, you know what, you should want it that way. Kids should be pissed off when they don’t get their reps.”

By all accounts, Hartley’s a joy to work with. That certainly has contributed to a rapid ascension through the ranks at the highest level of college football. That and unadulterated joy.

On Woodruff Practice Fields, Hartley is one of the more energetic and vocal participants. He leaves the grounds with old-school, light-gray sweatshirt turned dark with the sweat.

His certainly is a nontraditional path to the top level of his sport. Like defensive coordinator Glenn Schumann, he never played college football. Hartley learned the game from the outside-in and from the best in the business who just kept giving him bigger and better opportunities.

Now back at his alma mater, he’s the owner of two national championship rings, married to his college sweetheart and the father of four.

“There is no place like this anywhere in the country,” Hartley beamed. “I’m very thankful to have the opportunity to coach at my alma mater. Coach Smart has afforded me that; (Athletic Director) Josh Brooks has afforded me that, and I’m very thankful for that.”


Georgia vs. Tennessee-Martin, Sept. 2, 6 p.m., SEC Network

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