To say that Ken Hatfield is unique among college football coaches nationally and in Conference USA may be understating a very obvious point. When he arrived at Rice in December, 1993, he was one of only three active coaches to lead three different programs to top-20 seasons and was the only active Division IA coach to gain 10-win seasons at three different schools.
What separates Hatfield from the rest of the coaching profession is his ability to produce champions, both on and off on the field. His 11 seasons at Rice have been a series of successes, raising expectations to new levels for the Owls.
In his first Rice season, he became only the second Southwest Conference coach to win a league championship at two different schools. Rice's share of the 1994 SWC title was its first since 1957.
It was the same story in 1996. Hatfield became the first Western Athletic Conference mentor to win coach of the year honors at two league schools when the Houston Chronicle accorded him that honor following the Owls' 7-4 season. Hatfield was head coach at the U.S. Air Force Academy when the Falcons entered the WAC in 1980, and three years later he was the coach of the year, not only in the league but nationally as well.
Rice's 1996 season was truly one of accomplishments. That 7-4 record ranked as the school's best since 1961, and the 6-2 record in the WAC's Mountain Division represented the most conference wins at Rice since 1949. When Rice beat nationally-ranked Utah 51-10, it was with the most points any Owls team had ever scored against a league foe.
Another 7-4 record followed in 1997, the first time since the 1960-61 campaigns that the Owls had repeated such successful seasons. Among the highlights were wins over the defending champions of the WAC (Brigham Young) and Big 10 (Northwestern), as well as the convincing victory at '97 Mountain Division champion New Mexico.
On the surface, the Owls' 5-6 seasons in 1998-99 and the 3-8 campaign in 2000, may not measure up to the previous seasons, but included were two wins over Sun Bowl and Mobile Alabama Bowl champion TCU, a romp past preseason WAC favorite Colorado State in '98, and a win over Oahu Bowl champ Hawaii in '99.
Rice's 2001 season also had plenty of milestones. The Owls' 6-1 start was the team's best since 1949, and the final 8-4 record was Rice's best since the 1953 SWC and Cotton Bowl champions went 9-3.
The 4-7 record in 2002 included a win over `01 WAC champion Louisiana Tech in the first college game ever at Reliant Stadium, and trophy game wins over rivals SMU and Tulsa.
In 2003, Hatfield's Owls overcame early struggles to win four of their last five games to finish 5-3 in WAC play. The three-game winning streak which ended the season included the greatest rushing day in WAC history: 672 yards on 89 carries.
The 2004 Owls added to that reputation, leading the nation in rushing at 306.5 yards per game despite having to patch together an offensive line hampered by injuries.
That Hatfield has enjoyed such success in all his coaching stops should come as no shock. To paraphrase the old saying, look up integrity, character and ability in the coaching dictionary, and you'll find Hatfield's picture next to the definitions.
His peers in the coaching profession recognize those qualities in Hatfield's character. An active leader as the 2004 president of the American Football Coaches Association, he is also served as president of the American Football Coaches Foundation, the charitable arm of the AFCA.
Hatfield, who led highly-successful programs at Air Force, Arkansas and Clemson, was named Rice University's 16th head football coach in December, 1993, shortly after his former assistant, Fred Goldsmith, resigned to become head coach at Duke.
Hatfield would build on the successes the Rice program enjoyed under Goldsmith, another reflection of the renewed status of Owls football. In 1994, Rice's share of the league title was highlighted by its first win over Texas since 1965 and a win over Texas Tech, the first time the Owls had defeated the league's Cotton Bowl representative since 1946. Most now see Rice as a leader in college athletics both on the field and in the classroom.
That the reputations of Rice and Hatfield would intersect and expand promise a continued improvement in Owls football. Hatfield owns a 167-130-4 record in 26 seasons and has demonstrated the ability to win, regardless of the conference, competition or program.
The national coach of the year in 1983 at Air Force, the 62-year-old native of Helena, Ark., has been successful at every coaching stop. He led the Air Force to successive bowl trips in 1982-83, then took Arkansas to dominance in the SWC with six bowl trips in his six seasons in Fayetteville. The Houston Post named Hatfield the SWC's coach of the decade in the 1980's. The Razorbacks were league champions in 1988 and '89 before he moved on to Clemson. By winning another title in his first season back in the league, Hatfield joined a short list of SWC coaches who won three straight titles.
Clemson remained one of the best programs in college football under Hatfield. His first team in 1990 compiled a 10-2 record, including a 30-0 win over Illinois in the Hall of Fame Bowl in Tampa, Fla. The '91 squad won the ACC championship, and the '93 team went 8-3 to win a berth in the Peach Bowl vs. Kentucky. All four of his Clemson teams spent time ranked among the nation's top 20 teams.
Hatfield's college playing career was a fitting prelude to his coaching prosperity. An academic all-America selection for Arkansas' 1964 national champions, he led the nation in punt returns in both 1963 and '64 after a second-place finish as a sophomore in 1962. He remains the only college player to finish in the top two in punt returns for three straight seasons and his 16.2 yard average on 70 career returns still ranks 12th in NCAA history.
His most memorable play took place against Texas in 1964 when he raced 81 yards with a punt return for a touchdown in the Hogs' 14-13 victory. It was the key win in Arkansas' championship season. Altogether, Hatfield scored five TDs on punt returns, including a record 95-yard effort vs. Tulsa in 1963.
He immediately went into coaching after graduation, first at the high school level and then as an assistant coach at Army, Tennessee, Florida and Air Force. In 13 seasons as an assistant, he helped teams to seven bowl games and was part of a SEC championship at Tennessee in 1969.
In 1978, he was named offensive coordinator at Air Force on Bill Parcells' coaching staff. A year later, Parcells was wooed to the professional game and Hatfield had his first head coaching position.
The Falcons had not had a winning season since 1973, but by his fourth season Hatfield had led the Academy to an 8-5 record and a Hall of Fame Bowl win over Vanderbilt. In 1983, the Falcons went 10-2, including wins over Notre Dame, Navy and Mississippi in the Independence Bowl. Hatfield won the Bobby Dodd Award as the national coach of the year and was selected by the American Football Coaches Association as its national honoree.
Returning to Arkansas in 1984, the Razorbacks became the SWC's dominant team during his tenure. His Arkansas squads compiled a 55-17-1 record and appeared in the Liberty, Holiday, Orange and Cotton Bowls. The 1988-89 teams won SWC championships and he was the league's coach of the year in '88.
At Clemson in 1990-93, Hatfield compiled a 32-13-1 record, topped by the 10-2 mark in '90 and the ACC title in '91.
Hatfield-coached teams have excelled offensively and defensively, but they have been particularly successful in rushing offense and defense. Each of his last 18 teams have finished in the top-20 nationally in rushing offense, including 10 top-10 finishes. The 2002 Owls were second nationally, only trailing Nebraska in the category. In 2003, Rice again ranked second, this time trailing Navy.
Two of his last four Arkansas teams finished in the top three in the country in turnover margin, including the '88 team which has first in the nation. Defensively, his clubs have finished in the top 15 in rushing defense in six of the last 11 years. In 1990, Clemson was first nationally in total defense, second in rushing defense and second in scoring defense.
An accounting major who earned his degree in 1965, Hatfield was the recipient of the Swartz Award, presented annually to Arkansas' top student-athlete. The 1964 all-SWC pick was inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 1989 and was a member of the Razorbacks' all-time team selected to celebrate the university's grid centennial in 1994.
He is married to the former Sandy Wright of Kennett, Mo., a champion cowgirl who competes as a barrel-racer on the professional rodeo circuit.