Just a couple of months ago, Bruce Hatfield had no idea where his career was going to lead him. He was a long-time head football coach at Hendersonville High School, guiding one of the top prep programs in Middle Tennessee for 20 seasons.
But after stepping down in November from the high school post, Hatfield is reinvigorating his football career, joining Dewayne Alexander’s staff at Tennessee Tech as the Golden Eagles’ linebackers coach.
“I am absolutely thrilled to be back here,” Hatfield said. “All those years ago, I never would have dreamed that to be possible, but I’m honored to be a coach here at Tennessee Tech.”
For Alexander, it was another easy decision.
“Bruce is a fantastic coach,” he said. “He was the winningest head coach at Hendersonville High School, the longest-tenured coach in the school’s history. He’s coached championship games right here in Tucker Stadium. He’s coached at the highest level in the state. He was a team captain here and is in the top 10 all-time tackles list here at Tech, so he’s had an excellent career here and has been recognized for his leadership. His wife, Melinda, is in the Sports Hall of Fame here, so there’s always been a lot of purple and gold to go with his black and gold at Hendersonville.
“He was my roommate in college, so he’s somebody that I know quite well. If you have read what people have said about him, coaches and players – I’m a Hendersonville High alum myself, so I know what people in that town think of him – and he’s a very popular guy there in how he treated his players and the type of program he has run.”
And to be back in Cookeville, coaching at his alma mater, it’s a surreal experience for Hatfield.
“It’s really hard for me to describe and put into words,” he said. “I’m coaching with Taylor Hennigan and his dad (former Golden Eagle standout and head coach Mike) was my position coach. There’s just so much history involved. I think it goes a long way with our current players to see coaches who have played here and want to be here and see them excited to move forward. I hope that will count for a lot.”
A common thread with many of the coaches on the staff is that Cookeville, Tech, it’s all home for these guys.
“It is and that’s what we want to instill in our players,” Hatfield said. “This is a special place for us and it is family. We’re going to use terms like family and love and responsibility. I can’t wait to get started. It’s been a challenge, but it’s kind of reinvigorated me.
“I was in a spot for a long time, then resigned, then I really didn’t know what I was going to do next, but since I’ve been here, it’s been such a blessing. I just can’t wait to develop a bond with everybody on this football team, certainly with the linebackers.”
With the staff Alexander has built, it’s also exciting for Hatfield to be part of an amazing assembly of coaches.
“That’s the feel that I get,” Hatfield said. “I’ve gotten it from the very first time we got together. Now that I’m getting to know the guys, I just feel that it really is a special staff. All the guys are easy to get along with – defense, offense, it doesn’t make a difference.”
Alexander added, “I have been very lucky when building this staff. I had a wish list of who I wanted and I have been able to get every single one, so I couldn’t be more excited to have Bruce here. He’s been at a high level at Hendersonville High School, and when you look at programs like those, there’s 100-plus in the program. Their roster is just as big, maybe even bigger than the one here at Tech. Their budgets are big, all the things you have to do as a head coach from fundraising to the weight room and every area of the program, he’s handled it.
And for the Tennessee Tech coaching staff to contain four coaches with head coach experience, it’s evident that this is indeed a special group.
“It’s a case where I was a head coach for 20 years and the transition has been good,” Hatfield said. “I’ve enjoyed it and it’s been cool to be a part of this staff in a lot of different ways. I could gush and just on and on and on about it, but I can understand some of the challenges that Coach Alexander has got to deal with, because I have been in that situation.”
With his years of experience at a high level as Hendersonville High School is in the Tennessee prep scene as well as its surrounding areas, he’s familiar with some of the best student-athletes this state has had to offer, many of whom have gone on to play on the Division I level.
“We were in a program where we were able to develop some players who had a chance to continue at the next level,” Hatfield said. “One of the great things about it from being at one place so long is that I have developed a lot of positive relationships with coaches in the area. That’s one of the things I’ve been trying to do as I started here is try to hit the ground running, writing notes and letting people know that we’re going to be out there. I really look forward to getting back out on the road.”
Talk about a huge boost for Tech’s recruiting efforts, as it opens up a large pipeline to Middle Tennessee.
“I’d like to think so, because even with opponents and guys that we’ve gotten to know and had to play against, we’ve always tried to do things the right way,” Hatfield said. “So when I call them and tell them that I want to come visit, hopefully that’s going to count for something along the way. We’ve got a lot of really good friends and good relationships in Middle Tennessee.”
Alexander continued, “That gives us something that we really, really need in our program right now. I’m looking for guys who can connect to the high school coaches in Tennessee, and who better than a guy who has been a high school coach right here in the Midstate area for 25 years? He’s been a very successful coach on the field and he’s very well thought of and respected by other coaches. He’s probably got the cell phone number for every coach in the state of Tennessee, so that’s a tremendous advantage. He’s going to be our high school liaison, which is a position that I’m putting an emphasis on, someone who can be the point of contact for the high school coaches.”
But he has also seen the recruiting side from the prep level as well.
“The biggest thing to me is that, with the talent he has had there, he has seen nearly every major college coach come through his building and sit down with him,” Alexander said. “He’s had them all from Division III to II to FCS to NAIA to Power 5 conference coaches to recruit. He’s seen a lot of that and has advised young men in recruiting.
“On that end, as a high school coach, you have to understand the NCAA rules, you have to understand the eligibility and all of the things on that end. He knows what’s effective and not effective – what are things that I’ve gotten from colleges and that’s a good idea or what people are rolling their eyes at. He’s seen that, and he understands the recruiting process because he has been at a school where a ton of his players have been recruited over the years and understands the importance of the relationship a college coach has to have with the high school coach.”
There’s still another aspect that Alexander finds handy.
“He’s a teacher,” Alexander said. “He taught classes. He’s dealt with parents. He’s had angry parents in his office. He’s dealt with a lot of things that many college coaches haven’t as many of them come into coaching right after their playing days. They’ve never had the experience of sitting down and talking. It’ll be natural for Bruce to go into a home and recruit, talk to a high school student-athlete and his parents. He’s done it for 25 years. He knows what it looks like and what it needs to look like.”
Hatfield was a 1990 graduate of Tennessee Tech with a bachelor’s degree in health and physical education. A team captain in his senior season, he led the Golden Eagles In tackles in the 1986 campaign and won the 1987 Sonny Allen Leadership Award. In 1988, Hatfield signed a contract with the New York Jets, attending training camp that season. Following his playing days, Hatfield was the strength coach for the Tech women’s basketball team.
After leaving Tech, Hatfield became the assistant football coach as well as a physical education and science teacher at Lawrence County High School from 1990 to 1993, then became the assistant football coach, strength coach and assistant track coach at Hendersonville High School from 1993 to 1997.
During this time, he also earned his masters’ degree in administration and supervision from Trevecca in 1994.
From the 1998 season until this past campaign with the Commandos, Hatfield was the head coach at HHS and racked up the best winning percentage in the school’s 79 seasons of football with a 159-82 record. He was named the region coach of the year four times – 1999, 2001, 2008 and 2014 – and coaches state runner-up teams in 1998, 2001, 2010 and 2013. He was the Middle Tennessee chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes selection for Coach of the Year in 2016.
It certainly wasn’t easy to leave that position though.
“That’s where we relocated with my wife (Melinda, who is an inductee of the TTU Sports Hall of Fame as a member of the women’s basketball program) as we left her hometown and that was tough so many years ago,” Hatfield said. “It was such a special place for us. That’s where we raised our girls, so it was always going to be a tough decision, but I wouldn’t have made that decision for any other place than here.”
As Tech’s linebackers coach, Hatfield’s philosophy is about more than just what they do on the field.
“We just want the young men to know that they are student-athletes and that we care about them,” Hatfield said. “We take an interest in what they do in the classroom and try to make them good people, servants, leaders, then good football players. We want to make them part of a team where people want to come out and enjoy and have fun watching. That’s where we want to go.”
Historically, the Golden Eagles have had great linebackers, and recent history has been no different with Josh Poplar, Elliott Normand and Aderick Moore – two of which return for another campaign in 2018.
“I’m getting to know these guys obviously,” Hatfield said. “I’ve watched a little film, but as I get to know them and they get to know me, we’ll move forward and put the very best young men on the field to represent Tennessee Tech, so it’s an exciting time for us.”