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The Rise of Titletown’s Other Team

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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Even if just briefly, Valdosta State's triumph brought coast-to-coast attention to a football program that has more national relevancy than you initially might think.

When most think about ESPN's "Titletown", an affable south Georgia city with comfortable lingerings from the old south, the focus is almost always on Valdosta's storied high school football legacy.

Valdosta High School just completed its 100th year of football, capping a century's worth of work that includes 876 victories, 41 region championships, 23 state crowns and six national titles. The Wildcat win total is the most in high school history. Crosstown rival Lowndes County has five state championships of their own, including three since 2004. Dating back to the mid 1990s, Lowndes has arguably been the most consistent major-classification school in the state. The Valdosta-Lowndes series is known nationally as the "Winnersville Classic". Even Valwood, a local private school, has four state championships, the 2012 banner included.

The area's rich prep tradition noted, the program most-recently responsible for Valdosta's proud distinction is one with a vastly underrated legacy and a vast, wide-ranging reach.

Valdosta State University, then Valdosta State College, first started playing football in 1982. Led by future NFL All-Pro and Atlanta Falcons great Jesse Tuggle, the Blazers had their first winning season four years later. The foundation for success was officially laid. Current Murray State head football coach Chris Hatcher brought the Division II national spotlight to the young program in 1994. He led Valdosta State into the national playoffs and was honored with the Harlon Hill Trophy for his staggering individual performances. Lance Funderburk would build on Hatcher's efforts, taking the Blazers to the top of the national polls and winning the school's first-ever Gulf South Conference title in 1996.

Competing quickly turned to contention as Valdosta State established itself as a consistent power. Hatcher, as head coach, took the Blazers to their first-ever national championship game in 2001, a 31-24 shortfall against Grand Valley State. One year later, history was made. Upon returning to the final, Valdosta State edged Pittsburgh State 36-31 for the national crown. The triumph solidified VSU as a recognizable name on the college football landscape.

Featuring his "Hatch Attack" offense, Hatcher would lead the Blazers to four GSC titles during his tenure. Offensive coordinator David Dean took over when Hatcher, in 2007, became the head coach at nearby Georgia Southern. That season, Dean's first, VSU won their second national championship in school history, a 25-20 toppling of Northwest Missouri State. This past weekend, Dean did it again. Matt Pierce returned the opening kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown, and Valdosta State never looked back in a 35-7 thumping of previously-unbeaten Winston-Salem State.

“It was a great game to be a part of, a great atmosphere," Dean explained. "I was really proud of the way our players started, we wanted to get out to a fast start. All three playoff games leading in, we had been behind at some point. We wanted to, for one time, get a lead and hang on. So we challenged our guys to put Winston-Salem into a position they had not been in. They had been blowing everybody out. It was an uncomfortable situation for them and I think our kids, on the flip side, handled it very well. I was very proud of the way they came out and started that ball game."

A third national championship has Valdosta State in rarefied air, space various Division I FCS leagues may be eye-balling.

Even if just briefly, the Blazers' nationally-televised triumph brought coast-to-coast attention to a football program that has more national relevancy than you initially might think. Long regarded as a cultivation hub for hot, young coaches, Valdosta State has an on-field record and an off-field resume that compares favorably to many schools twice their size. It's a prowess that has a very real "Titletown" feel to it.

"I think it was very well-deserved," Hatcher told Southern Pigskin in the "Pull up a Chair" series of the ESPN honor bestowed on the "Azalea City" back in 2008. "A lot of different places could have won that. It is cool to be apart of it."

Valdosta State's last two head coaches, Dean and Hatcher, have combined to go an unfathomable 130-29 with three national championships. The historical names, beyond those numbers, are even more astounding. Since the 1990s alone, the following coaches, among many others, have come through the VSU football program: former SMU head coach Mike Cavan, Middle Tennessee offensive coordinator Buster Faulkner, Hatcher, West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen, Washington State head coach Mike Leach, former Kentucky and Baylor head coach Guy Morriss, former Kentucky head coach Hal Mumme, Florida head coach Will Muschamp and Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart.

"It is a great cradle of coaching, it’s a great place to be. The recruiting base is very good, the state of Georgia is very good. You learn all aspects of what it takes to be a successful football coach at this place. Again, you have the pressures of coaching in a place they call 'Titletown'. It prepares you for any other job you move to because you are put under a microscope, you are challenged on every decision that you make for your program both in the season and out of the season," Dean continued.

In addition to Tuggle, Hatcher and Funderburk, Valdosta State has had great players come through its doors. Those to have played in the NFL include Dusty Bonner, Mark Catano, Richard Collier, Larry Dean, Antonio Edwards, Maurice Leggett, Don Pumphrey, Dominique Ross, Dallis Smith, Artie Ulmer and Ronnie West. Oklahoma-transfer Cayden Cochran just excelled at quarterback in the Blazers' latest championship dash. Former Florida State signal caller Fabian Walker, who started in the Sugar Bowl during his Seminole career, paced the program's first championship run. Bonner, a local product, won consecutive Harlon Hill Awards after leading the SEC in passing yards, pass efficiency and total offense at Kentucky in 1999.

“Valdosta State has been very fortunate to get some really strong coaches in there. And where that school is located, there is a lot of talented football players in that area. A lot of those guys get missed by the bigger schools because maybe they are an inch too short or something along those lines. But let me tell you something, those guys can play some football and they know how to play it well," Bonner acknowledged. "Certainly, I am proud to be a part of it."

One of the mainstays through Valdosta State's vast growth has been their well-respected athletic director.

"I think it is worth mentioning that Herb Reinhard has been the athletic director for a long time. A lot of things there have changed, but Herb has been there for a long time and been a big part of all of that. I think you have to give kudos there because I think he has run a nice program and has had the foresight to hire a lot of talented people," Bonner stated. "At the same time, we have not sacrificed our pride or our integrity in order to be good at football. We have kept that and at the same time we’re doing good in football and all of the other sports. And I think you have to tip your hat to Herb a little bit there."

After a slow start to the 2012 season, Valdosta State has climbed right back atop the Division II mountain. There, they appear poised to stay. Cochran has another year of eligibility, Cedric O'Neal, fresh off 140 yards in the title game, is just a freshman. It's been an emotional roller-coaster ride for the Blazers. For Dean and his team, local support has been key through it all.

"Anytime you win championships, everybody is going to give you a bunch of credit and everyone is going to be on your bandwagon so to speak. But we’ve got a great group of supporters here that have always been behind us," Dean added. "I credit these kids. There was a time when we were 2-2 and everybody was saying ‘what's wrong with you guys? You should be better than 2-2.’ And they didn’t listen to any of that. They knew they were a better football team, they just had to go out and work hard. The reception that our guys got when we left to go to the championship and the reception we got when we returned, I don’t know if there is anyone in the country who would have received anything better going or coming than we did.”

Maybe you weren't aware of Valdosta State's far-reaching football influence. Call it small-time college football, if you must. Even if their remarkable story doesn't speak for itself, their growing role in their home's famous network-given first name certainly should.

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is SouthernPigskin.com's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Kevin Thomas and Ben Troupe on the "Southern Pigskin Radio Network". Email: bj@espncoastal.com / Twitter: @BJBennettSports