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February 6, 2013
LOUISVILLE - There was so much for Jason Hatcher to like about Kentucky, so many reasons why the Trinity High School football star might choose to go to college there.
There was the proximity to home, of course. The partnership with Auburn's veterinary school - and the plethora of nearby horse farms - would give Hatcher the opportunity to pursue a career working with animals.
Yet for the longest time, Hatcher gave the school almost literally no thought.
And that's why the four-star defensive end called it "mind-blowing" when he stood in front of reporters on Wednesday wearing a blue hat with a white UK logo, fresh off signing a National Letter of Intent to play for the Wildcats.
"What changed?" Hatcher said. "The coaching staff changed. The coaching staff and what I believed those guys are going to do and how they're going to turn that program around down there."
Hatcher wants to play a part.
But he needed some convincing.
The 6-foot-2, 240-pound defensive end was committed to USC, one of college football's most tradition-rich programs. And just last summer, Hatcher told ESPN that he'd said to Tennessee coaches, "You lost to the University of Kentucky. You lose to UK, you lose to everybody, because UK finishes last in the SEC every year."
It was a shot across the bow from a top in-state talent, a player who admits he grew up watching Rick Pitino - and not as the coach at Kentucky, but as the man guiding the rival Louisville Cardinals. Hatcher's mother is a lifelong U of L fan.
Kentucky wasn't on Hatcher's list. It was hardly on the radar.
And then everything changed. The bottom fell out of the program. Joker Phillips was fired. And Kentucky hired Mark Stoops, the Florida State defensive coordinator, who quickly assembled a credible, SEC-caliber staff including defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot, who'd coached defensive ends under Stoops at FSU.
Hatcher's chances of committing to UK under Phillips were "not that great," he said.
But almost immediately, he sensed something different in these new guys.
For starters, they were bulldogs. Though Hatcher remained committed to USC, Eliot and other UK coaches were in constant contact.
"It's about relationships, it's about presenting a plan, how we (are) going to use him," Stoops said during his signing day news conference. "Things we have done in the past, the way our defense works, how he's going to fit into it and, again, we had to make up a lot of time in relationships and we spent a lot of time with Jason and his family, his mother, Donna, so, you know, we spent a lot of time and effort into that."
At one point, five Kentucky coaches arrived at Trinity for a visit with Hatcher.
"Coach Eliot was very persistent throughout the whole process," Hatcher said. "That's one word I'm going to use. But once I had a chance to really sit down and talk with him, I knew that really, that's who I wanted to play for."
Meanwhile, some of USC's top talent was opting out. The Trojans lost some high-profile commitments, and suddenly the distance from Louisville to Los Angeles looked more daunting.
"Not that I'm following behind anyone else, but the whole recruiting class just started to fall apart towards the end, the home stretch," Hatcher said. "Everything just started to fall apart."
As it did, Kentucky was putting something together.
Stoops got a commitment from Za'Darius Smith, the top junior-college defensive end in the country. That made Hatcher take notice. Kentucky started to reel in some talent from Florida. Ryan Timmons, a high-profile wide receiver from Frankfort, Ky., began to more seriously consider the Wildcats, along with Florida and Ohio State.
Timmons committed to the Cats on Tuesday. By then, Hatcher quietly had made up his mind. He settled on UK Monday night, but didn't tell Stoops or the staff until a day later.
The recruiting class Stoops was assembling - it's ranked a school-record 28th in Rivals.com's team rankings - mattered "a great deal," Hatcher said.
"I also had contacted some of the recruits to make sure they were solid on their commitment to UK," Hatcher said. "It takes more than one or two guys. Me and Timmons just can't do it."
But Hatcher became increasingly convinced that it could be done, that Kentucky could return to football relevance. The new coaching staff pointed to its recent history of developing defenses - and specifically defensive ends - at Florida State. And Hatcher was reminded that the Wildcats weren't so far removed from a string of five straight bowl games.
"Coaching plays a big part in this," Hatcher said. " I believe in what those coaches are doing, and their track record speaks for itself."
As rumors spread that he'd first decommitted from, then recommitted to, USC, Hatcher kept relatively quiet. He mostly talked to his mother, though he also took visits and phone calls from Trojans assistants.
Momentum, though, was squarely on the side of Kentucky.
Even his Cardinal-fan mother had bought in, though even as of Wednesday Hatcher wasn't sure if Donna Hatcher - who showed up to Monday's announcement in neutral tones of brown and orange - could opt for an all-blue wardrobe.
"Maybe," Hatcher said. "I think my mom will wear some purple or something."
There's no such trepidation for Hatcher, who sported a white button-down shirt Wednesday with blue stripes, a blue tie and that blue hat. He's all in.
Stoops and staff told Hatcher that Kentucky's going to win a bowl game next year and compete in the SEC in 2014, and Hatcher believes them. They've said he can win a starting defensive end spot if he comes to work in fall camp the way they expect him to, and he intends to make that happen.
And the kid who once hardly considered Kentucky figures that in the near future, it won't be such a hard decision for players at football powerhouse Trinity, which has rarely sent its stars to Lexington.
"I believe it's not only going to be just Trinity, it's going to be all over the state," Hatcher said. "When guys start to see how we turn this program around, they're going to want to be a part of it the same way I did."
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