When the Denver Broncos fired Vic Fangio a few weeks ago, one thing was made abundantly clear by general manager George Paton: a culture change was needed. Top-down leadership was going to be the focus of the search for the team’s 18th head coach.
After having had five different head coaches over the past nine years, it was glaring to see that the organization as a whole had an abundance of flaws. According to Paton, the new management of the Broncos had to come with incredible leadership, and it starts with the man leading the charge.
During a search that lasted nearly three weeks, several candidates were interviewed, including former Atlanta head coach Dan Quinn, who was renowned for his leadership style and gravitational pull to his players. It was easy to see why Quinn might have been the favorite for the job from the start of the search.
But Paton opted to go in a different direction, opting for Green Bay Packers offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett.
Hackett, 42, is a character almost exactly opposite to what the Broncos had in their last training regimen. Highly energetic, eccentric and sometimes electric with his words and emotions, Hackett has an incredible ability to not only command a room, but to connect with every person in the room on a personal level.
It’s what this franchise has been looking for for more than half a decade. And it’s a breath of fresh air.
Nathaniel, son of highly regarded former NFL coach Paul Hackett, made an early breakthrough into the coaching world. As a former ball boy for his father’s teams in the 1980s, Nathaniel was often and early in the game.
Nathaniel chased passes for Hall-of-Famers like running back Marcus Allen, played memory games with legendary quarterback Joe Montana, and practiced extensively at punters and kickers in tryouts.
This experience helped shape the life and career of Hackett, who started at UC Davis as a linebacker, as well as pursuing studies in neurobiology. In a silent laboratory that lasted nearly 10 hours, Hackett had an epiphany that would forever change the course of his life, kicking off a 20-year training run that culminated in being named head coach of the Broncos.
“When I was there (at the lab), I just remember being in that lab and it was very quiet and very serious,” Hackett explained during his introductory press conference on Friday after- midday. “And I tried maybe to play a few practical jokes and I don’t think a lot of people liked the jokes – I thought they were really good jokes. Then you leave, you go out and you’re on the field and you’re with your brothers and you’re with your coach and you realize, especially how we did it there at UC Davis. It was so family-oriented – it was very powerful. At that point, I’m like, “I really need to try this stuff”.
At the time, Hackett was also working as a volunteer and helping coach UC Davis linebackers. Keith Buckley, associate director of football operations at UC Davis, had gotten a new job at Stanford University and asked Hackett to come with him as a quality control coach.
It was there that Hackett got his start in a world he now describes as “grueling work”, but for which he also has enormous respect.
“There is so much respect [for Quality Control Assistants]”Hackett said. “A lot of people say, ‘What do the quality control guys do?’ That’s it They do it all They’re the ones behind the scenes crunching the numbers [and] grinding probably longer than anyone else. [I have] So much respect for this post. I always tell coaches, I’ve been doing it for so long that I would never ask them to do anything that I wouldn’t do myself or didn’t do.
Working through the ranks and drags of the coaching world, Hackett gained and developed an even greater appreciation for the game his father coached him in at an early age. Being in the locker room and the players was something Hackett really enjoyed about his dad, even though Paul often apologizes for doing it. The young Hackett holds his father and these experiences in very high regard.
During his introductory press conference at the UCHealth Training Center, Nathaniel spoke poetically about his idol and his hero, describing how Paul would help mold and shape his coaching ability while Nathaniel served as the Buffalo Bills’ offensive coordinator. . Paul’s constructive criticism was tough fatherly love that had a direct impact on how Nathaniel wants to help his staff grow as well.
“It was a good idea at first [asking his father for that guidance], then it got really bad when he came to dinner with 20 pages of notes,” Hackett explained. “I felt really good about my style of training until he started giving me all the advice. It’s one of the best things that’s ever happened to me. It changed a lot of things that I I did. He was in everything, from the way I presented meetings, on the pitch – it was great. I think that’s also why I want to do things here to be able to help the coaches get that and [help them find out] how they can grow and how they can learn to teach better. He has done so much for me.
Being able to connect with people is one of the most remarkable traits young Hackett possesses. Using that fatherly guidance, a tremendous amount of natural energy, and genuinely friendly demeanor in a unique yet engaging way helps create a natural flow in the conversation.
Hackett’s ability to twist pop culture references into his statements helps connect people to his bright personality, and he uses those references in his coaching philosophy as well.
A standard star wars a fanatic, Hackett will occasionally inject buzzwords and catchphrases from the popular film series into his offensive play calls to help loosen the language of the system and connect his players to the scheme. But it’s not only star wars.
A former hip-hop dance instructor with a passion for the musical notes of Justin Timberlake, Hackett finds unique ways to incorporate pop culture into almost anything he can on the football field – as long as that’s what his players want him to do.
“My favorite thing is when the players become the system and the players own the system and it’s theirs,” Hackett told the media in attendance. “As they develop their own words, I still hope they are star wars words or words of Justin Timberlake, I don’t know. That’s the things—that’s when they own and that’s when they become the system. It’s about all of us working together and getting these things done. During this time, it turned out that we had to use a few of these terms.
By injecting these words into its schematic and playbook, Hackett also creates a vibrant atmosphere in which its players can enjoy themselves. Celebrating together as a team is something Hackett wants to embed in every player’s mindset, and to use the term “golden zone” – a reference to the Austin Powers movie gold member – because when the offense comes into scoring position, helps create opportunities for players to be themselves.
That kind of enthusiasm for the game, camaraderie and bright energy is how Hackett plans to fix a culture in Denver that’s been incredibly dark and boring for the past five seasons.
“I think it’s big. It has to be that authentic juice — that authentic energy,” Hackett said. “It has to be who you are. [It has to] Vibrate throughout the installation, everyone must feel it. It’s not just one person, you don’t just save it for your star player. He must be with anyone and everyone. It’s something so important – this whole generation and this world is changing. I call this world of the “YouTube” generation. Meetings are different from when I started, I try to keep people’s attention, inspire them and excite them. As a coach, you need to have that excitement and energy to find different ways to approach them and motivate them to learn and improve every day.
Bringing an explosive West Coast offense, a strong focus on relationships, communication and energy, and a fun leadership style sounds like a shot in the arm for this franchise. Asking any player who rubbed shoulders with Hackett will yield endearing comments of passion and love for the first head coach.
He connects so well with everyone he touches, and his bright, intelligent footballing spirit pushes and drives his players to improve every day.
But at the end of the day, only one thing matters. Winner.
“Make no mistake, it’s only fun to win football games,” Hackett said. “We have to win and that’s what we want to do. I’m so excited to work with this organization [and] with these players [while] meeting with each of them [and] get to know them. They are a young and hungry football team, and we have to overcome the difficulty. We need to be excited about it and we all need to be.
Follow Lance on Twitter @SandersonMHH.
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