Nathaniel Hackett served as a ball boy for one season with the Dallas Cowboys, four seasons with the University of Pittsburgh and four seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs.
Those were three of the coaching stops for his father, Paul Hackett.
Yet following in his dad’s footsteps as a football coach was not a forgone conclusion for the son.
“Watching my dad and his career,” Nathaniel Hackett recalls, “when we were doing good, he was criticized. When we were doing bad, he was criticized. I loved football, but I wanted to be a doctor. I majored in neurobiology.”
The pull of football, however, proved too irresistible for Nathaniel, who played linebacker in college for Division II California-Davis.
“Once I got down to that last year and got done with my degree, I thought about the fact I’m going to have to go back to school longer – or have an opportunity to work on football.”
Coaching trumped neurobiology.
Just 11 years later, Nathaniel Hackett’s career has ridden a comet to the top of the profession. The 33-year-old will begin his first training camp as an NFL offensive coordinator when the Buffalo Bills convene at St. John Fisher College on Saturday.
Paul Hackett built a reputation as one of the leading proponents of the West Coast offense over a 42-year coaching career. He coached quarterbacks, receivers and tight ends for Bill Walsh with the San Francisco 49ers from 1983 to ’85. That stint helped lead to head-coaching jobs at Pitt from 1989 to ’92 and the University of Southern California from 1998 to 2000. In between he had a successful five-year run as offensive coordinator of the Chiefs.
He served as offensive coordinator of the Jets from 2001-04, and his last job was as Raiders quarterback coach in 2010.
Riding that coaching carousel and hanging around with dad and star athletes was a great way to grow up for Nathaniel Hackett.
“My whole life they’ve always been our family,” he said. “I remember at the 49ers, the guys were around all the time for dinner. We grew up with Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Roger Craig, Freddie Solomon.”
“I was always around the office; that was my favorite thing to do,” Nathaniel said. “I remember as a kid about 5 years old when my dad was with the 49ers, I still can smell that glue. That’s what they used when they used to actually cut and paste to make the 16-mm film. My dad would let me come in there and help cut it and paste it.”
By the time the Hacketts got to Kansas City, Nathaniel was a high schooler.
“The guys I hung out with a lot were Derrick Thomas and Marcus Allen,” he said, referring to two Hall-of-Famers. “I used to carry their pads every day to practice for them. And Kimble Anders. Those were the three I was close,” to, “and Ronnie Lott when he was there a little bit.”
The influence those days had on Nathaniel was not lost on the elder Hackett when son decided to forego a career in medicine.
“I think I was surprised; I wasn’t shocked,” Paul Hackett said. “I think we’re affected by our environment. We’re all somewhat swayed one way or the other. At that time, he had a great experience in Kansas City with us as a family before he went to Davis. So I’m sure it was the Kansas City experience along with his experience at Davis that influenced him. But it certainly wasn’t clear cut.”
After spending three years as a lower-level aide at Stanford, Nathaniel got a big break when he was hired by Jon Gruden as offensive quality control coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Gruden had worked as a receivers coach for Paul Hackett at Pitt, and the elder Hackett was on the Bucs’ staff at the time as quarterbacks coach.
The prime duty of a quality control coach is to study opposing teams and break down all of their plays and tendencies on computer.
“The good thing about Coach Gruden is he teaches you a lot of football,” Nathaniel said. “When you go into that offensive game plan, there’s a lot of stuff in there. I like to think that was Harvard for a quality-control guy.”
“I drew 16,000 plays in two years,” Nathaniel said. “I was able to learn so much. He taught me how to teach guys, from showing them tip sheets to video.”
“When Jon came to us at the University of Pittsburgh, he was really at the forefront of the computer world in football,” Paul Hackett said. “He really taught our staff the drawing of plays, and the computer part of it. Jon had taken it to another level since the Pitt days. To get that opportunity to go to Tampa and to watch Jon pass onto Nathaniel was wonderful for me.”
Nathaniel Hackett went from Tampa to Buffalo in 2008, spending two seasons as a quality control coach on Dick Jauron’s staff.
While his first stint in Buffalo was a dark chapter for the Bills (the end of the Jauron tenure), it was productive for Hackett from an education standpoint. On the staff was Alex Van Pelt, Jauron’s QB coach and offensive coordinator.
Nathaniel picked the brains of both Van Pelt and Jim Kelly those two years and brought a lot of the principles of the no-huddle offense with him to Syracuse in 2010, when he was hired by Doug Marrone.
“I’ll give credit where credit is due,” Nathaniel Hackett said. “The offense we created at Syracuse was really from Alex and Jim. They were a big foundation of it.”
“When he worked in Tampa, I kept hearing about this guy doing great things in quality control that would blow you away, and it was Nathaniel,” said Van Pelt, now running backs coach in Green Bay. “We were fortunate to get him in Buffalo. You could tell right away he had great organizational skills, and he was very bright with computers. He understood the connection with the younger players, that generation, and how to reach them.”
Syracuse didn’t embrace the no-huddle until last season, when senior quarterback Ryan Nassib was at the peak of his mastery of the system. It was a big success. Syracuse improved from 90th in the nation in total offense in 2011 to 17th in 2012.
Van Pelt was Paul Hackett’s quarterback at Pitt, where he broke many of Dan Marino’s school passing records. Van Pelt was the first person to call Nathaniel Hackett when he was named Bills offensive coordinator in January.
Nathaniel Hackett, in fact, shows players practice video that he got from his father of Montana and Van Pelt simultaneously dropping back at Chiefs training camp in 1994.
Of course, Montana had great footwork. But so did Van Pelt.
Van Pelt calls Paul Hackett “the guru of footwork.”
“He had unbelievable mechanics,” Nathaniel Hackett said of Van Pelt. “He was a bigger gentleman – ahem – and he had to use all the good play-action fakes to get the ball down the field. He was a master at that.”
It’s all part of what is an amazing digital library of video in Nathaniel’s possession. It includes Bills practices from the Kelly era, 49ers practices from the Walsh-Montana days in the early 1980s and countless other films converted from his father’s collection.
“I have terabytes of material, from black-and-white back in the old days,” Nathaniel said. “I have a database that’s unbelievable. I’m a computer nerd. I have eight screens in my office.”
The excitement in Hackett’s voice is palpable when he’s talking about his digital library. Check that. It’s palpable when he’s talking about most anything. Enthusiasm is one of his gifts.
“He’s very funny, very energetic, emotional about everything he does,” said receiver Alec Lemon, who played for the Orange the last four seasons. “He shows a lot of emotion on the field, whether it’s good or bad. He’ll let you know if he likes it or not.”
It’s all very satisfying for the elder Hackett to watch.
“It is very exciting for a dad,” Paul Hackett said. “Any time your kids do well and are happy doing it, are loving what they do, you’re excited.”
Paul Hackett will be watching the Bills with great anticipation – and anxiety – this season.
“I’m definitely a ball of nerves,” he said of watching his son’s team. “I have an intense anticipation for the games and probably get a little more uptight than I should. But it is my son out there. It’s a lot different than when you can control it.”
email address/EOS: Coming Wednesday: Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine.