Athens — Bill Hartman, a legendary figure in University of Georgia athletics, died this afternoon at Athens Regional Medical Center. He was 90.
Hartman was an All-American football player, longtime assistant coach, successful businessman and lifelong student in Athens. Any question of how much Hartman meant to UGA — and how much his school meant to him — is answered in a Vince Dooley tale about what happened when the NCAA banned voluntary football coaches 14 years ago.
Hartman, a former player and assistant for the Bulldogs, had been in the insurance business full-time when Dooley asked him to return to the field as his voluntary kicking coach in the early 1970s. From that time forward, Georgia boasted some of the best kickers in history of the SEC: Allan Leavitt, Rex Robinson, Kevin Butler, John Kasay, Todd Peterson.
When the NCAA eliminated positions like Hartman's in 1992, Dooley was frantic to come up with a solution. Finally, he decided to ask Hartman to become a graduate assistant coach. Which meant Hartman would have to return to college to attend grad school.
Never mind that he was 77 at the time.
"Oldest G.A. student in the history of the game," Dooley said with a laugh Wednesday. "He wanted to stay on and he was such a valuable asset, I didn't want him to go. And he did some great things in the classroom, I understand. I mean, the man had been in the business world for years. So he made some significant contributions to those classes, too."
Hartman's eligibility as a student G.A. expired three years later. Grudgingly, his gridiron career ended at age 79.
"I don't think anybody has done more for the university from both the academic and athletic standpoints," Dooley said.
In addition to his contributions on the sidelines, Hartman was a University of Georgia Foundation trustee, president of the university's alumni association and co-chairman of the Tech-Georgia Development Fund. In 1960, he became chairman of the Georgia Student Educational Fund, which was formed to raise private funds for athletic scholarships.
After college, Hartman went to work for Coca-Cola. He returned to Athens in the 1950s and founded the Hartman Insurance Agency, now the Hartman-Clifton Agency. In the meantime, he served the Athens and university communities as president of the Athens Jaycees, Athens Chamber of Commerce, Athens Country Club and Athens Community Chest.
He was a member of the Athens City Council from 1957-60, served as mayor pro tem in 1960 and was president of the UGA Alumni Society in 1951 and '52. He was awarded the first Distinguished Alumni Award from the College of Business in 1965 and the Alumni Society's Distinguished Alumni Award in 1963-64, among many other honors.
Today, the Bill Hartman Award goes to former UGA student-athletes who have distinguished themselves as alumni.
But more than anything, Hartman was a football man.
Former Bulldogs player Leroy Dukes visited him in the hospital earlier this week and asked Hartman what he wanted done at his funeral.
"He said, 'I want the first 15 minutes to be blocking and tackling,' " said Hartman's son, WSB-TV sports anchor Bill Hartman III.
Hartman was born in Thomaston on March 17, 1915. His football career began while attending public schools in Madison. He eventually played for Wally Butts at Georgia Military College in Milledgeville.
Hartman followed Butts to UGA in the 1930s, when he became one of the Bulldogs' greatest fullbacks, linebackers and kickers. As team captain in 1937, he was named both All-SEC and All-America.
Hartman still holds the Georgia record for the longest punt, an 82-yard boomer against Tulane in 1937. Two weeks later against Georgia Tech, he fielded a second-half kickoff and, after initially fumbling the ball, gathered himself and raced 93 yards for the tying touchdown, one of the great moments in the history of the series.
What happened next was not.
"I missed the extra point," Hartman once recalled. "I was so winded, I wanted a timeout, but the officials wouldn't allow it."
Hartman moved to Green Bay, Wis., following graduation to begin work for Coca-Cola. But all the while, he was continually recruited by NFL teams. He finally signed with the Washington Redskins for $250 per game and a no-cut contract.
He signed on to be NFL legend Sammy Baugh's backup quarterback. But Baugh was hurt before the Redskins' opener and Hartman started the first six games of the season. He won the first pro game he'd ever seen, 24-22 over the Philadelphia Eagles, by throwing an 87-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter.
Hartman turned his back on the NFL the following year, opting to return to Georgia as backfield coach under his old friend and mentor, Butts. His salary: $2,800.
Hartman helped lead Georgia to victories in both the Orange and Rose Bowls before entering World War II as an Army counter-intelligence officer. When he returned to Athens, he entered the insurance business.
He was named to Sports Illustrated's "Silver Anniversary All America Team" in 1962 and inducted into the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame in 1981 and the National College Football Hall of Fame three years later.
Hartman's first wife, the former Ruth Landers of Savannah, preceded him in death in 1996. He is survived by his second wife Mary; daughters Laura (61) and Barbara (55); son Bill III (57); six grandchildren and one great grandchild. All three of Hartman's children graduated from UGA's Grady School of Journalism, a fact of which he was particularly proud.
Published in Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Mar. 16, 2006.