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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Catching Up With... Hugh Nall

It's been a chaotic month in the life of former Georgia offensive lineman Hugh Nall. After starring for the Bulldogs for four seasons -- including winning a national championship in 1980 -- Nall went on to become one of college football's most respected assistant coaches and top recruiters. Following a disappointing 5-7 season at Auburn in 2008, however, he was let go by the school along with all of former head coach Tommy Tuberville's staff. Nall wasn't out of work long, however, moving quickly into the business world, where he is now the chief operating officer of Southern Ag in Albany, Ga. I caught up with him last week to talk about the situation at Auburn, his future in coaching and Georgia's chances in the Capital One Bowl.

David Hale: So you went from being a big-time college coach to a corporate exec pretty quickly there. How did that transition come about?

Hugh Nall: I met the man I'm working for now through some Auburn people. I met Henry Griffin, who I work for now, through them, and Henry had been talking to me for probably two years about going to work for him, so that's how I got hooked up with him. Once I got the word about Coach Tuberville not going to be at Auburn anymore -- I was on a flight in Dallas going to a home visit (with a recruit) when I got word. I had to cancel that whole visit and turn around and get a flight back, and that's when I got a call from Henry that he was going to make me an offer to go work for him the next morning. Based on the fact of the way things went there at Auburn, and I'm 50 years old, and I thought this was an opportunity to get involved with someone I've thought a lot of and thought it would be an honor to work for him, so I decided to take that route. After 24 years of coaching college football and having this opportunity, I really thought it was the right thing to do.

DH: In this economy, which job is tougher -- corporate exec or SEC coach?

HN: I don't think there's any doubt that this is a tough role right now. Still, it's amazing how similar it is dealing with people. No matter what business you're in, whether it's coaching or the trucking business or whatever it might be. It's just different Xs and Os right now. I've got to learn the Xs and Os here. I have to be able to count higher than 11 now, you know?

DH: Obviously there was a good bit of controversy that surrounded the way Tommy was let go following the season. What are your thoughts about how those final few weeks at Auburn played out?

HN: Needless to say, it was very disappointing. No. 1, it was disappointing from the standpoint of the players that we had in there are a bunch of good people, so you hate to see anything negative happen for them -- especially our seniors and what they did through the games they had been involved in winning over the years. Also, you hate it for the Auburn people. It's such a great school and a great place. You hate it that all of a sudden there's eight years of really positive things happening and it turns quickly. That was the bad thing. Then once again, all the positive things that we had done, you just hate to see all that negative stuff happen. That's kind of the major things.

DH: You've known Gene Chizik for a while, too. What did you think of the hire?

HN: I thought this was a great opportunity for Gene. He's a great guy, and I certainly wish him the best. I worked with him for two years, and Gene is a class act, so I really hope he does well. Not just for him, but for the players that we've got in there and those good Auburn people, you want to see good things happen for them.

DH: It had to have been a tough transition for you to leave behind the work you'd done for so many years. How did you handle saying goodbye to Auburn and football?

HN: I'm certainly a different person in the way I look at things. I look at everything as a great opportunity. Whether you're a pessimist or an optimist, I'm neither one. I'm an opportunist. I just look at this as a great opportunity to do something special. I heard a guy say one time that I took reverse out of my gear box years ago. I got the call on a Thursday, and I started working Monday morning after we were released on Wednesday, and I haven't slowed down and looked back. That's the way I've done and that's the way I'm going to do it. I'm proud of what I've done the last 24 years, I'm proud of what I've done at Auburn, and I'm proud of the players I left behind, especially with what we did in '07 with three true freshman on the offensive line to win nine games, beating Florida in the Swamp, beating Alabama for the sixth year in a row. That was pretty special. I'm not hanging my head at all about being let go. It's the first time I've been let go in 24 years, but this is a chance to move forward.

DH: Switching gears from Auburn to your alma mater, Georgia had some problems on defense toward the end of the year. As an opposing coach who game planned for the Dogs' defense, was there anything you noticed that you thought you could take advantage of? And how do you think they'll do against Michigan State?

HN: I think there was an injury factor. There always is that time of year. It was nothing that really stood out. I'm a big Mark Richt fan. I'm a Georgia staff fan. I really like his staff, I like what they do, and I always have. As an alumni, I'm proud of what they've done, and as an opponent, I didn't like what they did these last few years. But I think they've got a good chance to win that game, but they're going to have to stop a good running team. I think Georgia will win. They've got a lot of weapons on the offensive side, and the best defense is a good offense in my mind. If they don't have the ball, it's hard to score.

DH: Georgia's pass rush was a problem all year for them. Was that something that you saw on film that you thought held them back as a defense?

HN: I'll be honest, I don't remember that much of saying they didn't have a pass rush. I was too concerned with what we could do or couldn't do because we struggled so much offensively this year. I really don't remember that being that big a topic. It was more about trying to get us to execute and worrying about what we were doing. I just never felt like we got very good at -- to be a good offense, you've got to be sound enough at your system to do some things that are a little more complicated, and I just felt like we never got to be a good offense at all this year with all the changes and things we had to go through.

DH: Do you have any intentions of getting back into coaching soon?

HN: I have no plans to. My next stop coaching football right now will hopefully be Pee-Wee football with my grandkids way down the road. I've got my mind focused on what I'm doing, I'm looking forward to it, and my main objective is to do a good job for Southern Ag.

DH: Well, I'm guessing you'll at least be tuning in to watch your alma mater on New Year's Day, right?

HN: As long as there's not good golf or a good quail hunt going on, I probably will.

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