March 4, 2011
MADISON, Wis. -- As a college tailback, Thomas Hammock relied on his instincts and followed his blocking. As a coach, Hammock has followed his heart, especially after he was forced to stop playing football.
There are many meaningful connections for Hammock, who has returned to Madison as the UW’s running back coach; replacing John Settle, now in the NFL with the Carolina Panthers.
Hammock last coached with the Badgers in 2004 as a graduate assistant on Barry Alvarez’s staff. What’s the biggest difference in Hammock between then and now?
“Experience,” he said. “When I left, I was 23 and I have had a chance to go out and recruit and coach in ball games – and deal with adversity – and all of those experiences help you grow as a coach.”
For the last four seasons, Hammock has been on the University of Minnesota coaching staff. Last year, he was the co-offensive coordinator, along with Jeff Horton, another former UW assistant.
When head coach Tim Brewster was fired, Horton replaced him as the interim coach and Hammock took over as the offensive play-caller for the final five games of the 2010 season.
“That was a good learning experience for me to continue my development as a coach,” said Hammock, who was proud of the fact that the Gophers won their last two games over Illinois and Iowa.
“It was definitely a challenge given the situation (Brewster’s ouster). But the great thing about it was that all the coaches and the players responded very well and made sure we finished the season.
“He (Horton) had a calming influence over everyone and he drew from his experience (as a former head coach) and really put his stamp on the way he wanted to do things the final five games.”
During that stretch, Hammock was overseeing the offense from the press box which increased his awareness because “you’re constantly thinking about the next play and the next situation.”
Hammock put his own stamp on Minnesota’s running backs, who fumbled just once in 411 touches last season. He also had a big impact on the program as a successful and aggressive recruiter.
That’s what Jerry Kill saw in Hammock and when Kill left Northern Illinois to take over the Gophers, he retained Hammock on his new staff; the only Brewster assistant who was asked back.
“Whenever you take a new job as a head coach, you search for that special guy on the current staff,” said Kill, who added that Hammock is “known around the country as a relentless recruiter.”
Having earned Kill’s respect made it all the tougher for Hammock to leave.
“It was tough to go into his office and say, ‘Coach, I’ve got a different opportunity,’” Hammock said of his decision to take the UW job. “But he understood and he was good about the whole thing.”
On Kill’s handling of a potentially sensitive situation, Hammock said, “Coach Kill was awesome. He was first-class in everything he did and the way he treated me and my family.”
Kill understood that the 29-year-old Hammock simply couldn’t turn down the offer to return to Wisconsin, where he began his coaching career as an administrative and grad assistant (2003-2004).
Since then, he has expanded his perspective on the profession. “It’s always good to get around different coaches and different people and see different ways to doing things,” Hammock said.
The key is in the application of the information. “You try to pull all the good things you’ve learned and incorporate them into what you’re doing on a day-to-day basis,” he added.
Hammock, the coach – who has inherited Montee Ball and James White at Wisconsin – was asked how Ball and White might compare to Hammock, the former Northern Illinois tailback?
“They’re much better; much better,” said Hammock, chuckling.
Hammock was being humble.
Going into his senior year (2002), Hammock was in a position to become the first Division I-A running back to be a 1,000-yard rusher and academic All-American in three consecutive seasons.
Hammock rushed for 1,083 yards as a sophomore and 1,095 yards as a junior. He opened his senior year by running for 172 yards against Wake Forest. But he didn’t feel right after the game.
After a medical examination, it was determined that Hammock had a heart condition; a build-up of fatty tissue around his heart, a life-threatening condition based on over-exertion.
Hammock had to stop playing football. He was 21. Relegated to the sidelines during the 2002 season, he was a cheerleader for his replacement Michael Turner, who’s now playing in the NFL.
Throughout his physical and emotional ordeal, Hammock never lost sight of his academic commitment. He graduated from NIU in three-and-a-half years with a degree in marketing.
Fact is, Hammock was drawn to the UW because of its master’s program in education administration. In the process, he contacted Alvarez about coaching while working on his masters.
That led to his apprenticeship with the Badgers, which included a stint working under Jim Hueber, the former UW offensive line coach – one of his links to offensive coordinator Paul Chryst.
“The guys he respects are the guys I respect,” Hammock said.
In turn, Hammock has a lot of respect for the job that Settle did with the running backs. “It will be a challenge to meet that standard next season,” said Hammock, a native of Fort Wayne, Ind.
But he will bring his own style to the position. One of his points of emphasis will be making sure the tailbacks “improve on making that last defender miss” based on what he has seen on tape.
“I was really surprised how good those guys are upfront,” he said of the UW’s offensive line. “They work together as a unit, create movement and make a lot of holes for the backs to run through.”
To this end, he said the runners have to “reward” the linemen with long runs.
What else will he demand?
“I want them to be tough, and I want them to compete and finish every run, every drill, every rep,” Hammock said. “We’re going to try and finish those plays so we can raise our level of play.”
By Mike Lucas