Faced with a decision on a second career and any number of lucrative opportunities in the defense or airline industries, Craig Hardin, an Air Force colonel with a wife and three kids and nearing retirement, had to choose.
Oddly, it was an encounter and battle with non-Hodgkin lymphoma that was his turning point.
“After eight months of chemo and going through a half-dozen surgeries, I decided, ‘You know what, I’m going to do what I want to do. If money wasn’t an issue and you could do whatever you wanted to do, what would it be?’
“I’d go coach high school football.”
And he does it today for one reason: Because he believes it is great work.
Just as was his career as an F-16 fighter pilot, when he performed and was granted responsibility of the highest levels of the U.S. Air Force.
Today, the 51-year-old retired colonel is the defensive coordinator at Fort Worth Paschal under first-year head coach Matt Miracle, who emphasized that on his staff is a man of uncommon experience, including a Bronze Star for his work in planning missions in Kosovo in 1998-99.
And, of course, his experience includes his duties on the day and subsequent days of 9-11.
Paschal will commemorate the loss that day, even though the school’s students and football players are too young to remember Sept. 11, 2001.
“We lost a lot of people who didn’t deserve to die that day,” sophomore linebacker Billy Thompson said. “It had a big impact on the world today.”
Hardin was a major based at Naval Air Station Fort Worth. He was the supervisor of flying that day and was driving around the airfield as part of his responsibility to see that all was in order for his crew.
“One of the young ladies who worked at the front desk said, ‘Major Hardin, I think you need to get back here in the building. I think there’s something you might want to see.’”
Replays of airliners flying into the towers of the World Trade Center and Pentagon were shown on all the TVs along with the various degrees of shock on the civilians and military men and women watching.
He pushes being sound fundamentally. Doing your job the first time and do it right.
Senior safety Isaiah Guajardo
Like football, there was no time to sit around. You have to react, and that’s what Hardin and his crew did that day. They regrouped and planned accordingly.
A scheduled deployment to Kuwait was moved up so Hardin and his crew were ready to take part in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan in October 2001. The mission of Oct. 7 was the first of dozens he would fly over the next few years in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Hardin left flying in the middle 2000s — “flying fighters is a young man’s game” — and retired in 2009 having accomplished all he ever dreamed in the Air Force.
Many have made the anniversary of 9-11 a day of service to commemorate those lost.
Hardin, in a way, does that, though he now does it every day.
After his service was over and he was retired, rather than cash in as many retired officers can, Hardin instead wanted to put his passion for working with inner-city kids and “those who aren’t as privileged.”
In some ways the graduate of Richland High School (where he played safety) and the Air Force Academy is an heir to the Texas high school football coaches of the 1940s and ’50s, most of whom were military veterans of World World II and Korea.
It’s a subject explored by Ty Cashion, a professor of history at Sam Houston State who authored Pigskin Pulpit, a social history of Texas high school coaches. Most ruled with the iron fist of a Catholic school nun.
That’s not the method used by Hardin, who termed his style as teaching with compassion.
Hardin doesn’t run around old-school, holding a paddle and ordering players to do this or that or else, or daring them to make mistakes. That doesn’t mean he’s not afraid to get after players for a lack of effort.
“He’s very personable,” defensive end Parker DuBose said. “We’ve only known each other for a couple of months, but I feel like I’ve known him my whole life.”
The lessons of preparation, discipline and detail in football, not oddly enough, are very similar to the military.
“There’s remarkable similarities,” Hardin said. “We had annual training plans, phases that we would work on. Skills we would work in at certain times. What we are here, really, is on the tactical level. It’s a week-to-week cycle. [In the military] it was mission to mission.
“But it’s the same process. What are the opponent’s strengths? What are their weaknesses? What are our strengths and weaknesses and how do they compare? How do we exploit their weaknesses? What are the skills we need to work on and develop to do that? It’s the same type of thing.”
Hardin was based at Naval Air Station Fort Worth on Sept. 11, 2001. He was the supervisor of flying that day. By Oct. 7 he was flying the first of dozens of missions in Afghanistan and Iraq.
There’s a loop a commander uses, Hardin said. The commander “observes, organizes, directs and acts.” The strategy in football and the military is the same, to get in that circle and disrupt the loop.
The no-huddle offense, for example, is a tactic used to disrupt a team and their leader’s loop. Those who observe, organize, direct and act the fastest succeed.
“You want your loop to be faster than” the other team’s. “It’s the same in football.”
Hardin is also a believer in delegation of responsibility and players taking ownership on the field. Centralized command … decentralized execution.
“He pushes being sound fundamentally,” said safety Isaiah Guajardo, a senior. “Doing your job the first time and do it right.”
Said DuBose: “He’s really structured, so I think that’s his military background. There’s no disorganization on the field. It’s chop-chop-chop, right to what he wants it to be.”
A sage in the prime of his life once said that everyone has been made for a particular work, and that the desire for that work has been put in every heart.
Paschal and its defensive players can see that every day in their defensive coordinator.
The decision to leave the Air Force was an easy one.
“It’s one of those things, it’s like a lot of things, when you’re done, you’re done. I was done,” said Hardin, who has trained F-16 Omani and Iraqi fighter pilots as an independent contractor in recent years. “You reach a point where you start figuring out that ‘I’ve become that old guy who doesn’t really do anything; just shows up and acts like he knows it all.’ … OK, it’s time to leave.”
One senses that the day it’s time to leave coaching won’t be nearly as easy.
“I will work until I can’t.”