‘Hardin Bowl’ always meaningful, but this one has greater impact
by Aaron Garcia
Once Bruce Hardin reached his seat in the Clemson press box for The Citadel’s 2000 season-opener against the Tigers, he laid out his game charts. Though the Bulldogs were kicking off, Hardin’s focus was on the plays he was planning to open with as The Citadel’s offensive coordinator. Then he glanced down at the field and saw his son, Blair, was lining up on the kickoff team in his first college game.
“I didn’t know it,” Bruce recalled. “Nobody told me (Blair would be playing).”
More than a decade later, Bruce isn’t sure whether Blair made the tackle that day.
“I’m sure he surrounded the ball,” Bruce said.
But it didn’t really matter; Blair was on the field. It was a momentous occasion for both father and son. And years later, it serves as an indication of what Bruce’s Providence Day team will be facing as it hosts the Blair Hardin-coached Porter Ridge Pirates on Friday, Sept. 16.
“It was just a proud moment,” Bruce said of that fall day at Clemson. “To say 18 years (before that game) you were fighting for your life, now you’re playing the greatest game ever played.”
When Blair and his twin brother, Justin, were born, they were two-and-a-half months premature, and things initially looked bleak for Blair.
“I remember the doctor came in that night when they were born and said, ‘Coach, you look awful. Go home,” Bruce recalled. “He said, ‘At least you got one.’”
Heartbroken, Bruce reluctantly left the hospital but was back in the morning.
“(Blair) was still in that incubator,” Bruce said. “I went there and put my finger in that little incubator, and he battled all day.
“Everything – I mean my finger, my arm – went to sleep, but I wasn’t going to leave.”
So when Blair took the field against Clemson in 2000, Bruce took a rare opportunity to stop being Blair’s coach, as he’d been for four years while at the helm of Kannapolis A.L. Brown High.
“I took those fingers off (the play charts) and just became a dad for a minute or two,” he said.
Today, with Blair coaching just a few miles from his father, the matchup seems logical. But in actuality, Friday’s game is a matter of happenstance rather than a planned event. As both teams were putting together their schedules this summer, they each had an open slot they needed to fill for Sept. 16. Given the current state of financial affairs, neither team was looking to travel a great distance just to fill its schedules. Blair called Bruce to see if he knew of any contacts that were looking for a game.
Shortly before that, then-Providence Day athletics director Barbara Fricke noticed both teams had an open date and approached Bruce about scheduling the Pirates. Bruce said he never would’ve pitched the idea himself. He’d consider it poking his nose in Blair’s career, which he is vehemently against.
But he wasn’t going to back down from the challenge if someone else brought it up.
So when Blair brought up the idea, Bruce agreed.
“It was good because I wanted to find a good, well-coached team who was going to help us get better, and it worked out perfectly,” Blair said.
The concept wasn’t new to Blair; he’d faced his twin brother twice when Justin was the coach at Southern Carolina 3A/4A conference rival Weddington before taking the job as offensive coordinator at Rock Hill South Pointe this summer. (And, for the record, each brother won one game in the series.)
But after the relief of filling his 2011 schedule subsided, reality set in for Blair.
“I was like, ‘What am I getting myself into?’” Blair said with a laugh. “I knew (the Chargers) were good. I was like, ‘Well, if you’re going to get your butt beat, it might as well be by your dad.’
“I’ve always wanted to coach with him, not against him.”
Not that they would go back on the agreement, but both said the idea is a little easier to swallow since both are at the helm of strong teams. Porter Ridge (4-0) is No. 1 in Union County Weekly’s Super 7, while Providence Day (2-0) is the No. 7 team in the newspaper’s sister publication, South Charlotte Weekly.
“You look forward to facing good coaches and good competition because it only makes you better,” Blair said.
“I wouldn’t hesitate to play anyone with the work ethic our players have shown,” said Bruce. “I have confidence that he’ll get his football team ready.”
Though the two have never met on the field, Blair knows exactly what Bruce’s Providence Day squad will bring to the gridiron Friday night.
“The biggest thing is you’re facing a tough, smart, well-coached team, and they’re going to come after you and you’ve got to be ready,” said Blair. “One thing Dad’s great about is adjusting and attacking your weaknesses and tendencies, and you might not even know them.”
But Blair said he continues to learn about the job his father has done in his 45 years of coaching since first taking over his own team in 2008. Blair said every Thursday and Friday, parents, opposing coaches, even the referees, approach him with stories of his father, which can be awe-inspiring.
“I guess you don’t really get an appreciation until you’re in the profession yourself, and then you see how many coaches and friends and teachers and administrators he impacted over 45 years,” Blair said. “It’s amazing. It’s tough to put into words.”
And to his credit, Bruce hasn’t lost an iota of the fire that made him such a good instructor four decades ago, said Blair, down to his hands-on approach of teaching the game.
“He could play for me,” Blair said. “I’d start his butt in a heartbeat. I’d put him at fullback. He’ll hit you in the nose.”
Though Bruce doesn’t have the same experience with Blair’s coaching style, he said he’s noticed some vital traits in his son that are necessary to coaching success, traits that remind him of former Charlotte Independence coach Tom Knotts.
“I think he had a unique ability to create interest (in the program) and get guys to respond in a particular way to him,” Bruce said. “You admire that, and you like competing against guys like that.”
Perhaps the most easily recognizable quality Blair learned from his dad is the ability to deflect attention from himself in favor of keeping the spotlight on his players. It’s a tactic that’s come in handy the past few weeks as his Porter Ridge team has soared to its unbeaten start, especially last week when his Pirates downed A.L. Brown, the same school where he played – and won a state title – for his father in the late 90s. It’s also been a useful tool this week as his Pirates prepared to face Providence Day.
“It’s a player’s game” is one common mantra, as is taking things “one game at a time”.
Sure, there is truth in his words. But as Bruce explained, the reason he says them is as important as their meaning.
“You have to do that,” Bruce reasoned. “The guys do the work. It’s not how much we know; it’s how much the (players) learn.
“The bottom line is the essence of high school athletics is the high school athlete. That’s what makes it really special.”
So, yes, the game will be decided as much by what the players on the field do as which plays the coaches call. But that doesn’t mean that this is just any other game. Not this week, not as father and son square off on opposing sidelines for the first time in either of their careers. Not with what the game of football has meant to each man.
At this point, lining up against each other is an unavoidable obstacle for two people who have seemingly always been on the same side. But at least it’s football.
“I guess if we’re going to compete, the gridiron is the best place to do it,” said Bruce.