ATLANTA — When the Pro Football Hall of Fame announces its new class here on Saturday, former Georgia coach Jim Donnan will be nearby, close to where the journey started for two potential new members.
Among the 15 finalists to get into the hall this year are cornerback Champ Bailey and defensive tackle Richard Seymour, both of whom Donnan recruited to Georgia and coached before they became top-10 NFL draft picks.
“You always take pride in your players regardless what they end up doing, what levels they play, but when they get to the zenith like this it makes you proud you had something to do with it,” Donnan told USA TODAY Sports. “It’s just a lifelong experience, and the best part about it is they still call you ‘Coach.’ You’re still their coach, and that makes me feel good.”
The inclusion of Bailey and Seymour in the finalist group underscores the level of talent that Donnan, who led the Bulldogs to four top-20 finishes in his five seasons, coached as he began the turnaround of Georgia’s program.
Those late 1990s Georgia teams included players running backs like Robert Edwards and Olandis Gary and receiver Hines Ward, who has been a Hall of Fame semifinalist each of the last two years.
But nobody made an impression on Donnan like Bailey, who was named the nation’s best defensive player in 1998 while also playing on offense (59 career receptions) and special teams.
“Without question, he is the best player I’ve ever coached,” said Donnan, who went to watch Bailey play basketball in tiny Folkston, Georgia, shortly after getting the Georgia job in 1996 and was blown away by his speed on the court. “Just unbelievable coverage skills but also very physical and was just such a talented guy with the ball.
“One time against Auburn, we played them in a night game (in 1998) and it was real competitive and we ended up winning, but he played 120 plays counting special teams and offense and defense. He got mad when I took him out on offense because we wanted to rest him. You just don’t see a kid play that many snaps. He was just a blur.”
Seymour was part of the second class Donnan signed at Georgia, pulling him out of a small town near Columbia, S.C., after a recruiting battle with Clemson. The 6-foot-6 Seymour, who ended up playing at 315 pounds in the NFL, was a class space-eater who had unusually quick feet for a man of his size.
Despite being just 17 years old when he arrived at Georgia, Seymour played him as a true freshman and was the standout of a strong group of defensive linemen that included fellow first-round pick Marcus Stroud. The New England Patriots ended up taking Seymour No. 6 overall in 2001. He helped them to three Super Bowl wins.
“He kept getting bigger and stronger, and he had a quick first step and great blow delivery,” Donnan said. “He was a really good practice player too, and he was going against guys like (Matt) Stinchcomb) and Jonas Jennings and Chris Terry, who were good offensive linemen we had and it was obvious he was going to be special. Guys like him are dinosaurs in college football as far as size and speed, and the last couple years he started to just flourish.”
Donnan, who still lives in Athens, said he keeps in touch with both Bailey and Seymour and sees them occasionally when they’re in town. He said he also remembers fondly their congratulatory phone calls when he made the College Football Hall of Fame in 2009 after a legendary career that included stints as Barry Switzer’s offensive coordinator at Oklahoma and a Division I-AA national title at Marshall. He hopes he can return the favor soon.
“I’m just happy for both these guys,” Donnan said. “Champ made 13 Pro Bowls, and from what I’ve seen, it looks like he’s got a really good shot and eventually, if not this time, Seymour does too because of his body of work and the way they won in New England.”