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Hernando High coach Ernie Chatman a fixture

As pillars of the community go, he's a little on the skinny side — 155 pounds stretched over 5 feet, 11 inches.

And aren't monuments supposed to just stay still and be admired? This one is always on the move, riding across the state on team buses, hitting the streets for a run every day since the first Bush administration, driving all night or catching planes for the opportunity to move about some more. He has finished marathons in all 50 states and is well on his way to doing it again.

So in some ways, the usual descriptions of solid, exemplary service don't fit Ernie Chatman, who has taught physical education and coached basketball, baseball, track, softball and cross country at Hernando High School for 36 years.

But in many other ways, of course, they do fit. Because in local athletics, whose accomplishments are more monumental than Chatman's? And who has been more steadfast in upholding the best values of high school sports?

Nobody, I'd say. In fact, during a few of the recent, troubled years at Hernando High, it sometimes seemed as though the place would collapse without him.

So I was sad to hear that he will be leaving at the end of this year — especially because he's not quite ready to go.

Chatman entered the state's Deferred Retirement Option Program five years ago, meaning his mandatory departure rolls around later this spring.

Previously, veteran teachers were often rehired after a short time off. Now, though, there's too little money in school budgets and too much resentment over "double-dippers" who draw both a salary and retirement benefits.

He may continue to coach Hernando Christian Academy girls softball, but he will definitely leave Hernando High, where he earned a place in the Florida Athletic Coaches Association Hall of Fame.

His 1997 cross country team won a state championship; three others placed second, as did his 2000 girls softball squad. He coached a top-rated baseball team that, in 1982, won 30 games, and the 1987 basketball team that won 25.

Dates, scores, the names of former players, their decade-old 5K times — this kind of information flows out of Chatman like he's an open faucet.

But it shuts off when he's asked how he feels about his accomplishments, or even about leaving the school he entered as a jug-eared freshman in 1963.

"I'm sure it will be a little bit of a different feeling," is all I could get him to say.

So, for effusive quotes about Chatman, reporters have always had to turn to his peers or players. There will more of that in the coming months — because he deserves it.

Not all successful coaches do, of course. Some of them win by cutting ethical corners or by promoting a meathead mentality, a jockacracy, where sports is all that matters.

Then there are coaches like Chatman who make you understand that athletics actually belongs in schools. They teach respect and fairness, inspire players to work their hardest. So when kids do win, they learn that it's done through honest effort.

Though I doubt Chatman would ever agree to pose for one, or hold still long enough, I think the guy deserves a statue.

Hernando High coach Ernie Chatman a fixture 03/23/09 [Last modified: Monday, March 23, 2009 7:07pm]
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