Sunday, March 18, 2018

Ernie Chatman, a legendary Hernando County coach and runner, dies

BROOKSVILLE — One of Hernando County's greatest institutions wasn't stationary. Unlike Weeki Wachee Springs, Brooksville's Coney Island Drive-Inn or Tom Varn Park, Ernie Chatman never was embedded in a singular spot.

This local fixture — teacher, coach, mentor, umpire — got around, typically at a pace that belied his birth certificate.

Every day, humidity or freeze warnings be darned, the married dad of three and grandfather of six churned out one mile after another, usually in preparation for an upcoming marathon. For 8,814 consecutive days — a stretch of more than 24 years — Mr. Chatman ran at least one mile (and typically several more).

With nary a sliver of body fat even in his mid 60s, some pegged Mr. Chatman for ultimate centenarian status. Fate, however, had other plans.

Today, a community grieves as a result.

"He was an institution," former Brooksville mayor Lara Bradburn said.

Mr. Chatman, a Hernando High alumnus whose uncanny coaching success spanned several Leopards sports and decades, died Sunday of an apparent heart attack at his Brooksville home. Chatman's daughter, Erin Sullivan, said her father died shortly after — what else — going for a run Sunday evening.

His wife, Linda, who had been out walking, found him in the shower with his running clothes and shoes nearby, Sullivan said. Mr. Chatman was 66.

"His heart just stopped," Sullivan said. "It's such a cliche, but he truly died doing what he loved."

Though he had broken his streak of running every day last year, complaining of a lack of energy and an abnormally low heartbeat, he had seemed to be feeling better lately, said Sullivan, who lives two blocks from her family home.

Even when he was supposed to be just out walking, she said, she'd watch from her house as he broke into a jog.

"He just couldn't help himself," she said.

Though in recent years he was best known for his marathons and his running streak, he probably made a far bigger impact as a coach and teacher. Bradburn, 53, remembered Mr. Chatman as a demanding physical education teacher.

"He instilled discipline in thousands of kids over the years," she said. "When you think of a disciplinarian, you think of a whip, but that's not how he did it.''

A member of at least two sports halls of fame, Mr. Chatman coached football, baseball, softball, basketball, track and cross country in a 42-year career, most of it at his alma mater. Success accompanied him to each sport.

"He had the ability to identify talent and be able to communicate it," said Hernando baseball coach Tim Sims, himself a Chatman disciple.

"Whether you wanted to listen to him or not, he had the ability to reach you and communicate with you. He was gonna figure out a way to communicate with you to make you realize you had that talent."

Mr. Chatman led the Leopards boys cross country team to a state title in 1997; directed the softball team to the 2000 and '01 state tournaments; and coached the '93 baseball team to a 30-5 season, tying a school single-season wins record.

He coached Saint Leo's baseball team for one season (leading it to a program-record 46 wins in 1984) and guided the Hernando Christian Academy softball team to consecutive Class 1A state tournament berths in 2009-10.

"Ernie had the 'it' factor," said former Hernando football coach/athletic director John Palmer, a 1983 HHS graduate.

"I think whatever he did he was successful with it. Certainly I think his work ethic played a large part. He was a grinder. I don't know how else to say it, because he'd do the things nobody else wanted to do to be great."

Tim Jinkens, a former owner of Brooksville's Red Mule Pub, played junior varsity football for Mr. Chatman; though distance running, softball and baseball seemed to be his specialties.

A number of his baseball players went on to professional careers, and his former runners include University of Florida assistant track/cross country coach Jody Spangler.

"You expected to win every game," said Jinkens, who played varsity baseball for Mr. Chatman in the 1970s.

"You dang sure knew you were going to work hard and the beginning of the year you wondered, 'Why do we have to do this drill one more time?' But at the end of the year, when you made the plays you needed to make, you were saying, 'That's the reason we did it.' "

Sims called Mr. Chatman "arguably the most successful (coach), period, in central Florida." Spangler, a 1993 HHS alumnus and the Leopards' top cross country runner three consecutive years, said Mr. Chatman possessed that "old-school mentality."

"He demanded the best out of his runners. He expected you to work hard," said Spangler, who recalled Leopards training runs starting and ending at the Chatman home.

"He was a very no-nonsense type of guy. … The people that wanted to work hard, to make the sacrifices to be great, he got the most out of those people."

Including himself. When he ended his running streak last September, Mr. Chatman had run marathons in all 50 states. Two minutes faster at a Hawaii marathon in 2006, and he'd have done a marathon in under four hours in every state.

Though Mr. Chatman had said he ran partly to avoid the fate of his parents, who both died young, he also said he did it mainly for the pleasure it brought him. That was obvious to anyone who witnessed the common sight of him running the streets of Brooksville, Jinkens said.

"You could just tell that's what made him happiest," he said.

Contact Dan DeWitt at [email protected]. Follow @ddewitttimes. Contact Joey Knight at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

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