Erv Hatzenbuhler was as blunt as a forearm to the face mask.
In the 1970s and ’80s, he captured the image of small-town football coach at Galt High School, where he was colorful, fuming – lovable later – and by some standards, wildly unorthodox. Hatzenbuhler was so dedicated that he once coached a game after suffering a heart attack during a junior varsity contest.
Hatzenbuhler was once the talk of the town, his archaic single-wing Warriors piling up league championships.
He continues to be. He died in his sleep in his Galt home Thursday morning, his wife of 55 years, Betty, unable to wake him. He was 83.
The coach called “Papa” by his players and “Hatz” by coaching peers will be honored in a memorial Friday night at the field that bears his name.
“What a guy,” said John Williams, a Galt native who played baseball for Hatzenbuhler in the 1970s and covered his teams as sports editor of the Galt Herald throughout the 1980s. “He’s one of those larger-than-life people who cast a great shadow in this town. He did everything: coached, taught classes, was on the school board, went to church.
“And Galt football with Erv was the thing here, known for the single-wing, a novelty that worked. What else was there to do in Galt on a Friday night but go watch Erv’s teams?”
Hatzenbuhler’s entire football life was spent in the 209 area code. A graduate of Lodi High School where as a lineman he learned the single-wing from John Giannoni in the late 1940s, Hatzenbuhler played at Pacific and became Galt’s coach in 1967. He later served as an assistant coach at schools in Lodi and Stockton in the 1990s and 2000s.
Hatzenbuhler’s signature play was the fullback spinner dive, in which the ballcarrier leaps out of a three-point stance to take a direct snap and charges ahead. Hatzenbuhler’s favorite player was his greatest: his son, Mark. A fullback, Mark Hatzenbuhler set regional career rushing records before graduating in 1990 and heading off to Stanford on scholarship.
Erv Hatzenbuhler stepped down in 1989 after 23 years, 150 victories and 10 championships to watch his son play in college. Hatzenbuhler returned to coach Galt’s junior varsity in 1994, posting a 19-1 record over two seasons. He headed the varsity again in 2004 and 2005, bringing the program its last winning seasons.
“I was so lucky to play for my dad,” said Mark Hatzenbuhler, now with the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department. “For years, coaches reached out to Dad to learn about the single-wing. Anyone who talked single-wing or football with Dad, he’d light up.
“I grew up running the sideline with a football, watching my dad break down game film on a projector on the wall in our house, crawling so I wouldn’t get in the way, and he’d go, ‘I see you!’ I knew one day I’d play for him, and I aspired to be something special, to be one of the all-time greats my dad coached.”
Another tale that defined the old coach happened during his son’s junior season in 1988.
Hours before a home game against Lincoln, Erv Hatzenbuhler fumed after someone had swiped 100 helmets. This was a big deal. Galt police issued an all-points bulletin. No helmets meant no game and a forfeit loss. The helmets surfaced, literally, floating in the water under a nearby railroad trestle.
Hatzenbuhler fished them out with his big striper net always stored in the family van. Players hustled to scrub their helmets in the team showers, and the Warriors rolled to a 41-0 win. The great helmet caper, however, remains unsolved.
Hatzenbuhler was molded by the work ethic from his own father, Peter, a carpenter in Lodi. Peter died shortly after Mark was born in 1972 from cancer due mostly to the years he worked in coal mines in North Dakota.
“He died the happiest man because he got to see his grandson,” Hatzenbuhler told me years ago. “There’s been a lot of good times in our family. I’m very proud. I hope that when people think of me years from now, they think of someone who really cared about what he did.”