He arrived in Bloomington around midday last Thursday. Hours later, Mike Hart held the keys to the running backs room inside Indiana’s North End Zone complex.
Across recent years, a new standard of excellence has been set in Indiana’s backfield as All-Big Ten rushers Tevin Coleman, Jordan Howard and Devine Redding raced toward the record books and into Hoosier lore. Mere days into his new job as IU’s running backs coach, Hart is focused on seeing that the standard set in previous seasons continues under his watch.
“There’s definitely a tradition of excellence in the running back room here and it’s just something I want to help continue,” Hart said Tuesday after IU’s first padded practice of the spring. “Definitely, it’s a mindset within that running back room that they know they have to perform because everyone looks at the running backs at IU now.”
Hart would know what it’s like to be on top of the pedestal. He used to be the man under such a spotlight.
During an illustrious playing career at Michigan, where he set school records for carries (1,015) and total yards (5,040), Hart placed a stamp on one of the best rushing resumes in Big Ten history.
He finished fifth in the 2006 Heisman Trophy voting, scored 41 touchdowns as a four-year starter from 2004 through 2007 and ranked fourth in Big Ten history in career attempts and fifth in career rushing yardage.
Hart did much of that work under the guidance of former Michigan offensive coordinator Mike DeBord, who now occupies the same role on Tom Allen’s staff at Indiana. DeBord was Hart’s offensive coach during his junior and senior seasons, helping him jump from Michigan toward a three-year run as a running back with the Indianapolis Colts.
After his injury-riddled playing career ended, Hart knew he wanted to coach. He had a job waiting for him as an offensive quality control assistant at Eastern Michigan in 2011.
Since then, Hart has enjoyed a rapid rise through the coaching ranks, where he’s gone from Eastern Michigan to Western Michigan to Syracuse and, now, to Indiana, where he’s looking forward to reconnecting with DeBord and quarterbacks coach Nick Sheridan, his former teammate at Michigan.
“It’s different. (DeBord) doesn’t yell at me anymore,” Hart said with a smile. “It’s awesome. Just the wealth of experience he has, the knowledge he has and all the types of offense he’s run in the past, it’s really exciting because he’s worked for some great head coaches and just learning from them is the best part.”
For his part, the 30-year-old Hart is already developing a nice resume as a college assistant.
Through six seasons on the sidelines, Hart has guided three 1,000-yard rushers, two Mid-American Conference Freshman of the Year recipients and the 2014 MAC Offensive Player of the Year in Western Michigan’s Jarvion Franklin.
In Hart’s lone season last year at Syracuse, the Orange rushing attack ranked No. 115 nationally while averaging 119.6 yards per game. It wasn’t a great year for Syracuse on the ground, though many of those struggles seem attributed to a banged up and porous offensive line.
At IU, Hart inherits a versatile and talented group, which will be looking for a new face of the position in the wake of Redding’s early departure for the NFL following his second consecutive 1,000-yard season.
Should he make the successful transition from receiver, Camion Patrick — who former coach Kevin Wilson famously called the best football player in IU’s program — should challenge for a bulk of the carries, with Devonte Williams, Mike Majette, Tyler Natee, Cole Gest and Ricky Brookins also battling for reps.
“Everyone gets a fair shot,” Hart said. “I don’t know any of them, I didn’t watch any of them play, I didn’t watch any film from last year. They are all getting the same amount of reps and whoever wins the spot is going to win it. They all have a fair shot right now.”
Hart says accountability — both on and off the field — is his central coaching tenet, and as he familiarizes himself with his new team and players, it’s a theme he will lean on early and often.
“It’s a good group. It’s a young group,” Hart said. “We have a lot of talented guys, a lot of guys in the rotation right now. First day of pads was (Tuesday), so I can’t tell you who’s where or anything like that, but it’s definitely a competitive group and it’s going to be fun going into fall camp.”