For the most part, Mike Hart’s football career has known nothing but the big time. He signed with a Michigan team coming off a Rose Bowl appearance. His freshman season ended in Pasadena as well.
As a junior, Michigan was in the national title race until the last day of the regular season when the No. 2 Wolverines lost to No. 1 Ohio State.
After setting Michigan’s career record in rushing yards (5,040) and rushing attempts (1,015), Hart spent three seasons in the NFL with one of those ending in the Super Bowl.
His first season in coaching, though, was a wake-up call. He was a quality control assistant for one of the worst programs in major college football at Eastern Michigan. Five years later, he’s coaching a 1,000-yard running back for one of the top teams in the MAC at Western Michigan.
Hart twice appeared on an Athlon Sports Big Ten cover in 2005 and 2007. We caught up with him during an off week at Western Michigan to talk about his start in coaching and facing rivals Michigan State and Ohio State in the same season again.
When did you figure out that coaching was something wanted to do?
Growing up, football was something I always loved and something I thought I would be able to do. I didn’t know what level I would be able to coach at. Once I got to college, I thought this is really what I want to do. I knew after my freshman or sophomore year that I wanted to be a coach. I knew I was going to be a coach. I just didn’t know how fast or how soon. It wasn’t a matter of if, it was a matter of when. As soon as I got done (in the NFL) I was set up with a job coaching.
Going to Eastern Michigan and starting as a quality control assistant, was that more or less a graduate assistant or a full-time job?
It was a little lower than that (as a full-time assistant). It was the bottom of the totem pole.
You had such a successful college career and I’m sure plenty of connections from Michigan. Eastern Michigan isn’t really a place that launches a ton of careers. What attracted you to starting at that kind of position?
Ron (English, former Michigan defensive coordinator) called and he had a position that was open. He knew what I was thinking about doing. It was during the lockout and I knew the Colts weren’t going to re-sign me. The lockout started in March, and I talked to him in April after spring ball finished up. I told him that if I don’t get picked up I want to get into coaching, and he said he’d hold a spot for me. He said it’s a quality control spot. It doesn’t pay much. It doesn’t pay much at all. I damn near worked for free. The good thing about his quality control job was that you can only have 10 full-time coaches and he had nine on his staff. You can be a quality control coach and actually coach on the field, which was awesome. I saved a lot of money in the NFL, so I wasn’t worried about the pay. First of all, it was the first job I was actually offered. I didn’t look for a bunch, but it was offered and he was going to hold it for me. No. 2, Ron English was a guy I respected. I knew I could learn from him. I knew what he was about it. Obviously, Lloyd (Carr) was a mentor of mine, and he learned under Lloyd. It was a bout building a program. I won a bunch of games in high school. I won a bunch of games at Michigan. I was in a great organization with the Colts. That’s not real life. Coaching is hard. Coaching is tough and you have to learn. I thought a great place to learn would be at Eastern Michigan with Ron English to watch him try to turn around a program. I watched him give everything he had.
What were your responsibilities as a quality control coach?
When you’re at those type of programs, you don’t have 10 people doing that job. You’ve got to do everything. I made coffee. Luckily, right at the end of the year, I got bumped up to full-time. But it was, Mike, you’re in charge of admissions, in charge of dorm rooms, in charge of APR, in charge of this and that, you’ve got to put the kids’ study table together. I had to do so much where if you’re at another program there’s 15 people doing each of those things. When you talk about working from the bottom up and learning at the ground level, I couldn’t have started at a lower position and had more responsibilities. I think you earn a greater respect for the coaching profession and for the people who work for you and with you.
Did any of that catch you by surprise, or did you know you were getting into a place that had so few resources?
When I became a position coach and he gave me those responsibilities, it was because he trusted me. That was a great sign of respect in my opinion and I’m so grateful for it. I have learned so much because it was my job. I had to set everything up myself and report back to him, and I wasn’t going to report to him with bad information. It was one of the greatest learning experiences of my life.
How did you first get connected with P.J. Fleck and the Western Michigan program?
P.J. got there my last year at Eastern. I was still coaching at Eastern when he called me. Coach English got fired and they kept me on staff. We had recruited against each other when I was at Eastern. When P.J. first got the job and (Western Michigan defensive line) coach (Vinson) Reynolds was in Detroit, we bumped into each other at three schools. He saw that I would recruit, and he had good things to say about me, and he’s a guy I can say is a friend now. It was initially that. P.J. called me and offered me the job and I saw the way he was building Western Michigan and how he was recruiting. I saw it as a great opportunity to learn again. I was so engraved in the Michigan way. His style is a lot different from a practice standpoint, from playing music. It’s just different. There’s no right or wrong way to do things, but I think that the more you can learn, the better.
With the success Western Michigan has had the last few years, people are getting to know P.J. Fleck and the way he does things differently. What is it like to be an assistant for him?
He’s going to push you every day. He brings intensity to everything he does, and he expects you to bring intensity in everything you do. The way he runs his program is awesome. He’s a visionary. He gets things done. You see all the stuff he’s done at Western Michigan when everyone told him he couldn’t do it. It’s don’t take no for an answer. Find a way. It’s Xs and Os and teaching. What he teaches these kids about life and football… He forces you to look in the mirror and say, how am I going to teach this?
You’re not too far removed from your college playing career. Do guys you’re recruiting or coaching know or remember you as a Michigan player?
I’ve got a couple more years left. It’s a little less every year. When I started coaching four years ago, all the seniors knew who I was. I think I’ve got one or two more years before none of the kids know who I am. It’ll be all Denard Robinson and no Mike Hart.
That’s got to be humbling.
I tell people everything comes to an end at one point. I tell kids and my players, people are only going to ask for your autograph for so long. That’s life. You get old and people move on.
This season, Western Michigan’s non-conference schedule has been pretty interesting with Michigan State and Ohio State. Do those games still mean anything to you?
No matter who you are or what you do in life, I think that you’re alma mater is always going to be part of who you are. I don’t care who it is. Going against those teams, it’s Michigan State and Ohio State. You don’t like them. It’s how you’re born and bred when you go to Michigan. That’s just who you are and who you become. That doesn’t ever leave you. Michigan made me who I am at the end of the day. It’s different. They’re a lot nicer to you when you’re not wearing maize and blue. Going into the Horseshoe last week, the last time I was there was when we played No. 1 vs. No. 2. Bo (Schembechler) died the day before. That flashes back. It was one of the best games in college football history, and I was in it. Same thing when we played Michigan State. You remember those things. But I live in Michigan. I recruit in Michigan. Every high school I go to has Michigan State fans and Ohio State fans. They remind me. Trust me.