Former Michigan running back Mike Hart began his coaching career at Eastern Michigan before moving to Western Michigan this offseason. (John T. Greilick / Detroit News)
Ann Arbor — P.J. Fleck knew Mike Hart long before he hired him.
It was No. 1 Ohio State vs. No. 2 Michigan.
Fleck was a graduate assistant at Ohio State in 2006 and Hart, Michigan’s career leading rusher, was a senior.
The Buckeyes won 42-39, giving Fleck, now Western Michigan’s coach, bragging rights that occasionally he will dip into when the situation warrants.
“Only when (Hart) steps out of line, only when his players make a mistake,” said Fleck, laughing. “But he takes enough being here in Michigan with the little brother comment.”
Hart is 28, his playing days, which included a short stint in the NFL, over. He’s now in the college coaching ranks, first as offensive quality control coach for then-coach Ron English at Eastern Michigan in 2011 before joining Fleck as running backs coach.
His movement through the ranks, though his career is still in its early stages, is proving Hart plans to stay.
“Everyone thought it was a fad or me not being in the NFL anymore,” Hart said. “I always wanted to coach since I was in college because I love football and I’m a people person. It wasn’t a matter of ‘if,’ it was a matter of ‘when.’
“With coaching, timing is everything. I was blessed to be in the situation I was when Ron gave me a job when he did because it’s always about that first job. You’ve got to get hired.”
When Hart played at Michigan, he was known for his toughness, enthusiasm and leadership, not to mention his ability to talk — to the media, opponents and teammates.
He still likes to talk, which probably explains why he’s naturally drawn to recruiting. But his ability to communicate, teach and encourage as he tries to draw the best out of his players is what his work in coaching is all about.
“Mike knows how good a player he was, but he feels he can coach players to be better than he was,” Fleck said.
Hart is learning as he goes, although he feels he’s been shaped by the coaches for whom he played.
He calls former Michigan coach Lloyd Carr “the CEO,” position coach Fred Jackson a “player’s coach,” Colts coaches Tony Dungy and Jim Caldwell as those who possessed “calm demeanors” and English as the one who taught him about passion and leadership.
While Hart believes teaching Xs and Os is important, coaching is about something more personal.
“Great coaches get their players to play for them, and that starts with relationships,” Hart said. “So I think I like to coach more for the relationships than the Xs and Os, if that makes sense. You have to win games, obviously, but if your players play for you, you win games. Good coaches know their players, and their players play for them. That’s what it comes down to.”
Because he is still young and believes in hands-on instruction, Hart often finds himself mixing it up with the players during practice.
“Even at camps, I go one-on-one with the linebackers,” said Hart, laughing. “I’m getting old and I may end up tearing an Achilles sooner or later, so I better stop.
“You’ve got to be energetic and you have to get in and do things. Sometimes pass-blocking drills I have to rough my running backs up sometimes to show them how I want them to get it done. I can still do it, so why not?”
But Hart is now at an age where the younger players on the team aren’t that familiar with his playing days. They might know he will be inducted in the 2014 Greater Syracuse (N.Y.) Sports Hall of Fame for his high school career, and they might know his rushing numbers at Michigan, but that’s pretty much it.
“I don’t think they remember me when I played,” he said. “They know my name. That’s the great thing about the Big Ten Network — the replays. When those games are on TV, I get texts from all my players saying, ‘Coach, you were actually good.’ ”
A lot to learn
It’s that kind of credibility Fleck, 33 and the youngest coach in Division I football, is looking for when he hires assistants. He wants to hire coaches who played the position, and wants men who understand the importance of recruiting.
After an 1-11 season in Fleck’s first season, the Broncos signed the top recruiting class in school history and the best class in the Mid-American Conference. It was ranked 58th nationally.
When running backs coach Charles Huff left after the season, Fleck had to make a hire.
For the last six years, Fleck has kept a list of five coaches for each position group he’d want to hire. While on the recruiting trail the last few years, he kept hearing Hart’s name.
“Players really are drawn to him,” Fleck said. “I had one of the best, if not the best, recruiter/running backs coach in Charles Huff. When he left, he helped me with (Hart). I knew Mike was going to have the running back pedigree. I know he didn’t know everything about coaching yet, but he had the recruiting and the instant credibility.
“When you look at Mike’s career, that’s how I knew he would be OK. You know Mike was always an underdog, not the biggest guy, not the fastest, and that’s the type of player I was. I wanted guys who fit the underdog, chip-on-the-shoulder type.”
Hart knows all about the talk about Michigan fans that he could and should eventually make his way onto the Wolverines staff. He’s not thinking about that. He’s focused on Western Michigan and believes what Fleck does — this is a program on the rise.
“I have so much to learn and so much to do to get to (talking about being a head coach),” Hart said. “If you ask me three years ago, I’d say I want to be a head coach, but when you start coaching, you realize how much you have to learn and how much you have to do.
“I want to be an offensive coordinator before I become a head coach or a special teams coordinator. There’s so many things I have to do before I get to that point. Sometimes you get to that point, and you realize you don’t want to be a head coach. There’s a lot of coaches who don’t want to be head coaches. ... We’ll see.”