When news got out that running backs coach Deland McCullough was leaving IU for USC back in February, Hoosier head coach Tom Allen walked into offensive coordinator Mike DeBord’s office with a question.
“Who do you want?” Allen asked.
DeBord already had his man in mind: Mike Hart.
Within two weeks, his hire became official and a new era of Indiana running backs began.
“I know what he’s all about as a person and as a coach,” DeBord said. “I’ve watched his coaching as he’s continued to grow in the business. He’s done a great job stepping in. He’s added a lot in our offensive staff room, some things he’s done in the past. So he’s added a few wrinkles from that. I love him. He’s been a great fit in our staff room.”
Hart, 30, came to Indiana after spending time at Eastern Michigan, Western Michigan and Syracuse. He got into coaching after a standout career at Michigan, where he played under DeBord’s guidance, and three seasons in the NFL with the Indianapolis Colts.
IU’s current running backs were a bit lost when Hart’s hire became official given his relative freshness to the coaching world. When the news broke, redshirt junior Ricky Brookins said he immediately turned to Google to learn as much as he could about Hart.
His fellow running backs were doing the same. Before long, they sharing clips of Hart making runs as a Wolverine and a Colt in their group chat and analyzing what type of rusher they were about to get joined by.
“You can just tell he knows what he’s doing from experience,” Brookins said. “Coach McCullough did as well, but Coach Hart had just recently done it. He knows what he’s talking about. You can tell.”
Replacing McCullough—who advertised IU as “Running Back University” thanks to producing Stephen Houston, Tevin Coleman, Jordan Howard, and Devine Redding in consecutive seasons—is no easy task. Hart knows that.
McCullough was well-liked in the running back room, and the players were open in saying they’re going to miss him. Hart said he doesn’t want the Hoosiers to forget their recent success under McCullough’s guidance and is instead telling them to embrace what they’ve already established in their position group.
He just wants to add to the next chapter.
“There’s no question Deland’s had some great running backs here in the past,” Hart said. “Obviously two guys are starting in the NFL this year and another guy is possibly going to get drafted this year. There’s definitely a tradition of excellence in the running back room here. It’s just something I want to help continue.”
Hart ran for 5,040 yards and 41 touchdowns over four seasons at Michigan. He finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting as a junior in 2006 thanks to a 1,562-yard, 14 touchdown season.
In three seasons with the Colts, Hart rushed for 264 yards and two touchdowns. He said he didn’t want to keep grinding in the NFL longer than his body wanted him to, so he retired and happily took a coaching job with Eastern Michigan that was waiting for him.
When the opportunity to reunited with DeBord came up, Hart couldn’t pass. He said he’s kept an open mind from the beginning in analyzing his stable of backs made up of Brookins, redshirt senior Camion Patrick, redshirt junior Alex Rodriguez, junior Mike Majette, redshirt sophomore Devonte Williams, sophomore Tyler Nattee and redshirt freshmen Cole Gest and Connor Thomas.
“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 on them from last year. They’re all getting the same amount of reps. Whoever wants the spot is going to win it because they all have a fair shot right now.”
Majette said Hart immediately began connecting with his new players when he held his first meeting, joking with them at first and then having a serious discussion about what they want out of the 2017 season.
One by one, the players went around the room and talked about themselves, their goals. Hart did the same.
“Every day you learn something new about him,” Majette said, “and he learns something new about us.”
Hart said he will base his program around accountability and toughness. Those two things, he said, will make a running back successful.
And he would know.
“There aren’t many guys who have a background like Coach Hart,” Majette said. “I think we’re going to do really well with him.”
• Subscribe to our podcast on iTunes
• Follow us on Twitter: @IndianaRivals
• Like us on Facebook.