Returning to Michigan football was tough for Mike Hart, but 'this is home'

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Orion Sang, Detroit Free Press
·5 min read
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Mike Hart was comfortable at Indiana.

He was in a "great situation" after four seasons as the Hoosiers' running backs coach, all while Indiana enjoyed one of its best seasons in program history in 2020.

Then he got a call from Jim Harbaugh. Michigan football's head coach wanted Hart, the Wolverines' all-time leading rusher, to return to Ann Arbor as the running backs coach.

“It was one of those things when he called, I knew what we had," Hart said on the "In the Trenches" podcast with Jon Jansen. "It wasn’t just a, ‘Yes, let’s come,’ but it was a ‘Yes, let’s come,’ if that makes sense. It’s just hard when you leave your guys. That’s the biggest thing. It was one of those things where it was just tough."

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As hard as the decision was, though, Hart couldn't pass up the opportunity to coach for his alma mater.

"Obviously, this is home," Hart said. "This is obviously where I want to be for a long time. I’m just excited to be here and excited to get to work with these guys, because there’s a lot of talent on this team. I’m just really looking forward to spring ball and being back in the office and getting around the players. Getting this thing back on track.”

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A lot has changed since Hart left after the 2007 season: There have been significant upgrades to the football facilities07. And Hart hasn't had much of a chance to get settled in, either; shortly after his arrival, the the athletic department instituted a two-week shutdown due to an outbreak of the B.1.1.7 variant.

“It’s been interesting," Hart said. "First day here, the mid-years came in. Had a chance to meet those guys. I knew a few of them already just through the recruiting process and obviously recruiting the state of Michigan for a while now, so kinda saw those guys grow up from their freshman to senior years. Knew a few of them. Got to meet those guys, which was fun, spent a week in the office and then we’ve been in this two-week shutdown now. So it’s been a little different. A lot of Zooms again. But it’s been great. Excited to be back.”

During his appearance on the podcast, Hart discussed his journey as a coach and philosophy as a recruiter. He believes he has learned something from every head coach he has worked with in his career, ranging from former Michigan defensive coordinator Ron English at Eastern Michigan, P.J. Fleck at Western Michigan, Dino Babers at Syracuse and Tom Allen at Indiana. He says he picked up lessons from those he played for, too, like Lloyd Carr, Tony Dungy and Jim Caldwell.

For Hart, his coaching style revolves around relationships — especially on the recruiting trail.

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"When you get the right kids, that’s how you win," Hart said. "Kids that believe in the program, kids that believe in the vision of the program. Hard workers. Nothing can replace hard work, I don’t care how many stars you have. I think that’s one thing — you recruit running backs that want to work hard. But the number one thing is talent. If they don’t have the talent, you can’t recruit them no matter how hard they work.

"But it’s all those things you have to figure out about a kid and what makes them go. Does he really love ball? Is he going to care about academics? Is he unselfish? And those are the kinds of things you’ve got to dig in, and when you build relationships in the recruiting process, I think great recruiters build great relationships, and you can talk to kids and families about anything. It’s not just fluff.”

Hart hasn't had much time to build those relationships on the recruiting trail for U-M. And the connections he has made have been virtual, as the NCAA is still in the midst of a dead period due to the pandemic. But his recruiting isn't just limited to high school prospects. He's working on getting to know his current players.

It's all part of the process of settling into a new job.

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"I’ve found it’s not easy when a new guy comes into the room and changes things," Hart said. "So I’ve had a chance to meet with most of them, not every one of them, Hassan (Haskins), Blake (Corum), I’ve known him since he was younger, known Donovan (Edwards) since he was younger, Tavierre (Dunlap). The big thing is that you’ve just got to recruit those guys. They’re my guys, they’re our guys, and get them to believe in what we’re doing.

"You meet with guys for the first time, you really want to meet in person. We can’t do that right now because of the situation. Just trying to get to know them as much as we can through text message. It’s just been a little different. Here for a week, they were just getting back for their first week. Luckily, I’ve been able to meet some of them. But I’m just really looking forward to spending time with those guys and just find a way to get everybody better. Everybody can get better. That’s my goal.”

Contact Orion Sang at osang@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @orion_sang. Read more on the Michigan Wolverines and sign up for our Wolverines newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: After returning to Michigan football, Mike Hart settles into new job