KALAMAZOO, Mich. — Michigan’s last great running back wears a brown shirt now. It’s August, and Mike Hart, now 29 years old, is standing under a pocket in the clouds wearing sunglasses and a visor, waiting for Western Michigan’s football practice to start.
The scoreboards in both end zones are counting down the 17 days until Michigan State comes to Kalamazoo. The Broncos will need every minute of preparation to have a chance.
When he was at Michigan, the Spartans were a calendar opponent for Hart because they meant rivalry. But he’s a Bronco, for now, and Michigan State is only meaningful because his new team is looking for the upset.
Practice starts, and after about 20 minutes, Broncos coach P.J. Fleck, the youngest head coach in the nation at 34 years old, blows his whistle.
“BOX!” he shouts, and the players and coaches stop what they’re doing and sprint to the center. The players form a circle — maybe it’s supposed to be a box — around two players. One is in brown and one in gold, and they lock up with pride on the line. It’s offense versus defense. One-on-one. First knee to touch the turf loses.
Sports Illustrated called Fleck’s tenure at Western Michigan “college football’s most fascinating sociology experiment,” and it’s easy to see why. The players in the middle of the circle go through four rounds of these battles, finally ending when Fleck — the third-year coach known for his enthusiasm and unorthodox methods — challenges the defense to defend its title in an all-or-nothing final match. The defense loses, and Hart and the offensive players celebrate by running down the field, jumping up and down.
This process takes about 15 minutes of the two-hour practice. They’re taking a substantial amount of time for an activity that, frankly, seems kind of silly.
Two hours to the east, in Ann Arbor, the Michigan football team is in its figurative submarine, shielded from all publicity. There, the outside world is told, they run as a reward after a four-hour practice. It’s hard to say how similar it is because few are allowed to see inside.
But in Kalamazoo, this part of practice is open to the media. The local CBS affiliate has a camera rolling. Things seem different here.
For Hart, that’s not necessarily so bad.
For much of his football career, Hart has done things the Michigan way. He played for Lloyd Carr at Michigan from 2004 to 2008, and after a three-year stint in the NFL, he coached under former Wolverines defensive coordinator Ron English at Eastern Michigan.
He’s proud of that. He says he loves Carr “to death” and speaks fondly of English, who gave him his first coaching job. But at a certain point, he had to learn to do things differently.
So after three years coaching at Eastern Michigan — the first in charge of offensive quality control, the next two as running backs coach — Hart accepted the same job working for Fleck at Western Michigan before the 2014 season.
At the time, some wondered whether it was a lateral move. But for Hart, who coached the Eagles’ Bronson Hill to a 1,100-yard season in 2013, Western Michigan offered something new.
“All I knew was, kind of, Michigan,” Hart said. “With Coach English, Lloyd — that’s the only way that we did things. And not bad things. But I needed to open my horizons.”
For Fleck, hiring Hart wasn’t a tough choice. Being Michigan’s all-time leading rusher bought him instant credibility with recruits, and Fleck had already been hearing rave reviews about Hart from prospects.
“(They said), ‘Mike Hart, I love Mike Hart.’ That’s what I continued to hear on the recruiting trail,” Fleck said.
Hart was also familiar with Fleck and decided the fit was right. He and his wife Monique packed up their family and moved to Kalamazoo, where Hart inherited a stable of mostly very young running backs.
Among them was Jarvion Franklin, a gifted freshman from Tinley Park, Ill. It became clear that Franklin was going to carry the load, which left Hart with the difficult task of building an 18-year old into a workhorse tailback.
“It’s a good and a bad thing, because whatever they learn, you’re teaching them,” Fleck said of coaching true freshmen. “But the bad thing is, whatever you teach them, they’re learning. So you’ve gotta make sure it’s all the right things you’re teaching them, ‘cause they’re like a sponge year one. There’s nothing like year one.”
Fortunately for Fleck and Franklin, Hart had some firsthand knowledge.
When Hart was a freshman, Michigan’s senior starter, David Underwood, was injured in the second game of the season, against Notre Dame. After that game, the Chicago Tribune published a column titled “Michigan is out of the running,” detailing the Wolverines’ ground-game woes. Hart wasn’t even mentioned as a possible solution.
The next week, Hart burst onto the scene with 121 yards and never looked back. He and his quarterback, fellow freshman Chad Henne, led the team all the way back to the Rose Bowl, where Michigan lost to Texas.
So naturally, when Hart was tasked with preparing another running back to shock the country, he had credibility.
“I was leaning on him a lot,” Franklin said. “He was really our rock.”
All Franklin did last year was rush for 1,551 yards and 24 touchdowns, fourth most in the nation.
On the practice field at Waldo Stadium, Hart is now engrained in the Broncos’ culture, which is defined by Fleck’s many handy philosophies. “Row the Boat” is meant to remind everyone to do their part and stay in unison with the team. “Change your best” is a reminder to constantly improve, and “Elite” has turned into a constant description of all things relating to the team.
Fleck’s mantras are now part of Hart’s routine vernacular. He uses the word “elite” five times in a 13-minute interview, the ideal descriptor of Fleck’s system.
On one play during warmups, freshman running back LeVante Bellamy runs the wrong route. Hart, walking over to him, rhetorically shouts, “What’s the play?” As Bellamy looks on at him, Hart does a paddling motion, shorthand for “Row the Boat.”
He does these things not because “Bronconese” is the only language he speaks anymore, but because in order to add them to his coaching repertoire, he has to master them first.
These philosophies are what Hart will eventually take from his time in Kalamazoo, his foray into unchartered coaching waters.
“He’s really an elite example of what it means to be a Bronco,” Fleck says after practice. “But it stems from his time at Michigan as well.”
Fleck knows a lot about building a program. Someday, Hart wants to emulate his methods, if he ever gets the chance to be a head coach. He’d like that, but not anytime soon. He’s still learning, after all, and the more logical next step for him would be to become an offensive coordinator.
“When he got here, my job is to take him to the next step,” Fleck said. “Develop him to (what) he wants to become, and then wherever he goes from here, or whatever he does after me, he’s gonna take a piece of me too and carry that on. You’re just gaining experience. He doesn’t know everything yet, but you never will.”
That kind of experience is what drew Hart to the Broncos in the first place. Fleck has an infectious personality, and learning how to generate enthusiasm will be one of the most important things Hart can learn from Fleck.
In fact, many of the things he has picked up aren’t so unlike what he’s taken from his Michigan mentors.
The lesson he says he’ll take from Fleck is to “change your best.” He likes its simple meaning that yesterday’s effort isn’t good enough today. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that the phrase he most remembers from Carr is similar: “You either get better or worse every day.”
“I’ll make my own in 10 years,” Hart said. “But there’s something I’ve learned from every (coach), something I’ve loved from every one of them.”
In that way, Hart’s experience isn’t entirely unique. On some level, he’s still aspiring to be the same kind of coach, with the same core values he learned at Michigan. He’s just learning to do it in different ways.
“I’m blessed to be here,” Hart said. “I’m a 10-times better coach than I was. I didn’t realize it at that time — I knew this would be a great place to come because I knew they were going to have success, but I didn’t know how much of a better coach they were going to make me.”
But behind Hart as he says all this is that countdown clock on the scoreboard — a stark reminder that Hart’s next step is not another job switch, but another season.
Sept. 4 came and went, and the Spartans showed up to play. Western Michigan held things closer than expected, but there was no upset in store. Michigan State 37, Western Michigan 24.
The Spartans held Franklin to 23 yards, and Georgia Southern limited him to 58 in the next game. Adjustments were in store for the Broncos.
Fortunately for them, Hart is a film rat. Always has been, probably always will be.
When Hart made the varsity team as a freshman at Onondaga Central High School in Syracuse, New York, coach Bill Spicer didn’t quite know what he was getting. He knew Hart’s talent, but he was still surprised at his knowledge and at his work ethic.
“Every lunch period, he would come down, and him and I would watch film,” Spicer said. “That was from freshman year on. … He would be in my office during lunch period every single day. During the season and offseason, he would probably be in there three or four times a week.
“There were times when I would be breaking the film, like a Saturday afternoon or something, and the guys would come down to lift and then they left. And he would stick around, and we would break down film. And there were times when I would go onto another play and he would be like, ‘Wait a minute coach, go back to that one, I want to check something out.’ ”
Hart has known he wanted to be a coach since at least high school, maybe even a little before it.
And as Spicer recalls, it was unusual having a player who was that plugged in at such a young age.
“As a coach, you’ve gotta let your barriers down a little bit when you’ve got a kid like that,” Spicer said. “He’d come off on the sideline and say, ‘Hey coach, if we run this play I think it’s gonna be wide open.’ … You’ve gotta swallow your pride a little bit. You run the play and the kid’s running for a touchdown because two reasons: No. 1, he would see it. No. 2, because he said it to me, he’s gonna make sure it works.”
Those are habits Hart carries to this day — habits he learned in high school, then honed at Michigan. More importantly, these are habits that will make or break his ability to continue to climb coaching ladders.
When Hart arrived at Michigan, David Underwood — then a senior — remembers being surprised at how well Hart could understand what was happening on film.
“A lot of freshmen come in, (and) they’re watching film, but they don’t know what they’re looking at,” Underwood said. “It’s like glancing at a TV. Yeah, you’re watching TV, but are you actually soaking that information up? Do you know what you’re looking at? He was able to understand and really watch.”
Now, he’s trying to transfer those abilities to his own group of young backs. Franklin said that when the Bronco running backs go in for a film session, they often find Hart already in the room with film rolling.
“He teaches us a lot of life lessons,” Franklin said. “There’s a quote he always says: ‘To be forewarned is to be forearmed.’ I’m always trying to watch film and forewarn myself.”
Perhaps that helps explain why after two below-average performances, Franklin rebounded for 161 yards against Murray State, in the Broncos’ first win of the year last Saturday.
It’s hard not to wonder what the Broncos have in store for their next matchup, another team with which Hart has a past: Ohio State. He doesn’t talk much about Michigan’s rivalries now that he’s at Western Michigan, but the fact remains that he never beat the Buckeyes. He was part of the first class to go four years without beating Ohio State since 1960-1963.
The Buckeyes may not be a rivalry game for Hart’s Broncos, but they do present an opportunity to accomplish one of the few things he never did at Michigan.
Hart laughs when asked whether going to Western Michigan was a lateral move, giving a diplomatic answer about how blessed he is to be there, and how it was good to get out of his comfort zone.
Hart made lateral moves as a player all the time. Many of them eventually turned into touchdowns.
His former coach, Spicer, knows well that Hart didn’t make the move without good reason.
“I think you have many, many moves in coaching,” Spicer said. “You make so many moves that it looks like it might be lateral to the naked eye, but it’s really not. There’s always a rhyme or a reason.”
For Hart, some of those reasons are clear now — learning from Fleck, leaving the nest of the Michigan network — but others may not show up for years.
To understand Hart and where he is on his path, all you have to do is go back to that practice in August, when the offense pulled off a final-round victory over the defense in the box drill.
As the players ran down the field celebrating, Hart was among them, toward the back, pumping his fist in victory. Fleck stayed behind.
Hart is still somewhere between his two careers — the star player and the polished coach. He will learn a little from every stop, and eventually, he’ll have a unique coaching style all his own. At that point, he’ll be the one halting practice, offering all-or-nothing deals to his offense and defense.
But for now, just four years removed from playing, he still has a lot to learn about coaching, and plenty still to accomplish.
This Saturday, he’ll travel to Columbus, where he’ll be in a familiar place in different colors. The odds will be long, far longer than they ever were when Hart was at Michigan.
It’s different at Western Michigan. That’s why he went there.