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For the first time in 50 years, spring football begins without Randy Hart

Randy Hart played for Woody Hayes and worked for Hayes and three other Hall of Fame coaches in his 46 years as an assistant. Jason O. Watson/USA TODAY Sports

STANFORD, Calif. -- Every i was dotted and every t was crossed, just they had been under Randy Hart's watch for 46 seasons.

Desk so clean you could eat off it? Check. Stanford defensive line in good shape? Check. Honest talent assessment? Check.

This time, he was evaluating himself, not his players. That's why he resigned last month as the Cardinal defensive line coach, left the game that has been his life since that November day in suburban Cleveland in 1965 when Woody Hayes made a recruiting visit to his house. Not just any November day -- Thanksgiving Day. With 45 minutes' warning. When the Harts had 28 people at their holiday table.

"That place was cleaned up," Hart said, "Twenty-eight people were grabbing their stuff and running out the door eating turkey wings. Woody Hayes is coming!"

Stanford will be without Hart for the first time in six years. This is a big loss for the Cardinal, which in those six years won 66 games and went to five New Year's Six bowls, three of them Rose Bowls. But that's not nearly as big a loss as the one suffered by college football, which is without Hart for the first time in 50 years.

Fifty years. Half a century. More than a third of the history of the entire sport.

Hart arrived at Ohio State as a freshman lineman in 1966, the year Joe Paterno became a head coach. When Hart graduated in 1970, Hayes made him a graduate assistant. Hart never wanted for a job again. Hart worked for only seven schools in 46 seasons. Four of his bosses are in the College Football Hall of Fame: Hayes, Earle Bruce, Jim Young and Don James. Hart participated in 10 Rose Bowls -- one as a player, nine as an assistant -- the second most in the history of the Granddaddy of Them All.

It is an accomplishment obscured by the anonymity of assistant coaching. Most athletic halls of fame don't recognize assistants -- historical snobbery on a grand scale. But if ever a coach should make the College Football HOF rethink its policy, it's Hart.

Hart could always see talent more clearly than other coaches. That's how, early in his 21-season tenure at Washington, he ended up with a two-star recruit named Steve Emtman. Hart turned him into the first player selected in the 1992 NFL Draft. At Stanford, he developed walk-on David Parry into the Colts' fifth-round pick last year. Parry started every game.

Hart loved the guys that Bear Bryant said had no talent and didn't know it. Hart pushed and pushed. That's why he never strayed from Saturdays.

"My style is not good for the NFL," he said. "I'd be locked in a locker. They'd kill me."

Five years ago, the late Chester McGlockton, the 12-year NFL defensive lineman, had just started an apprenticeship at Stanford when he died at age 42. Hart recalled how McGlockton watched him grind his defensive linemen, wearing them down and then demanding more.

"If I was playing for you, we'd have fought," McGlockton said.

"If you were playing for me, you'd still fricking be playing," Hart replied.

He laughs a lot. Hart's lack of narcissism in this Instagram world reflects his age, as do his expressions. He may have been the last coach in college football still saying, "Golly Ned!"

Hart summed up his coaching philosophy in a way that every athlete who ever had a demanding coach could understand.

"They play good, I'm going to rip their ass," Hart said. "They don't play good, I'm going to try to pump them up."

That strategy really worked well at Stanford, a campus that attracts students who demand a lot of themselves. Hart used to tease his players about their intellect.

"You're doing calculus, statistics," Hart would tell them. "You're over on the main part of campus solving world problems. And you can't find the A, B or C gap."

Or this:

"Men, understand one thing. We're not gonna argue who's going to have the lowest SAT in this building. Some day you're going to work for somebody without quite that test score that you've got. So it's a lesson in humility how to handle them. I'm in charge. You're working for me."

Last season, even as Stanford won its third Pac-12 championship in four seasons, Hart's eye for talent landed on someone whose effort didn't measure up to Hart's standards. Hart saw himself slipping.

"That's what you live by," he said. "I don't wear a beard. I've still got to shave every morning."

No one noticed. In fact, from the outside looking in, last season was one of Hart's best as a coach. Graduation and injuries left the Cardinal with four defensive linemen for most of the year. Tackle Aziz Shittu still made All-Pac-12.

"I've never not wanted to go on the practice field," Hart said. "And all of a sudden, that starts to get to be work."

When Stanford beat Notre Dame with a 45-yard field goal as time expired and sheer delirium erupted on the Cardinal sideline, Hart said he wasn't two steps onto the field before he thought, "Oh God, we got the championship game next week."

Hart retired because he read the actuarial tables. He really did.

"When you see, '68 years old,' and 'you've got 12.6 years to live,' there's a little bit of finality to that!" Hart said. "It's not good!"

He retired because he asked Earle Bruce, his lifelong mentor, for advice. Bruce, his position coach under Hayes at Ohio State, gave him his first full-time assistant job at Tampa in 1972. The $8,000 salary was $5,000 more than he had been getting from Hayes as a graduate assistant.

Bruce lost his wife five years ago. He told Hart, "I tell you what I'd do, if you could financially do it. You get out of it this year and you spend time with Linda. You spend time with your wife."

Hart can barely choke that story out.

He retired because of the 3:45 a.m. wake-up calls. Stanford must recruit nationally, because that's what it takes to find 25 talented guys with the grades necessary to gain admission. The defensive linemen that Hart brought in this year are from Fort Worth, Tampa, Indiana and Austria via suburban Chicago.

"Schools are open from 7 to 3, so you never travel then," Hart said. "There are no flights after the home visit, so that means you're going to fly early in the morning to get where you're going, which means a 6 [a.m.] flight. Which means a 3:45 get-up."

And he retired because he has four grandchildren under three years old in Seattle. He didn't see his two boys grow up.

"You haven't done anything in your life except work with somebody else's kids," Hart said. He listens to how that sounds. "Which is not a complaint. It's a lovely thing."

The feeling is mutual. When Hart retired, former Stanford defensive lineman Ben Gardner, another walk-on that Hart developed into an All-Pac-12 lineman, posted his love on Facebook.

"Coach Hart believed in me when nobody else did," Gardner wrote. "He gave me a shot as a 3-4 defensive end after a rocky freshman year, despite being 40 pounds undersized. He never let me use it as an excuse, coaching me as if I was just as big and strong as the next guy. Four years and countless grueling Randy Hart practices later, I was a three-time all-conference player, team captain and NFL draft pick. Coach Hart saw it well before I did and never let me sell myself short."

A Stanford player who never got the chance to play for Hart, 2016 signee Bo Peek, felt the same way.

"I will take everything you have taught me thus far and run with it," Peek wrote on Twitter. "I'll make you proud at Stanford."

The last time a college football season began without Randy Hart, the number-one single on the Billboard charts was "Help!," by the Beatles. The sport survived the loss of Knute Rockne, the Wing-T and Keith Jackson. It will survive the loss of one assistant coach.

But for all the attention that the Barry Switzers and Bobby Bowdens receive, the bedrock of the sport is men like Hart, who devoted their careers and sacrificed their family life to teach the young men in their charge.

Hart could no longer make that sacrifice. He and Linda have already returned to Seattle and to their grandchildren.

"They're not going to ever see me with a whistle," he said. "... I mean, who's going to have it better than me?"

Not college football.