- Michael Rothstein, ESPN Staff Writer
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ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Mike Hart went on his first date with his future wife and he couldn't shut up. In the middle of the Carlyle Restaurant, back in his college town because a torn ACL took away the second half of his rookie season with the Indianapolis Colts, he went on and on and on in front of this girl about what he wanted to do with his life.
The Michigan grad student whom former teammate Carlos Brown set up with Hart didn't know what to think. Having come from Emory in Atlanta, she didn't know much about big-time college football. She didn't know about the legend of Mike Hart.
So she listened, nodded, but one thing stuck out. Hart didn't talk about
He kept going on about coaching it. Monique Hart nodded. She was interested in the man, not what he did.
"If he would have said I eventually want to be a banker or a teacher it was the same response, like 'OK,'" Monique said. "I didn't realize how big of a deal college football was at the time so I didn't think anything of it."
But she saw the passion. When he started explaining what he did, he quickly brushed off playing in the NFL. Instead, he wanted to talk about coaching in college.
This shouldn't be a surprise. Mike Hart always wanted to coach, from the time he was the captain of his Pop Warner team, the Clay Panthers.
Soon after their first date, Monique started to see the passion in the man who had become her boyfriend start to wane. He didn't like getting up for work in the morning to go and practice with the Colts.
He had always loved football, but now it was starting to go from a game to a job. It was a well-paying job, yes, but this was never what Hart wanted.
Hart wanted to love what he did. So with his contract up, the lockout over and teams telling him they'd call if they had an injury to another running back, Hart quit.
He had another opportunity, anyway.
"The last year and a half, two years, I think it was more or less I was playing for a paycheck," Hart said. "That's why it would have been great to play one more year and save up some more money. But it didn't bother me when I was done.
"It wasn't a surprise. It wasn't like 'Oh man.' It was more like people were trying to talk me out of it, not playing anymore."
Besides, another opportunity was about to come around. Ron English, Michigan's old defensive coordinator and now the head coach at Eastern Michigan, had another coach leave. He loved Hart when he was at Michigan.
So he offered him a job.
Always a coach in him
Monique doesn't remember the date, but remembers the day. Arriving home from grocery shopping in Indianapolis, her husband looked different.
A bag in her hand, she said "Hey."
"He said, 'I just talked to Coach E, and there's a really great opportunity,'" Monique said. "It was right away. I was like, 'OK.'
"...I was more taken aback because he was so excited. He's a very calm person with a very calm demeanor, so just to see him excited I was like, 'Oh, all right.' That was more what shocked me than what he was saying."
The Mike Hart everyone else knew had returned.
His old teammate, Carlos Brown, sensed it, too. Hart sent Brown a text message a week after the NFL lockout ended in July. Brown was in New York, trying out for the Jets. He asked where Hart was.
Hart said Ann Arbor.
"At that point then," Brown said. "I thought he must be done. He said he was with Ron, talking about possibly coaching with him. Once he said that, I said, 'That's a wrap. He's already got his mind made up.'"
His old plan -- the one started in upstate New York -- was back.
Bill Spicer, Hart's high school coach at Onondaga Central in Nedrow, N.Y., just south of Syracuse, remembers the day he met Mike Hart.
Hart showed up in his class the first day of the second semester of Hart's freshman year. Spicer called roll and saw this kid with big eyes and a bigger smile. Asked him if he played football.
"Oh yeah," Hart answered.
Spicer asked the students a few minutes later who wanted to lead stretching. The kid who knew no one in class, barely anyone in school, volunteered before anyone.
The coach knew he had something special. By the time Hart finished his high school career, he set a national high school record for touchdowns (204), led Onondaga Central to three state titles from 2001-03, and accepted a scholarship to Michigan.
Spicer knew Hart would be a coach. Hart had almost been doing it already. During lunch periods, he sat with coaches and dissected tape, breaking down coverages, fronts and deficiencies of opponents.
"There were certain times where I'd be watching film and be watching it for hours and broke the whole thing down, and he'd see something and say something, 'Hey coach, did you see this?'" said Spicer, now an assistant coach at Division III Hamilton College. "Of course it was like, 'Yeah, Mike, I saw that.'
"He was good. He didn't do it in a negative manner, always positive about it. You need kids like that. Sometimes, an extra set of eyes on football film can help you. And it did."
Hart devoured everything coaches and others told him, from Michael Poirier with the Clay Panthers to Spicer to Lloyd Carr and Fred Jackson at Michigan to Tony Dungy, Bill Caldwell and Bill Polian with the Colts.
It led to now.
"When I always listened to them, it was like, 'When I'm a coach, you can say this stuff or this stuff. Or you don't want to say this stuff,'" Hart said. "Some people talk as coaches and I would take it in as, 'Would I use that when I'm a coach one day?'"
Comfortable in the new role
English wanted to make sure Hart knew what he was doing.
He invited him up to Ypsilanti, Mich., for the first few days of Eastern Michigan's fall practices to make sure. Hart would start at the bottom, essentially taking on the role of a graduate assistant with enhanced abilities because English had room for a ninth on-field coach.
The pay was little, Hart saying Monday, "I'm not paying rent from my money, but it's a paying job."
On his first day of his new life at Eastern Michigan, Hart arrived at the office around 7:15 a.m. and didn't leave until 10:30 p.m. He met the coaches and started in on his new job, where he'd work with the running backs during fall camp.
He loved it.
As he left, he called Monique, who was still packing up their house in Indianapolis.
"He sounded tired but so excited," Monique said. "He was telling me about everybody and what he was going to be doing.
"I think that was the day I realized that this is what he should be doing, that this is what he was meant to do because he talked about it so much, but he was exhausted."
English never doubted Hart would stick around. He never knew him to back away from anything when he coached him as a player at Michigan. He watched him become Michigan's all-time leading rusher with 5,040 yards.
The way he worked with younger running backs told him Hart would make a good coach.
He showed it off at Michigan in the running backs meeting room. Sometimes, Hart ran the meetings. When Brown was a freshman, Hart spent time teaching him about cutting and patience when he ran.
He also ran the meetings almost exactly as if Jackson were there.
"At times, I was fairly confident that if Mike Hart was our coach, we would be OK," Brown said.
It is why English wanted him in Ypsilanti. At Michigan, Hart would go to English and break down deficiencies of other players -- just like he did for Spicer.
"After a couple of days he told me he wanted to do it, so I was fine with that," English said. "But I think getting into the profession is a little bit different now. Even these young coaches, it takes 10 or 15 years to learn how to coach. You have to lose, have to make some bad decisions. These young guys want instant gratification."
He has no position to coach daily. When the season started, English moved him from offense to defense because English needed more help over there. Hart didn't mind. He was actually excited about it.
His job is to monitor personnel throughout a game -- he will be in the press box Saturday when he returns to Michigan Stadium as a visitor -- and learn as he goes. He's even contemplating being a linebackers or defensive backs coach.
"I'm 25," Hart said. "The one thing I know is I have a lot to learn, and I want to learn. I still don't know what position I want to coach. I think I want to be a defensive coach. With running backs, I don't want to sound cocky, but running back, it's what I know. It's all I know. So it'd be easy for me to say, 'OK, I'm going to be a running backs coach.'
"I want to challenge myself mentally and learn a different position. Learn how to coach defense."
He is still confident, though. While he's not making predictions or bold statements anymore -- the days of "Little Brother" toward Michigan State or a prediction of a win against Notre Dame are over -- he knows what he wants.
He always has.
Michael Rothstein covers University of Michigan sports for WolverineNation. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @mikerothstein.