The Journal Gazette
Thursday, November 15, 2018 1:00 am

IU coaches' bond just as unwavering now as peers

Ben Portnoy | For The Journal Gazette

BLOOMINGTON – IU offensive coordinator Mike DeBord looks the part of a grizzled coaching veteran.

His goatee is grey and full. Eyeglasses rest comfortably on his nose. He's also often caught with an Indiana football cap nestled loosely on the base of his bald head in a way only a 62-year-old can.

In press conferences, DeBord is to the point – analytical, yet simplistic. Given he's coached at the collegiate level for 36 years so few reporters' questions are new.

“We call him 'Pops,' he's kind of the grandpa in the room,” running backs coach Mike Hart said. “He has so much knowledge, and just the way he handles the room, handles us, the things he teaches it's just awesome.”

Hart is similarly composed at the podium. Though he's just 32, Hart is reserved but direct in his media sessions. He poignantly answers every question.

Monday afternoon, as DeBord left the makeshift stage in the Henke Hall of Champions at Memorial Stadium, he quipped whether he should introduce Hart as the next speaker. The jade was chuckle-worthy at best, a dad-joke if you will, but over a decade since they first came together – Hart as a player under DeBoard then – the link between the two persists just a few hours south from their football glory days.

A Macalester College alum, DeBord got his coaching start at Division III Franklin College. Between 1982 and 1992, the Muncie native spent time at Franklin, Fort Hays State, Eastern Illinois, Colorado State and Northwestern. Then the upper echelon of college football called.

In 1993, DeBord began one of two stints at Michigan. Under the direction of head coach Lloyd Carr, he tutored future NFL stars Brian Griese and Tom Brady. In all, five quarterbacks DeBord has mentored have reached the NFL. It was there he met Hart.

A three-star recruit from Nedrow, New York, Hart wasn't an overtly big or bruising back given his slender 5-foot-10, 175-pound frame.

That aside, the minute tailback committed to play for the Wolverines in July 2003, turning down Miami, Michigan State, West Virginia, Syracuse and Virginia.

At the time, DeBord was in his second run as a Michigan assistant after working as the head coach at Central Michigan for four seasons.

Hart quickly burst onto the scene as a freshman, setting the Michigan rookie rushing record with 1,455 yards in his inaugural campaign.

“When you look at the kind of season Mike Hart had, particularly in view of the fact he just walked in here and had not been a part of our strength and conditioning program, except for a few weeks in the summertime, what he was able to do I think is remarkable,” Carr said at the time.

A four-year starter, Hart went on to set school career marks in carries (1,015) and rushing yards (5,040). His 41 touchdowns rank third in Michigan history.

The final two years of Hart's Michigan career, DeBord was the Wolverines' offensive coordinator. Under his coach's tutelage, Hart finished fifth in the 2006 Heisman voting.

“As a player he was always demanding people around him to play at his level,” DeBord said of Hart. “He demanded excellence out of them all the time. He was a great leader.”

Following the 2007 season, Carr announced his retirement after 28 years. That same offseason, Hart and DeBord moved on to the NFL.

A sixth-round draft pick, Hart spent the next three seasons with the Indianapolis Colts while DeBord worked in varying roles for the Seattle Seahawks and Chicago Bears until 2012.

But after their limited jaunts to the professional ranks, DeBord and Hart came back to the college game.

When IU head coach Tom Allen approached DeBord about the open offensive coordinator role, there was hesitation. After two years guiding the Tennessee offense to record numbers, retirement appeared to be on the horizon. But with a chance to return to his home state, the offer proved worthwhile.

In 2017, Allen referred to DeBord as “a man that I trust, that I know has tremendous high character, tremendous person, and excellent football coach.”

In Hart's case, he had quickly risen through the coaching ranks with stops at Eastern Michigan, Western Michigan and Syracuse over five seasons. As fate would have it, he and his former offensive coordinator would once more cross paths in Bloomington, furthering their mentor-mentee relationship.

“I always tell my players, 'You can be wise with another man's wisdom, but you can't be knowledgeable with another man's knowledge,'” Hart said. “So I just try to get all the wisdom I can from (DeBord).”

Today, Hart commands a running backs room that has plenty of talent. Stevie Scott's 894 yards rank second nationally among freshman tailbacks, and former 4-star recruit Ronnie Walker Jr. has proved a spark plug in relief.

Hart has also been named a semifinalist for the Broyles Award honoring the best assistant coach in America for his work.

“I think first of all it starts with the players I have in the running back room,” Hart said. “Obviously to get nominated for that award started last year and then into this year, just got some great young men that run the ball hard and do what they're supposed to do.”

Saturday afternoon, DeBord, Hart and the Hoosiers head north to take on a No. 4 Michigan team that boasts national title aspirations.

For the coaching pair, it's a homecoming of sorts. It's been over a decade since DeBord left Michigan. Hart was last in Ann Arbor while on the staff at Eastern Michigan in 2011.

That said, neither has thought much of it. In their minds, this week's return to Ann Arbor is just another game.

“Obviously I went there, it's my alma mater, so I care about the place from that standpoint – there's no question,” Hart said. “But on Saturday I want to win.”

Indiana at Michigan

When: 4 p.m. Saturday

Where: Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor, Mich.


Radio: 1250 AM

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