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Michigan dances to the beat of Hart

Undersized (5-9) junior has won over teammates and skeptics, run over (and around) opponents and become one of the nation's best tailbacks.

December 31, 2006|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

The first thing Bo Schembechler said to him was: "You're not big enough to play football here."

Mike Hart was a hotshot recruit showing his mother around the Michigan campus when they crossed paths with the legendary former coach.

No handshake or hello. No welcome to college, son.

You're not big enough.

It was the sort of comment -- half-joke, half-challenge -- the late Schembechler was known for. And Hart recalls that day with a laugh that comes from a lifetime of being considered, well, not big enough.

"When you first get somewhere it's always, 'Oh, you're the little guy,' " Hart says. "You just have to prove them all wrong."

Prove them wrong by winning the tailback job as a freshman and leading the Big Ten Conference in rushing. Prove them wrong by coming back from an injury-plagued sophomore season to run for 1,515 yards this fall and finish fifth in the Heisman Trophy balloting.

Those are sizable credentials for a player who stands 5 feet 9 and weighs less than 200 pounds.

"Two inches," he says. "If I was 5-11, there would be no questions. Since I'm 5-9, I'm not supposed to be able to do this?"

When Michigan takes the field Monday in the Rose Bowl, the USC defense will know better than to overlook Hart. Just listen to linebacker Oscar Lua talk about his low center of gravity -- in a good way.

"He won't go down on the first hit," Lua says. "He'll hurt you."

Big Ten opponents have expounded, at length, on Hart's other physical attributes. Thick legs. Extraordinary sense of balance. Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz calls him "one of the best we have seen ... a heck of a football player."

But when Michigan teammates are queried on the subject, they mention something less corporeal. Despite Hart's cheeriness -- it seems he cannot go more than a few words without adding a quick laugh -- they say he is unceasingly determined.

"Size doesn't matter," says offensive tackle Jake Long, who stands almost a foot taller and is 100 pounds heavier. "His heart's big and his drive is big."

Which translates into more than rushing yards.

The last time Hart lost a fumble was in the Big Ten season opener -- of 2004. That makes 749 consecutive touches without a turnover.

And Michigan linemen say if they whiff on a pass rusher or let a blitzing linebacker fly through, Hart will pick him up.

"He'll lower his pads and knock someone down, hit with the best of them," Long says. "I'm sure they're surprised because I've been surprised by some of the blocks he's made."

Hart doesn't make a huge deal of it.

"I'm out there to win games," he says. "If that entails blocking, then I'm going to block my butt off."

Toughness has always been a large part of his repertoire. His left shoulder bears the tattoo of a baby girl, a 2-year-old sister who drowned when he was 10. Hart shrugs.

"That was hard," he says. "But you've got to live, man."

Growing up near Syracuse, N.Y., he played for a small high school -- of course -- with a winning tradition. By the time Hart left Onondaga Central, he had 47 consecutive 100-yard games and 204 touchdowns, both national records.

Still, he might have known that he would get the treatment at Michigan. Former President Gerald Ford, attending a practice during Hart's freshman season, singled him out as "the little back."

Then there was Schembechler, who had been tough on another diminutive tailback, Jamie Morris, two decades earlier.

Morris ranks as the second-leading rusher in Michigan history, yet Schembechler once sidled up to him and grumbled: "The next time I recruit a 5-7 tailback, shoot me."

"With Bo," Morris says, "you were always going to get challenged."

Hart passed the initial test, rushing for 1,455 yards that first season in Ann Arbor, and winning conference freshman-of-the-year honors. But the next fall did not go as well, hamstring and ankle injuries forcing him to miss four games and play hurt in others.

People said he wasn't big enough to be an every-down back. Worse, Michigan limped to a 7-5 record.

None of that sat well with a young man who played every down in high school and lost only one game. Hart wrote "7-5" on his playbook as a constant reminder, reciting those numbers to teammates during off-season workouts.

"Seven and five makes you realize," he says. "We didn't want be that team again."

This fall, the junior felt he had to prove himself all over again. His gaudy statistics include 124 yards at Notre Dame and both of Michigan's touchdowns in a tough victory over Iowa. He accounted for 142 yards and three touchdowns in a loss to top-ranked Ohio State.

"Best back we've faced," Buckeyes defensive tackle Quinn Pitcock said.

Now Hart wants to prove something else.

His first two seasons at Michigan ended with bowl game losses and he knows what people are saying.

The Wolverines can't win the big one.

Standing outside Michigan Stadium on a chilly day before his team left for Pasadena, Hart smiled and said he has learned to handle the doubters.

Which brings up another story about Schembechler. This one happened after Hart joined the team and earned a starting job. The old coach saw him in the weight room.

"What are you doing?" Schembechler growled.

"You're too tough to be in here."

david.wharton@latimes.com

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