Derek Hart has been consumed by a shadow all his life.
The son of living legend John Hart, who has compiled 294 wins and two state titles in Indiana, and another 145 wins in Illinois, Derek has enjoyed a fruitful start to his own coaching career, with three of his four coaching seasons coming as an assistant for his father.
But now, the 27-year old Derek has stepped out of his father’s shadow and will look to build a program of his own at Kankakee, where he was hired in January.
“I’ve had a lot of fun — I live right by the school so I’m here all the time,” Hart said of his first seven months on the job. “I brought (assistant coach Ed) Hazelett with me from Indiana, he lives with me and we both love it.”
Hart replaced Omar Grant, a 1997 Kankakee graduate, after Grant spent four seasons at the helm. Hart knew when he was hired that there was the possibility that some of his new players may have longed for Grant, who is renowned for his ability to connect with kids, but so far, there hasn’t been much issue in taking the reigns.
“They’ve been pretty open,” Hart said of his team. “The kids love coach Grant and he’s a Kankakee guy, a player’s guy.
“There will always be people that attach with that, but it’s been good.”
Junior quarterback Tyjuane Stewart said it didn’t take long for him and his teammates to see that their new coach is the real deal.
“I had to put my trust into him, see what he was about and see if he was really what he was saying (he was),” Stewart said. “It’s been going (well), he’s showing me everything and I can trust him. He’s always listening to what we have to say.”
Less than a decade removed from his own high school graduation from Warren Central in Indianapolis, where he won a state championship as the team’s quarterback in 2009, Hart hasn’t had much experience as a coach, but has made the most of his short time.
He spent a year as the head coach of Edwards County in Albion, where he went 1-8 in 2015-16. But after that, Hart joined his father’s staff at Brownsburg High School in Brownsburg, Ind., where the Bulldogs went a combined 26-6.
Hart said he hopes to bring his high-powered, space-centric offense, along with his coaching pedigree, to the Kays.
“Coming from Brownsburg, we were very successful offensively, sent a lot of guys to the (NCAA) Division I level,” Hart said. “That’s appealing in a young guy — the little experience I’ve had has been wealthy.”
Aside from Stewart, another key returner that figures to see his stock rise in Hart’s high-scoring scheme is running back Mattias Clark, the Kays’ leading rusher a season ago.
But for Clark, personal stats don’t matter as long as Hart and the Kays can add a few more tallies in the W column and make the IHSA State Playoffs. And in a spread system predicated on spacing and taking advantage of several playmakers on the edge, Clark might not see the high carry totals he was accustomed to a season ago.
“I look forward to my team being utilized more, even if that means me not being under the spotlight as much,” Clark said. “But I hope to do as (well) as last year and even multiply that.”
Hart isn’t the only new face on the coaching staff, as only assistant coach Sam Jordan, a 2005 Kankakee graduate, returns from last year’s staff. Hazelett, Brien Miller, Calvin Works, a 2006 Momence graduate and Kendrick Crite, a 2006 Bishop McNamara graduate, make up the new stable of coaches.
“It’s cool being around a staff with a lot of young guys on it with innovative ideas and guys just ready to get after it,” Crite said. “It’s good just watching them click with the kids.”
Hart, Stewart and Clark all said that guiding the Kays to their first playoff appearance since 2016 is the program’s main objective this season.
And for Hart, that means leadership from some of his returning players — such as Clark, Stewart, Pat Allen and Geordan Adams — is vital this year.
“It’s very important — what they do on the field is big, but that leadership piece is even more important,” Hart said. “What we’ve seen so far with the kids that have played is that leadership.”
One of the handful of stops the elder Hart has made in his career was in the Chicago suburb of Huntley, where the Red Raiders became known during his tenure for wearing the word, “Legacy” on their nameplates.
Aside from his father’s success, Derek has also seen older brother, Nick, become quite a football coach himself. The trio all held various roles in two state titles — a 2007 championship at Reitz High School in Evansville, Ind. where John was head coach, Nick was offensive coordinator and Derek was the quarterback, the same roles they each held on the aforementioned 2009 title team at Warren Central.
But when the Kays take the field at Thornton in six weeks, Derek will not only step onto the field as the Kays’ coach, but will also step into his own legacy.
“Obviously my dad and brother have both been successful coaches — my dad will probably end up in the Illinois and Indiana hall of fames, so that’s big,” Hart said. “I’ve learned a lot from both him and my brother, so it’s nice to get on my own and see what I can do as well.”