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Chris Hart Named 2021 Baseball America Assistant Coach of the Year

When Chris Hart was hired to join the North Carolina State coaching staff as the director of baseball operations prior to the 2005 season, he had earned what he considers to be the equivalent of a master’s degree in baseball by playing for four years under legendary coach Mike Martin at Florida State. But in terms of actual coaching experience, he didn’t have much on his resume.

He had just one season of experience, spent as an assistant at St. Petersburg (Fla.) College, as a matter of fact. And at the time, he assumed his time with the Wolfpack was just a stopover on his way to other things.

“I remember driving up here, not knowing one person in Raleigh, and honestly probably at that point in time, I felt like I’d come up here and work for a few years and eventually move back home,” Hart said.

NC State head coach Elliott Avent made the hire in part thanks to the recommendation of Eddie Biedenbach, a former NC State basketball letterman who also had two stints at the school as an assistant coach before becoming the long-time head basketball coach at UNC-Asheville.

Biedenbach was a friend of the Hart family—Hart’s grandfather, father and brother have all been career athletic administrators—and he was confident that the young coach was just what Avent was looking for.

“(Biedenbach) said ‘Hey, I’m not asking you for any favors. I’m not saying hire him. I’m just saying I want you to interview him,’ ” Avent recalled. “I’ll never forget this. Then Eddie’s great words were ‘But when you hire him…In other words, I’m not telling you to hire him, but when you hire him, you’re going to have one of the best people working for you.”

Hart has now been at NC State for 17 years, and everyone involved has been better for it.

Since Hart arrived, the Wolfpack have been one of the most consistent programs in the country. They’ve missed the postseason just twice, they’ve been to super regionals four times and to the College World Series twice, in 2013 and 2021.

Over time, Hart has moved into different roles in the program. He went from his operations role to volunteer assistant after two years, then to a full-time member of the staff before taking on recruiting coordinator duties in 2010, and now he’s going into his seventh season as associate head coach.

In his time as the program’s lead recruiter, he has brought to campus one standout recruiting class after another, including those featuring future first-round draft picks like Carlos Rodon, Trea Turner, Will Wilson and Patrick Bailey.

In contrast to his boss Avent, a gregarious man who radiates energy at all times whether at practice or chatting up fans and alumni away from the park, Hart has more of a low-key demeanor, but that understated approach hasn’t kept him from getting some of the best baseball talent in the country to come to NC State. Others were more concerned about that difference in personality than Avent was.

“I remember somebody asked me one time when I put him in charge of recruiting ‘Do you think Chris is going to be able to recruit at the level you need?’ I said ‘I don’t know about that, but he’s going to have to.’ You have to have great players to win. But what I know is his work ethic is second to no one’s, and for me, recruiting is (being) out there and beating the bushes and working as hard as you can and being honest with recruits, and I’d rather have that than a door-to-door salesman who’s just going to go out and sell people on something. And now, after he recruits them to campus, his big skill is development, and that’s what we believe in here at NC State is development,” Avent said.

Hart’s reputation in that regard is sterling among scouts, as shown by the large numbers of them flocking to Raleigh each year to get looks at the newest bumper crop of Wolfpack position players who will soon enter professional baseball.

Perhaps Hart’s best work was in the development of Andrew Knizner. After coming to NC State as an infielder and playing primarily third base as a freshman, Hart helped Knizner through a transition to catching the fall prior to his sophomore season. Just four years after catching for the first time and three years after getting drafted, Knizner became a big leaguer with the Cardinals in 2019.

“I saw Chris take a freshman All-American at third base that fall, and I watched it slowly but surely, and you could never see it until it was a finished product, (but) that spring, Andrew Knizner became a big-time catcher for us,” Avent said. “And the following year, (he was) drafted in the seventh round and now he’s in the big leagues with the St. Louis Cardinals.”

Hart is also well regarded by his colleagues in the coaching community. In 2020, Baseball America ran a survey of Division I head coaches, asking them to select the assistant coach who would one day make the best head coach. Hart tied for the most votes received.

Although nothing is official, and everyone involved makes that clear, you can read between the lines and understand that Hart doesn’t want to have to go very far for his first head coaching gig. Avent is now closer to the end of his career than the start of his career, and Hart doesn’t want to leave the place that he now considers home.

“If it’s up to me, I would love to be here for the rest of my career, and I feel like it’s home,” Hart said. “I love coaching here to death, and it’s been an unbelievable 17 years, that’s for sure.”

For now, Hart will continue plugging away as Avent’s right-hand man. He’s been loyal to Avent and the program for nearly two decades now, but he sees that as merely paying back what’s been given to him.

“I know this is not a Chris Hart award,” he said. “This is a team award. These players have been super special for the last 17 years, and last year’s team obviously was an extremely special group of guys. So they deserve this award and (I’m) happy to accept it on their behalf.”

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