Championship appearance a fitting end to Hart’s tenure
By Keith Sparks
Although you may not see him, Liberty Hill ISD former Superintendent Dr. Rob Hart is at every Panther football game, home or away, typically tucked away in the press box with Assistant Superintendent Chad Pirtle, a handful of other current and former LHISD staff members including former head football coach Jerry Vance, and myself.
While Vance is no longer at the helm of Liberty Hill football and Hart is on his way to retirement next month, the current state of the Liberty Hill football program has both of them to thank for laying the foundation for success.
Over the last two years, I’ve had the opportunity to watch a number of Panther football games with both Hart and Vance by my side, and as Hart’s time in Liberty Hill comes to a close, I’ve tried to actively appreciate how unique of a situation that is for a sports writer to be a part of.
“It really adds a new aspect to it, because he knows so much about it,” Hart said of watching games with Vance. “He’ll sit there next to me and say, ‘Alright, it’s time for a tackle trap,’ and sure enough, bang, there it is. People start complaining about a flag and he’ll lean over to me and say, ‘It was holding. I saw it.’ I’ve been in the bleachers or press box while he’s on the field, but just having him up there and sitting with him has really been fun. I’m still getting nervous with two minutes left and he’ll say, ‘It’s over. We won.’ I’ll say, ‘But there’s still time left,’ and he’ll say, ‘No, it’s over. We won.’ He’s just so knowledgeable about the game.”
While both Hart and Vance would scoff at the designation, there’s no doubt that each of them is among the most important figures in LHISD history. Vance has the only two State Championships Liberty Hill has ever won, and although Hart wasn’t around during those State Championships, he’s served an important role in continuing upon that success.
To understand Hart’s role in that success, look no further than a tradition he started at West ISD and brought with him to Liberty Hill. After every game, win or lose, Hart is on the field talking to his head football coach. After a win, it’s easy, but there were times when it wasn’t.
“It started in West, and it started when the coach that came in at the same time I came in was rebuilding,” Hart said. “It was a down program. In this business, I’ve been friends with a lot of coaches. I’ve never coached, but I’d just be around them so much that I know rebuilding a program is tough, and people aren’t patient. I’m always the one down there saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to get there. It’s okay.’”
As a bystander during those meetings, I’ve often wondered what those conversations were about. After a tough loss, was he letting the coach know he needed to see improvement? Was he giving unwarranted advice? I should have known better.
“Win or lose, I always want to greet my coach on the field and let them know that I support them no matter what’s being said in the stands,” Hart said. “I just like to let them know I was here, I saw the whole thing, and I support you, and I think that means a lot to them. I hope it does. I’m going to miss that part. I really am.”
After the Panthers’ win over Carthage on Friday and after his usual meeting with coach, Hart told me, “There are two things I haven’t done as a Superintendent. One is win a State Championship, and the other is beat Waco La Vega.”
Of course, I knew about the Panthers’ recent struggles against La Vega, but what I didn’t realize is that he had prior experience taking beatings from the Pirates while he was Superintendent at West ISD, just 12 miles from La Vega’s campus.
“When I got to West in 2000, my first year, it was a brand new alignment, and of course West is only about 12 miles down the road from La Vega, but our program was down and they were not,” Hart said. “They were beating us every time we turned around. Football, basketball, they just always had a lot of athletes. All the years, I don’t even remember how many times we played them at West, but we never beat them.”
Now, 10 years into his tenure at Liberty Hill, Hart still hasn’t beaten La Vega in football, losing to the Pirates four times in the past three years, two of which were in the playoffs.
“When I come to Liberty Hill, we end up playing them in the playoffs in 2015, in Killeen, on a cold, rainy night, and regulation ended at 0-0 and we ended up losing in overtime 6-0,” Hart said. “The next two years, we get put in district with them. We lose to them over there and lose to them at our place, then we go for the Regional Championship and got beat by them in Killeen again. That’s one, two, three, four times just here that we’ve lost to La Vega. It’s time to beat La Vega.”
On Friday, he has an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone, but he made it very clear to me that Friday won’t be about him.
“It would be great, but the truth is it’s about the kids,” Hart said. “It’s not about me, but it sure would be good. It would feel good, and it would just be a nice culmination to a long project that we’ve been working on for a long time as far as building our athletic program toward the pinnacle. We’ve been there several times with girls’ basketball, softball, boys’ soccer. We’ve been right there, but we’ve just never gotten that one.”
Hart’s time as Superintendent at Liberty Hill has no doubt been a success, but I can’t think of a better way to end it than with a State Championship victory over the one team he’s yet to beat.