James Hardy Jr. has big plans for the football team at Ironwood Ridge High School, with plans to build a perennial regional power into a statewide juggernaut.
Hardy, who previously served as an assistant coach at Canyon del Oro High School in 2018, takes over a Nighthawks program that’s qualified for the postseason in 15 consecutive seasons.
He assumes a role previously held for a decade by Matt Johnson, who’s since moved on to coach at neighboring Mountain View High School.
Hardy is confident that he’s the right man for the job, having coached at both the high school and junior college level in California for 13 years.
“It's a tremendous honor to be with them, I'm very excited about it,” he said. “To have an opportunity to be a part of a program, like this, it speaks volumes on how they felt about me, and me becoming a part of this program. So, I'm ecstatic about it, I’m excited to get to work.”
Hardy learned the ins and outs of the game playing football at the junior college level in California, before transferring to California Lutheran to finish his degree.
He worked as an assistant at several high schools in the Inland Empire of Los Angeles, working as an offensive assistant and track and field coach at Quartz Hill and Antelope Valley high schools. He also worked as an offensive assistant coach at Lancaster and Eastside high schools before serving as the offensive line and assistant coach at Los Angeles Valley and Antelope Valley colleges from 2011-18.
Hardy also worked as the offensive line coach at CDO in 2018, spearheading a Dorados offense that averaged 242.5 rushing and 182.5 passing yards per game, qualifying for the 4A playoffs.
Longtime CDO coach Dustin Peace, who hired Hardy, said he’s thrilled to see Hardy start his own program at IRHS.
“Tucson needs more dedicated coaches like him,” Peace said. “We only had him for a year, but he fit in very well, which is not always easy to do with a staff like ours that has been together for a while. I am looking forward to working with him in our district.”
Ironwood Ridge Athletic Director Tony Jacobsen said the decision to hire Hardy was a simple one given his immense knowledge of the game and experience coaching at various levels.
“We are thrilled to have Coach Hardy on board here at IRHS. He brings great expertise, experience, and leadership to our program,” Jacobsen said. “He is ready to get to work and we can’t wait to get started.”
Hardy inherits a loaded roster this season, with the Nighthawks returning several high-level players off last year’s 6-5 squad. Chief among those returning this year will be rising senior quarterback Octavio Audry-Cobos, who compiled 1,336 offensive yards and 16 touchdowns last year.
Hardy believes the team won’t miss a beat this fall thanks to the conveyor belt of talent that comes from the school’s junior varsity and freshman programs.
“I truly believe that we can continue to maintain the success they've had in the past,” Hardy said. “I think that the attitude, and the work ethic that the kids are kind of seeing, just briefly, already speak to volumes for how well the program's been run.”
Hardy said he plans on keeping most of the team’s schemes on both sides of the ball in line with what Johnson installed.
The biggest difference, according to Hardy, is his preference for using up-tempo, spread offensive strategies, which should allow Audry-Cobos and other skill position players to find success from the get-go.
“You're going to see a difference—you may see more of an open look,” Hardy said. “I know [Octavio] had a lot of guys in the box [last year]. So, I would like to do that. It's all depending on how we evaluate the talent, as far as our kids go. But I’d definitely like to open it up a little bit.”
Hardy will get his first shot at showcasing his program on Aug. 16, when the Nighthawks host Johnson and the Mountain View Lions at 7 p.m.
Hardy knows the road to success will take time, but believes his staff will be able to put the team’s players in position to thrive from the opening kick in mid-August.
“We talked about it yesterday, you have to trust the process,” Hardy said. “So, first of all, we have to believe in each other. And I want the parents, and the players to believe in me, and my coaching staff, and vice versa.”
Hardy knows that some of his players will look at their first week opponent and see a face that roamed the school’s sidelines for most of its history.
He also knows that everyone, staff included, face the daunting task of readying themselves for the 10-week gauntlet that is the regular season.
“We still have to play within ourselves, and continue to build day-by-day, week-by-week,” Hardy said. “And I think things will work themselves out. So now, I'm just looking forward to getting to work, and working with these boys, and getting things done.”