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Catching Up With John Hill

February 7, 2013 - Al Stephenson
I had heard of him in high school. He was two years older than me, but his name appeared in the A-T often when Columbian basketball was the topic. I never met John Hill until after he had graduated and we ended up playing baseball for the Tiffin Elks managed by the ageless "Jocko" Huffman. My earliest memories from the diamond included his ability to hit a baseball and his humorous chatter on the bench.

Hill and his high school buddy Sam Cook were two of the best bench jockeys I had ever run across. They could antagonize our opponents with an endless barrage of insults that had both teams laughing. It was fun to watch him play and just as much fun to listen to him carry on.

Later on in college, I lined up against John Hill on the hardwood - he at Heidelberg and I at Hiram College - for two seasons. What I remember about those occasions was his tenacity. He willed the ball into the hoop. Knock him down and he would bounce right back up and score. He would not be denied though he was quieter on the court than on the ballfield. Different sport, different atmosphere but what a competitor.

After his stellar playing career he became the head basketball coach at the Berg staying on for a remarkable 26 seasons. I remember helping him recruit a player. OK, maybe I'm giving myself too much credit here, but I watched Tony Meyer play at the high school state tournament for Jackson Center. Upon returning to Tiffin, I ran into Hill and he asked me if I thought Meyer could play at Heidelberg. I said yes, Hill agreed and Tony Meyer turned out to be an outstanding player at the college level.

I went to a few games at Heidelberg while John Hill was coaching and the one thing I recall about watching him on the sideline was the fact that he sat a lot. While many coaches are constantly striding up and down the sideline screaming at players or referees, Coach Hill sat back, crossed his legs and let his players perform. I remember thinking at the time that he must do a great job at practice preparing his team for the game. He didn't seem to have a need to constantly remind his players what needed to be done as they ran up and down the court. I always admired that part of his makeup.

Last Saturday I made my way to the Gillmor Center at Tiffin University. I wanted to see Coach John Hill in action at his newest digs. After a seven year stint as an athletic director in Virginia and a couple of other coaching stops, John Hill was back home in Tiffin though he was now on the other side of town.

As the Dragons took on Ohio Dominican University, I wanted to see if the Coach was still able to sit back in peaceful serenity as the game progressed. For most of the first half he did just that. While the ODU coach never did take a seat, Coach Hill was patient though he was coaching a very young team in a very tight game. The lead went back and forth for most of that first half with a late flurry giving TU a small halftime lead.

With Joe Graessle hitting some lengthy three pointers and feeding a teammate for a slam dunk early in the second half, the Dragons quickly built a 20-point advantage. Less that five minutes into that second half Coach Hill's demeanor changed. While most coaches would finally be able to sit back with a comfortable lead like that, Coach Hill suddenly became more active. I realized why as his TU squad became complacent. They would score but fail to get back on defense and ODU would answer with a bucket of their own.

Coach Hill's experience told him that no lead was safe with 15 minutes left in the game and he spent a lot of time exhorting his charges to play defense. ODU cut TU's lead to four before the Dragons pulled out a 98-92 victory. After the game I had a chance to talk to my old friend. When I asked him if he was unhappy with his team's complacency after building up a big lead, his exasperation showed.

"We'd get a layup and then give one up at the other end. When we got up twenty, we just assumed we were going to win by 30" he said. As I watched him bristle I couldn't help but wonder what the next practice was going to be like. I'm betting his players were going to get an earful.

Now that John Hill has been involved in college athletics for over 40 years - most of which has been spent on the sidelines - his hair has grown a little gray. His passion for the game however, has not wilted one iota.

The view from my seat suggests that John Hill is an excellent basketball coach. Tiffin University is fortunate to have him and the Dragon players would be well served to heed his advice. They will be better players and better people if they do so.

Good luck John. Here's hoping your love for the game continues for many, many more years.


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