King of the Hill

John Hill made me break a major rule of journalism.

It was 2012, and Tiffin University’s men’s basketball team was playing Hillsdale at the Gillmor Center. The Dragons were coming off their biggest win in years. Two days earlier they had defeated Findlay, sending the fans (and the players) into a frenzy.

Hillsdale was another team Tiffin hadn’t beaten in Hill’s tenure, and for most of that Saturday, it looked like the Chargers would beat TU again.

That was until Karl Finley hit a 3 with less than a second left to give Tiffin the lead. The fans tried to rush the court, but former Dragon Rafael Cuellar, sitting in the crowd, had the biggest assist of his career. The 6-foot-5 ex-post player who went on to play tight end on the football team threw his arms out and blocked the crowd. He saved a technical, which would have given the Chargers life.

And if Ralph didn’t want you to move, you weren’t moving.

After a futile desperation shot missed and the buzzer sounded, Hill spun around and faced me at the press table, putting out his hand for a high five.

I hesitated for a tenth of a second, but didn’t want to leave the Tiffin legend hanging.

When I was back at the office, I asked one of my mentors, Pat Magers, if I had done the right thing.

Reporters are, after all, supposed to remain neutral at all times.

Pat said it was a broach, but then asked me who the coach was. I told him.

“Oh, well,” said Pat, who was the sports editor when Hill was coach at Heidelberg in the ’90s. “For John, it’s been a long haul.”

Hill was someone I knew about before I heard he was coming to coach the Dragons. I heard his name from former Heidelberg women’s coach Karen McConnell, who credited Hill being the reason she was able to coach a ‘Berg team to the Final Four.

I heard the name from Matt Palm, the Heidelberg baseball coach and AD – the latter another position Hill held in his 30-plus years in college athletics. Palm was hired by Hill. Palm has since won numerous league titles and guided Heidelberg to the 2010 Division III World Series. Hill later said Palm was one of his two greatest hires.

But it wasn’t quite like getting to cover him, getting to interview him after the pulsating wins and nerve-wracking losses.

Hill won more than 350 games at Heidelberg. When the Columbian graduate came back to Tiffin in 2009, he was in his 60s and taking over a program that had entered the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference the previous year.

When you watched the team that season, you got the sense that not only was it not competitive against GLIAC schools, but it couldn’t be.

I remember Hill’s first game as TU’s coach. The Dragons hosted West Liberty State. A number of the fans at the Gillmor Center weren’t even there for TU. The Hilltoppers featured freshman Alex Falk, who was a star at Upper Sandusky.

The game was a disaster for TU. Not only did Tiffin lose 113-72, but it was whistled at one point for having six players on the court.

When I caught up to Hill after the game, he was shooting baskets in his shirt and tie.

This was my real introduction to John Hill.

I left that night having no idea if this team would even be better than the year before.

In his four years, Hill’s Dragons finished over .500 only once, and never made the GLIAC Tournament.

But I still think it was a great hire.

Hill is a great recruiter. In his second season, he snared Joe Graessle and Karl Finley, which overnight turned the Dragons into a team that could score 15 points in 30 seconds. He also brought in solid contributors like Keenan Barlow, Travis Spahr and Brandon Harris. Soon, TU was competing with just about everyone in the GLIAC, and occasionally stunning some opponents who may have remembered how TU used to play.

Finley plays professional ball in Germany now. Graessle, who may go down as the best player in TU history, almost assuredly will go pro.

There also is hope for the future. Young players like Eric Roby and Khaleal McCormick will be coming off solid freshman campaigns.

The future will likely be guided by Jerry Buccilla, a former player for Hill at Heidelberg and an assistant for him the last four years. When Lonny Allen spoke last week, he made it sound as if Buccilla – already named interim coach – will be a full-time hire.

Allen told me he knew when he hired Hill that it wouldn’t be for 10 or 15 years. He just hoped the veteran coach could start turning things around.

Anyone who has ever seen Graessle launch a 30-foot 3 or score 45 points in a game would feel that way.

Hill will remain at TU, and it wouldn’t surprise to still see him at games.

Then, perhaps, he can hit me with a guilt-free high five.