Meet the man who’s resurrecting Arkansas Baptist College. (Did you even know we had one of those?)
BY KANE WEBB ARKANSAS DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE
On the morning that San Jose State University played Boise State in what should have been a forgettable football game, Fitz Hill arrived on campus in the pre-dawn darkness. Hill was the head coach of the San Jose Spartans, listed in that day’s paper as 33-point underdogs. He sat down in his office and took out a letter his wife had handed him the night before. It was from his daughter, Destiny, the oldest of Fitz and Cynthia Hill’s three children. Hill tore open the envelope and read the note: “Dear God, thanks for all of your blessings. We are grateful for all of the stuff that you have blessed us with. Thank you for my mommy, my daddy, and my sister and little brother. But God, I pray that you will move us back to Arkansas. Amen.” Three years earlier, Hill had moved his family from Fayetteville, Ark., to San Jose, Calif. It was a sudden move. The Hills had just finished building a new house in Fayetteville, and Fitz, a native of Arkadelphia, was going into his 13th year as an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator at the University of Arkansas. But Omon Fitzgerald Hill had received The Call. He had a chance to be a head coach, in charge, his own man. An assistant coach gets The Call, he has to answer. Hill answered. Three years later, he had his Spartans on the verge of the biggest upset in school history—a shocker of a victory over nationally ranked Boise State. All the Spartans had to do was kick a short field goal in the waning seconds of the game. It was a chip shot given the quality of its kicker. He hadn’t missed one all year. The kick was blocked. The Spartans lost in overtime. “What happened?” asked one of the assistant coaches. Hill deadpanned: “God wants me to go back to Arkansas.” He can tell that story now and not just laugh but understand. “That was the start of me realizing that God had another plan and purpose for me,” Hill says over a pancake breakfast at the Ozark Mountain Country restaurant in Little Rock. “Everything in San Jose State was always so hard, and I know that the Bible says that God’s yoke is easy and his burden is light, but that was not the case at San Jose State.” It turns out that the plan for Hill had nothing to do with coaching football and nothing to do with San Jose, California. But, goodness, that yoke sure doesn’t seem to have gotten any easier or that burden any lighter. Fitz Hill, the former football coach, is now the president of Arkansas Baptist College in Little Rock. Be honest: Did you know Little Rock even had an Arkansas Baptist College? Chances are, lots of white folks didn’t—including this one. Arkansas Baptist College is at 1621 Dr. Martin Luther King Drive, and it’s been there since before there was a Martin Luther King Drive or even a Martin Luther King, Junior or Senior. The college was founded in 1884 as a seminary of sorts, the Minister’s Institute, and most of the men who attended went on to become Baptist preachers. The year after it opened, the Minister’s Institute became Arkansas Baptist College, and, at 123 years old, it stands as one of the oldest predominantly black colleges west of the Mississippi. And two years ago, it seemed on the verge of being history itself. A JOB OFFER I’m supposed to meet Fitz Hill at his office on the campus of Arkansas Baptist, and from there we’ll walk to the cafeteria for lunch. Somehow I’ve gotten lost. Which is darned hard to do on the campus of Arkansas Baptist. It covers about a square block. And it’s not pretty. Old Main, which dates back to 1893 and was the original and only building at the college, looks like a candidate
for the wrecking ball. Or something left standing after Hurricane Katrina. Green X’s have been spray-painted in strategic spots, like bull’s-eyes. Other buildings look equally scruffy around the edges. Windows are boarded up. Paint is peeling. The appearance of Arkansas Baptist College is so shocking that it almost kept Hill from taking the job. Hill had resigned after four years at San Jose State. On the surface, it appears he lost big there. He lost 32 of 46 games. He lost 40 pounds. He lost his job. He even lost his Read-2-Lead Classic for literacy. But he didn’t lose his reputation. Quite the opposite. When Hill left Silicon Valley, he was written out of town with this review: “Dr. Fitz Hill was one of the good guys in college football, with the San Jose State head coach concerned more about the men who played the game for the Spartans than the final score.”—Gregg Xenakes, San Jose Mercury News. Hill returned to Arkansas, and took a job at his alma mater, Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia. He and his lifelong friend Steve Snider were trying to land a football game at War Memorial Stadium to promote literacy, calling on all the local colleges, when Hill contacted Arkansas Baptist. He asked to speak to the president. He was told Arkansas Baptist didn’t have one. He ended up making his pitch to the college’s board of trustees. After he was done, Beth Coulson, one of the trustees, broke the silence, “How would you like to be our next president?” “There was kind of a moment where nobody said anything,” recalls Snider, an attorney who worked at the Rose Law Firm and now, among other things, teaches at Arkansas Baptist. “As if all the light bulbs were going off above their heads.” Hill said he’d think about it—and promptly took a drive down Martin Luther King to tour Arkansas Baptist. He already had the depressing facts: Fewer than 200 students, no money to speak of, and practically no presence in Little Rock or Arkansas. “I thought, ‘Lord, is this really where I’m supposed to be?’ ” he says now. That was two years, a new football program, a new reputation, and several hundred new students ago. ON CAMPUS I’ve wandered into what is either a dorm, a classroom building, or some old administrative offices—or all three. A common area serves as a storeroom for used furniture. On the bulletin board above a badly stained chair, someone has posted a flier for Harvard Divinity School. A poster advertises the Delta Classic 4 Literacy, which is a football game between Grambling and UAPB. Proceeds go to literacy programs. It’s an idea Hill imported from San Jose State, where it began as the Read-2-Lead Classic and was a big enough Bay-area deal that even Bill Cosby attended one year—to the usual plain-spoken Cosby controversy. Hill and Cosby speak much the same language. They tell it to you with the bark off. Both champion responsibility, education and self-reliance; they abhor the culture of victimization. If you rev up Fitz Hill on the current state of young black men in America, then get comfortable. He may not be a preacher’s son, but Hill can sermonize on this issue like a pulpit veteran. At length and in detail. He points out that 50 percent of black male students drop out of high school, many because they can’t read. He points out that there are currently 1.2 million black women in the nation’s colleges, but only about 600,000 black men. Yet there are more than 1 million black men in prison. “We have more in prison than college,” Hill says, adding that 60 percent of those prisoners are illiterate. “There is a direct correlation between illiteracy and crime. Building prisons is a reaction to the problem, not a solution.” He tells a story. When he was head coach at San Jose State, Hill set out to recruit a star tailback from a California high school. All the big university football factories were recruiting the kid, too. Hill discovered the star tailback, a young black man, couldn’t read. “Now how do you reach the 12th grade and not be able to read?” Hill says. The kid told Hill that at the end of the school day, he could go to a tutor or go to practice. And he was encouraged to go to practice. Hill tells another story. He was an assistant coach at the University of Arkansas and also in charge of recruiting. One morning, Hill took a promising highschool lineman out to breakfast. “Order anything you want on the menu,” Hill told the player. The young man put down his menu and asked the coach to order for him. It took a moment for Hill to understand. The recruit couldn’t read well enough to decipher a breakfast menu, to order pancakes instead of eggs, to handle the simple, everyday chore of communicating in this world. Earlier, over that pancake breakfast at Ozark, Hill put it this way: If you can read, if you’ve got a good vocabulary, you’re going to have good reasoning skills. If you can’t read, you can’t reason as well, you’ll act emotionally and make bad decisions. Later, walking the campus, looking at the overburdened facilities, as Hill outlined his plan to raise more money, buy more property and renovate, renovate, renovate, he’d put it this way: “We’ve got two choices: We can build more prisons, or we can come to a place like Arkansas Baptist and build more dorms.” The campus could use them. Under Hill, enrollment at the college has more than tripled. It’s gone from less than 200 students to 612 at last count—and the school had to turn down 75 because it simply ran out of space. Hill is proudest of this statistic: More than 400 of the students are black males. He’s flipped the national averages. How did he do it? Well, one obvious way was by starting a football program. It would attract high-school football players who weren’t yet good enough or qualified enough to earn a scholarship at a bigger university, acting as a junior-college waystation for college-level talents who need to get their grades up or get the attention of a top-flight program. But a football team at Arkansas Baptist might also lure those kids who had no interest in college without sports attached. Hill says he noticed something after the football program was announced. Almost every time he got a call from an interested player, it was from an 870 area code. That’s south Arkansas. That’s the Delta. “Fifty percent of the team is from the Delta; 12 are from Forrest City,” Hill says. “About half of them wouldn’t be in college without football.” At the team’s first practice, more than 100 players turned out to play for the Arkansas Baptist Buffaloes. Hill’s philosophy is simple: If he can get the kids to Arkansas Baptist, he thinks he can turn them around. Or, if they don’t need turning around, keep them heading in the right direction. “I recruit kids everywhere,” he says. “I give them my card. Tell them to go to the admissions office and tell ’em President Hill sent you. Then we’ll get the student some financial aid and get him in the classroom.” Hill says he recruited one young lady who worked at a convenience store in West Little Rock, one young man who worked at a Starbucks in Little Rock, another when he gave a speech at a church in Cincinnati. He hasn’t recruited only students, either. When I ask the Buffaloes’ head football coach, Richard Wilson, why he left Minneapolis to return to Arkansas and a start-up job at a fixer-upper college, he motions toward Hill, “That cat right there.” CULT OF PERSONALITY All told, I probably talked to two dozen people for this piece, including newspapermen, and I couldn’t find a single one with a bad word to say about Fitz Hill. (Granted, I didn’t talk to any rabid fans of San Jose State football—if there are rabid fans of San Jose State football.) It may be a violation of a city ordinance in his hometown of Arkadelphia for anybody not to know “Fitz”—and to know him is to have a story about him. John Outlaw, who coached Hill’s football team at Arkadelphia High, remembers that, “I had to wake him up all the time in practice.” A slacker, huh? Nope. Turns out that Hill was getting up extra early to work a pre-school job. “He had a charisma about him,” says Outlaw, who now coaches at Lufkin (Texas) High School. “Even in high school, you could tell.” Wilson was an assistant coach at the U of A when Hill was starting out as a graduate-assistant coach. “Half the time, Fitz and I were talking about being entrepreneurs,” Wilson says. “He always had a vision for organization. We’d put together the business plan to open a Popeye’s restaurant in Hope.” That didn’t happen for a variety of reasons—not least of which is that Hill, a member of the Army Reserves, was called up to serve in the first Gulf War. Ed Snider, former president of Citizens First Bank at Arkadelphia, was something of a surrogate father for Hill when he was growing up. Hill’s father died when Hill was a freshmen in college, and Hill and Ed’s son, Steve, had been best friends and teammates (quarterback-receiver) at Arkadelphia High and OBU. Ed Snider remembers getting a call from Coach Hill in Fayetteville. “I was about to get on a plane in Texarkana when I got an emergency call,” Snider says. “It was Fitz. He said, ‘I’m in the Army Reserves and they want me to go.’ I said, ‘Wasn’t that part of the deal?’ “Fitz said, ‘Yeah, but I’m coaching. They said they can pull some strings.’ “I said, ‘Fitz, you want to do what’s right.’ And he said, ‘Yes, sir. I want to do what’s right.’” Fitz Hill went to war. When he returned to the University of Arkansas, he returned to coaching—and school. Hill, who had already collected master’s degrees from the University of Arkansas and Northwestern State University at Natchitoches, La., went after his Ph.D. in higher education. Consider what Hill faced every day: Raising a family, coaching college football, running recruiting and taking classes. “Everybody has 24 hours in a day,” says Hill, who earned that doctorate right on schedule. “How you use those 24 dictates where you go in life.” As we wander through the small lunch room, every student calls the still-new president Dr. Hill. Except for the young man who tries futilely not to catch Hill’s eyes as he pulls a cap off his head and hides it under the table. Hill catches the perpetrator. “No caps,” he says. “Oh no, no, no, no.” We walk across campus. Cutting between buildings, we come across about a half-dozen young men waiting for their next class. One of them brazenly tells Dr. Hill that he needs a job. Others join in in a me-too chorus. Hill explains that there’ll be some construction jobs coming up soon. He’s raised enough money to start renovating one of the old dorms. Plus, he’s halfway to raising the $6 million needed to renovate Old Main, so there’ll be some work there, too, in time. “We’ll get a list going for construction jobs,” Hill says, telling the kids how to get their names on the list. As we walk away, he says, “You work, and we’ll take care of you.” But will this whole concept work? Will this Father Flanagan bit fly over the long run? Because one of three things seems likely to happen: (1) The novelty and interest in a rejuvenated Arkansas Baptist with a new football team will wear off. Enrollment will slow and donations, too. (2) The quick turnaround Fitz Hill has already engineered will catch the attention of a bigger, richer, more prestigious university, which will make the good doctor an offer he can’t refuse. Or (3) Father Fitz will stay put, change lives, save young men (and women) and create a great liberalarts university within sight of the state Capitol. Any world-weary cynic has got to figure it’ll be 1 or 2, right? Unless that cynic has met Fitz Hill. A young man named Mario Green runs up to us. Green is from Tampa, Fla., and how he arrived at Arkansas Baptist, well, Hill considers it almost divinely inspired. Green was in Houston visiting friends, driving around town, when he came upon a man whose car had run out of gas. Green gave the man a lift to a gas station. Along the way, the man asked Green what he wanted to do with his life. Green said he wanted to go to college and play football. The man said he knew Charles Ripley, the athletic director at Arkansas Baptist College in Little Rock, and that Ripley was starting a football program. A phone call or three later, Green was in Little Rock. This late September afternoon, Green has just returned from Washington, D.C., where he’d spent three days at Howard University. As he tells his story, Hill interrupts with rapid-fire questions. What did you learn at Howard? What are you studying now? What do you want to do with your degree? Green says he’s discovered a passion for business and math. He wants to own a bank. Why? “I want to invest in communities like this one so black males can have more opportunities,” he says. “So black males can do more with their lives.” As we walk away, Hill comes clean on his ringer; he admits that Mario Green is kind of the poster boy around campus. They’re not all so storybook perfect. WHERE THE BUFFS ROAM You don’t have to worry about getting stuck in traffic at an Arkansas Baptist football game. It’s straight up 7 o’clock—game time—when I exit off the interstate to War Memorial Stadium, and maybe 7:01 when I’m parking two rows from the entrance to the grandstand. Tonight is homecoming for the Buffs, their second of two home games this inaugural season. They opened with a loss at War Memorial. In-between, the team hit the road for six games, all losses, and close it out tonight against Navarro Junior College of Corsicana, Texas. It’s a good bet that not a soul in the stands believes the Buffaloes will win tonight. I’d wager not even Fitz Hill or Richard Wilson would want to take a lie-detector test about it. But folks turn out, filling perhaps three-fourths of the east-side seats. It’s about the same-sized crowd as a high school game between teams with hellor-high-water fans. The first thing I do is check out the attire of the Buffaloes’ coaching staff. After the home-opener, Hill received an e-mail from a concerned friend. He congratulated Hill on the first game, but expressed dismay that some of the coaches had their shirttails out. This sloppiness wouldn’t have been tolerated under their old coach Buddy Bob Benson at Ouachita Baptist. Hill replied promptly: “I was in the stands taking notes and, believe me, that was one of them.” Sure enough, nary a shirttail is flapping on this slightly breezy evening. And there’s Fitz Hill—not in the stands but walking the sidelines. Actually, it’s more like stalking, with the occasional Bud Grant imitation—a stoic, expressionless statue with arms crossed. At 6:45 of the opening quarter, Navarro gets the first of its five first-half touchdowns, and Hill has discarded the stoic routine. He’s slapping a rolled-up program into the palm of his hand. Dang! Dang! Dang! A few minutes later, Hill is waving toward me and a friend in the stands, motioning us on to the field, a smile on his face. He’s gotten close enough to the stands to incite a flutter of excitement from the fans, who call out “Doctor Hill!” “Doctor Hill!” (It’s rarely Fitz or President Hill.) And if it’s not quite rock-star adoration, it’s much more than passing fancy. There’s a kind of giddiness in the voices of those who’ve been pulled into Fitz Hill’s orbit—as if they’ve found the one, their champion, and before the secret is entirely out. They’re at the front of the bandwagon that, they know, will fill up soon. Very soon. Hill says he’s pleased with the crowd. He’s really pleased with the band from Little Rock Fair High, and hopes to have any number of high-school bands at next year’s games. “I’d like to see it become Thursday Night Lights at the Rock,” he says. At one point, his son Justice comes running up, wearing long gym shorts and one of those black Under-Armor tight-fit stretchy shirts that are all the youthful rage. Justice has a football under his arm. He’s been playing catch in the end zone with Anthony Lucas, a former Razorback wide receiver who was recruited by President Hill back when he was Coach Hill. I follow Justice over to Lucas, who looks too thin to have ever been a major-college receiver, much less allconference, much less all-Southeastern Conference. In-between throws to Justice and another boy, Lucas waves to his wife in the stands. She works at Arkansas Baptist—and goes to school there, too. “Thanks to that man right over there,” Lucas says, and points the football toward Fitz Hill, who has resumed his stoic pose on the sidelines, expressionless, looking up the field, looking into the bright lights of a big night, looking toward the future.
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/STATON BREIDENTHAL Stairs lead into a dilapidated Old Main on the Arkansas Baptist campus. Under Fitz Hill, almost $3 million has been raised to renovate the historic building.
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/STATON BREIDENTHAL Arkansas Baptist College president Dr. Fitz Hill in front of Old Main on the school’s campus in Little Rock.
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/CHRIS DEAN Arkansas Baptist College president Dr. Fitz Hill (left) and athletic director Charles Ripley cheer on the Buffaloes during their final game of the season at War Memorial Stadium.
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette /CHRIS DEAN Head Coach Richard Wilson reacts to a play during the final game of the season at War Memorial Stadium.