Omon Fitzgerald Hill
Fitz Hill has gone from coaching Division I football to revitalizing Arkansas Baptist College. He has a game plan that could be a winner.
BY RACHEL O’NEAL CHANEY SPECIAL TO THE DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE
When Fitz Hill walks around Arkansas Baptist College, the students greet him as “president” or “doctor.” No one calls him “coach.” And for this football-coach-turnedacademic, the new title feels right. Hill says he is led by his faith, and his faith has brought him to this small, rundown college in the heart of Little Rock’s inner city. Though he never envisioned himself as a college president, he says with confidence that he is going to turn Arkansas Baptist College on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive into the engine that revitalizes and restores the surrounding dilapidated community. “I never would have applied for this job. Never. Being a college president was so far removed from anything that I have ever thought about. Ever,” Hill says. “But I realized that everything was coming together. All my experiences from the war, California and everything was in preparation for this school.” His journey to Arkansas Baptist College was hardly direct. He grew up in Arkadelphia where his father, James Hill, was a production manager at a beverage company, and his mother, Mary Hill, was the registrar at the local high school. He and his two older brothers played backyard basketball, baseball and football. His mother, who chose his middle name to honor her idol, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, did not tolerate poor grades. Hill excelled and was an honorroll student and class leader. A football wide receiver and star at Arkadelphia High School, Hill went to Northeast Louisiana University (now University of Louisiana at Monroe) in 1983 on a football scholarship. But his father died of cancer in November of his first year. Six weeks later, his mother had an aneurysm rupture in church, and Hill went back home to care for her. He enrolled at Ouachita Baptist University and joined the football team. He worked several odd jobs to pay off his parents’ bills and joined the ROTC to “get the little stipend” — which amounted to about $220 a month. “It was pretty tough. I got my inspiration from my mother. Probably the toughest thing I have ever done was to change and clean my mother,” Hill recalled. “To be able to do things like that, you learn to detach yourself from your feelings to do what you had to do. I am still healing from that today.” After a year, his aunt decided to move his mother to Anaheim, Calif., to live with her so he could finish his education. For 22 years, his mother has been unable to speak. Hill received degrees in communications and physical education from OBU in 1987. He then went to Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, La., where he was a graduate assistant football coach and earned a master’s degree in student personnel services. Hill and his wife, Cynthia, who is an education specialist at Pulaski Technical College, married Dec. 31, 1988. They have three children: Destiny, 16, Faith, 12, and Justice, 7. Their names reflect his personal convictions. “We know that God controls our destiny. We place our faith in Him. We know He will demand justice for us,” he says. Hill is a Baptist, and he and his family are visiting several Baptist churches in Little
Rock to find a church home. In 1989 he decided to pursue a master’s degree in communications from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. He also became a graduate assistant football coach. After his first Arkansas football game, he was sent to the Persian Gulf in 1990 for Operation Desert Storm, the war that ousted Iraqi forces from Kuwait. COUNTING HIS BLESSINGS “It was probably one of the best things that ever happened to me because I learned so much about how blessed we are in the United States of America,” Hill says. “I promised God if you just let me get back home when I was over there, I would never take another lazy step again. I was never going to complain. We are in the promised land and don’t know it.” A transportation officer, 1st Lt. Hill organized, managed and coordinated trucks and rations. At one point, Hill went 52 hours without sleep. “I was just so paranoid of us not doing very well as far as not being able to support the troops and was just in a state of shock, and I couldn’t sleep,” he says. “We started the war in two days. The trucks were coming in, and I had to make sure everything was arriving on time, the trucks would be there, that they got off on time.” He was awarded a Bronze Star and Army Commendation Medal for his war service. “I know there is absolutely nothing that could happen here that I have to fear like I feared there. Absolutely nothing,” he says. Hill spent six months in the Persian Gulf area, and he left the Army Reserve after his tour ended. After that, he returned to Fayetteville as an assistant football coach and to work on his doctorate. It took him four years with no vacations to finish the course work — partly because he couldn’t take classes during football season. It took him another two years to write his dissertation, based on research he conducted about the opportunities available to black football coaches. In 1997, Hill was awarded a Doctor of Education degree from the UA, where he continued coaching, serving as assistant head football coach, recruiting coordinator and receivers’ coach. In all, he spent 12 years with that football program. “I will always be Coach Hill,” he says. “The doctorate is just something I have. It’s an insurance policy.” In late 2000, the athletic director of the San Jose (Calif.) State University Spartans contacted Hill about the school’s head coaching job. They met in a hotel in Springdale. “I didn’t want the job,” he recalls. “We just built a new house in Fayetteville. We had a great recruiting class. I was comfortable. Coaching at Arkansas was like a dream. My wife was in school. Everything that you could think of was right there.” But the athletic director told Hill that “he has been praying for the right person and God had led him to me.” Hill felt like it was a calling. “He offered me the job right there and when I went to California, I was already the head football coach. I didn’t know what my office looked like. I didn’t know where I would live. I just felt like the Lord was calling me to California.” Hill spent four years at San Jose State, resigning after four seasons of several thrilling victories but even more disheartening losses. He had a 14-32 record. One of those wins, though, was over defending Big Ten champion Illinois in 2002. “Even though it didn’t play out the way I envisioned, I am the person that I am today because of the trials and tribulations I experienced. Because of my four years at San Jose, I am a better Christian, I am a better husband, I am a better father and I am a better person.” Hill decided to leave the head football coaching job after reading a letter his daughter, Destiny, wrote to God. In the letter, Destiny thanked God for all of her blessings. At the end, she asked God if she could move back to Arkansas. “That just about killed me,” Hill says. “I didn’t realize it at the time, but her letter was really a catalyst for me to examine our situation and what I was.” After he announced his resignation, Hill didn’t know what he was going to do next. Then OBU President Andy Westmoreland offered him a job as executive director of the Ouachita Opportunity Fund, a newly established organization that would raise money primarily for OBU athletics. He spent a year raising money for OBU. At the same time, he was drumming up support for the Delta Classic 4 Literacy, a football game he founded to raise awareness about the need to bolster literacy in the Delta region and to raise money to fund literacy programs. “We treat symptoms in our country, we don’t treat the core issues. If everyone could read in our country, all of the problems don’t go away, but we will have less problems,” he says. “We will have less prisoners [if] more people will get an education. There is a high correlation between crime and illiteracy. Unfortunately, you don’t get 60,000 people to attend a chemistry lecture. But some advertisers will pay $2.5 million for a 30-second commercial during the Super Bowl. That’s the power of sports.” MEETING ARKANSAS BAPTIST To gain financial support for the Delta Classic, he met with the leaders of many predominantly black colleges and universities. When he asked to meet with the president of Arkansas Baptist College, he learned they didn’t have one. Instead, he met with several of the college’s trustees. At the end of his 20-minute presentation on the Delta Classic, they offered him a job as president of the college. At that time, he says he knew “absolutely zero” about the school. But he says he felt like he was being called to serve as president. “When I first saw the campus, I said, ‘God, are you sure this is what you want?’ It was depressing,” he says. “The buildings were dilapidated. But what I realized, if Jesus came back to earth today, this is what he would come serve.” On Feb. 1, 2006, Hill became the 13th president of the 124-year-old predominantly black school. Arkansas Baptist College trustee Beth Coulson was there the day Hill made the Delta Classic pitch. Not a sports enthusiast, she had not heard of Hill before meeting him. She asked her husband, Mike Coulson, who Hill was. Mike Coulson explained that Hill was a great athlete. After Hill gave the presentation, she says she knew right away he was right for the job. In fact, she says she told the thenchairman of the board of trustees, Arkansas Court of Appeals Judge Wendell Griffen, that if they didn’t hire him, she would quit. “He was so enthusiastic, and we were desperately looking for a president at Arkansas Baptist College,” Coulson says. “He was exactly what we needed. He had the enthusiasm, the humility and the vision. He was the whole package in one that we needed to bring Arkansas Baptist College back to life at a time that our doors were literally about to close.” Coulson says she is excited that Hill recently signed a fiveyear contract extension. “In five years, it’s going to be a completely new campus. We will have new buildings and dormitories. The whole neighborhood is going to be new. The dilapidated buildings will be gone,” she says. “It is going to be a place where people are going to be proud to say they graduated from.” Griffen said Hill’s “skills, personality, sense of excellence and determination to succeed” give him the right combination to transform the college into a thriving institution. He said that, while there is no way to predict the future, he believes Hill will produce positive results. “I think we can honestly count on Fitz Hill to do his dead-level best to maintain a stable enrollment, continue to improve our academic programs and strengthen our surrounding community,” Griffen said. The original building, Old Main, is on the National Register of Historic Places as the first building for educating blacks in Arkansas. The building has since fallen to near ruin, but Hill has raised $2 million of the $6 million needed to restore it. When he took over, the campus wasn’t just crumbling physically, the school was also on the verge of losing its accreditation. Only 183 students attended at that time. The dorms were crowded and run-down. And the college didn’t even have enough money to pay his salary. An anonymous supporter paid Hill’s salary for the first two years, and the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools extended the school’s accreditation for another five years. ALONG CAME FOOTBALL Hill was able to attract students by creating academic outreach programs, a new music department and in a bold move, a football program. He even convinced his friend, Richard Wilson, to coach the football team made up exclusively of freshmen and sophomores. Wilson has assistant coaching experience at a number of schools including the University of Arkansas, Oklahoma State University and Clemson University. Arkansas Baptist College is a member of the National Junior College Athletic Association and plays teams like Tyler Junior College in Tyler, Texas, and Trinity Valley Community College in Athens, Texas. Hill is not part of the coaching staff. “A lot of people think I am a recovering head football coach, but I have turned down two head coaching jobs since I have been here that would have paid me more money,” he says. “That’s not my life goal.” Today, the college has 612 students and is growing. At this point, its facilities cannot house more than 700 students. Hill says attracting students is not a problem. He recruits students that other colleges don’t necessarily want — the students who are not at the top of their class or the star athletes. “The fact that [higher education is] just trying to [teach] the best and the brightest just blows my mind,” he says. “When you raise up the bottom, everyone benefits, and that is what we are trying to do. We know everybody wants the very best and the brightest. That’s not the masses. I have found that a kid, particularly an African-American male who makes a 17 on the ACT and does not play any sports at all, nobody recruits him. That’s who we are recruiting. That’s why our numbers have tripled.” For example, during a recruitment trip to East St. Louis, Ill., he told students at an alternative school that if they want to go to college, the doors of Arkansas Baptist College are open. One day before classes started, Hill got a call from a woman from East St. Louis who was at the Little Rock bus station. “She says she was here,” he recalled. “She didn’t have anything, so we took the young lady to Wal-Mart and bought her clothes, everything she needed. We didn’t even know she was coming, and she is still here and doing well today.” When asked if the student would graduate, Hill says that is not the priority. “We don’t talk about graduation, we talk about retention. We take it one semester at a time and that’s how we deal with it,” he says. “For kids who are first generation college students who haven’t had a lot of support, you don’t want to talk about five years. Five years to them is eternity. You want to talk about this week, this month and let’s get through the semester. After about two years, we will start talking about graduation.” Tuition at Arkansas Baptist College is about $5,000 annually. More than 90 percent of the students receive federal Pell Grants for students from low-income families. The college also helps students find money so they can attend. “If you are going to go to class and do what we ask you to do, turn in your assignments, I can’t put you out of school. It’s wrong,” he says. “If you are trying, I’ve got to try. And I believe if you have the desire to help yourself, God is going to bless us with the reward to help you.” April Medley, a sophomore, has been at the school for three years. She says Hill has already made a big impact. “It’s a whole lot better,” she says. “Before, there were no activities on campus. You just went to class. Now there are things to do.” Medley added that she sees Hill around campus. “He interacts with the students, and he is there for the students when they need him,” she says. Hill has a five-year plan for revitalizing the college that includes constructing new dormitories and placing more focus on the library’s black literature collection. The school is actively raising money to make the improvements. Hill has already razed several dorms and has plans to construct new ones, and the school has bought several old buildings around the school which they plan to either raze or renovate. If all goes as planned, Hill hopes to see events like weddings, town hall meetings and receptions in Old Main. And he hopes all of the redevelopment at Arkansas Baptist College will spark neighborhood-wide rejuvenation. “I want this school to be the catalyst for the community redevelopment plan. I want this school to have a specific solution to address the specific problem in the African-American community,” he says. “I want this school to lead the way to tackle the blackon-black violence in this city by creating educational opportunities for the underserved population. I want this school to be able to restore the spirituality of this community. I want this school to lead the way in serving the less fortunate.” Devoting his life to Arkansas Baptist College — instead of a football team — has given Hill time to work on a book based on his dissertation. He is collaborating with Mark Purdy, a San Jose Mercury News sports columnist. It should be published later this year. And he finally has time to coach his own children — especially 7-year-old Justice. He and best friend, Steve Snider, founded the Life Champs Sports football league for boys from 5 to 12. Snider said he and Hill grew up together in Arkadelphia and have remained friends. They now meet every day at 5:30 a.m. to work out. “Sports have always been a part of our lives,” Snider said. “We always dreamed that one day we would be able to offer something to young people that would foster a healthy environment for kids. We did that.” Though he is actively involved with Life Champs and other sports programs for kids, Hill’s focus, he says, is on building character and education, not necessarily winning games. “Coaching is an addiction. I am so glad I have been cured of that addiction.” SELF PORTRAIT Fitz Hill DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH March 28, 1964, Arkadelphia. THE BOOK THAT HAS TO BE ON MY BOOKSHELF The Bible. I DRIVE A BMW X5. GUESTS AT MY FANTASY DINNER WOULD INCLUDE Jesus, Joseph and Moses. That’s where I get my inspiration from. That’s where I get my faith from. All of them went through trials and tribulations. FAVORITE VACATION SPOT Anywhere with my family. They love to go to the beach. FAVORITE ATHLETE Magic Johnson because of how he has been disciplined in his approach to give back to the underserved community by going back and redeveloping urban areas to better serve. He was a great basketball player, but it is what he has done after his basketball career that I admire more than anything. FAVORITE COACH Tony Dungy. FAVORITE TEAM The Razorbacks because they have been so much a part of developing me during the 12 years I was there. I am a Razorback at heart. ONE WORD TO SUM ME UP Faith.