To break the news certainly was the hardest thing Jay Hill had to do in his first year as a head coach and it might’ve been one of the most difficult moments of his entire career.
The Monday before Weber State started preparing for in-state rival Southern Utah, Hill, WSU’s first-year head coach, got a phone call in his office. The caller from Florida was contacting Hill and Weber State to let them know that Joe Hawkins’ mother had passed away.
“Joe didn’t know and I had to be the one to tell him,” Hill said. “That was brutally hard. That’s something that has made Joe and I grow close together. But I was extremely proud of him to be able to handle that and get back to being a great player so quickly during the season. That’s not something easy to overcome.”
Hawkins, a 6-foot-1, 315-pounder from Vero Beach, Florida, is a soft-spoken giant of a man not very keen on talking about his personal life or the tragedies that he’s experienced. But the connection he made with Hill is a telling one. As Hill enters his second season as a head coach, it’s clear he has an ability to connect with players. You could see it with Weber’s physical, spirited play last fall, something that belied their 2-10 record. And you could see it in Hawkins’ face in Park City, Utah when a reporter asked him about how things have changed since Hill took over running the program.
“The biggest thing Coach Hill changed was the people who wanted to play for the team and not just themselves are still here and the people who couldn’t buy in, they are all gone,” Hawkins said. “He’s changed the personality of a lot of people on the team. In the past, there was always people late to meetings. Now, you never see anyone late. People are 10 minutes early. You have to be accountable for the small stuff if you think you have to be accountable for the big stuff. He’s making sure everyone is trustworthy in all aspects.”
The series of events leading up to Hill landing his first head coaching job sent the once-strong Weber program into free fall. Following the 2011 season, Ron McBride, the man who Hill played for at the University of Utah, retired after a long and storied coaching career. John L. Smith was hired as his replacement. But Smith didn’t coach a game for Weber, instead jumping ship just months after being hired to become the coach at Arkansas. The Razorbacks needed a coach quickly after Bobby Petrino’s firing.
The sudden departure left Weber to scramble. WSU promoted defensive coordinator Jody Sears to head coach with an interim tag. After back-to-back 2-10 seasons, Sears was fired. He’s since inherited the head coach job at Sacramento State after joining the staff as Marshall Sperbeck’s defensive coordinator only to have Sperbeck abruptly resign amid a cloud of controversy.
Back in Ogden, Sears’ firing meant WSU would be looking for its third coach in as many years. Hill spent nine seasons on Kyle Whittingham’s staff at Utah, serving as the special teams coordinator and coaching various position groups. Hill played for McBride and was a graduate assistant under Urban Meyer. His coaching tree seems to have influenced his coaching style.
“The No. 1 difference is everything he does is with a purpose,” said WSU junior quarterback Jadrian Clark. “There’s clearly a lot of thought that goes into the way he runs his program. He knows what he is doing. He’s a great leader. He’s somebody that when he talks everyone wants to follow.”
In 2009, Rivals.com named Hill one of the Pac 12’s top recruiters. In his first recruiting class, Hill signed 34 players. In his second, he signed 32. His coaching style that of an organized teacher who stresses an attention to detail. In terms of personality, he’s a world away from the brash and stern McBride and Sears, the energetic good ol’ boy. As with any coaching change, his personality took awhile to get used to.
“It’s like getting adopted,” Weber junior safety Josh Burton, an All-Big Sky selection last season, said. “The first year, you are not used to your foster parents. That second year, you know the things they like, you know the things they will say, little things. Now that the little things are more known to us with Coach Hill, the bigger things have opened up.”
“He looks at things in more of our perspective now. He thinks more about what we think. He always tells us this isn’t his team. This is our team. I feel like before that I wasn’t like that. He feels like this was our team and we have to take control for us to be good. He’s just the head that is directing us.”
“He care about us. He don’t just care about us in football. He cares about us in school. He cares about the small things that make us who we are.”
Hill knew his team would need some good fortune to have a chance in his first season. Last fall, Weber State had no such luck. Injuries ravaged the squad, including a crucial injury to Emmett Tela that cost the stud middle linebacker the second half of the conference season. The result was a third straight 2-10 campaign.
“Last year, we were optimistic if we could stay healthy but I pretty much knew we were screwed if we couldn’t,” Hill said. “We had some key injuries early. This year, I’m a lot more optimistic that if it’s just minimal injuries, we have a lot more depth to overcome some of them.”
Photos courtesy of Weber State Athletics. All Rights Reserved.