Photo by @jackbacker

Robert Hill: SFA's minister of winning, architect of hope

May 16, 2017

Editor's Note (January 30th, 2018): The following was written and published in May of 2017. With Stephen F. Austin athletic director Robert Hill's retirement announcement today, it seemed worthy of another look. You can read SFA's official release right here.

Back in March, I spent the better part of a week in Katy, Texas while covering the Southland Conference basketball tournament. A couple hours before the Stephen F. Austin men played a semifinals contest with Texas A&M-Corpus Christi (and while Sam Houston State trailed in a battle with New Orleans on the other side of the bracket), I ran into Lumberjacks' athletic director Robert Hill in the bowels of the Merrell Center.

"Rooting for a comeback so SFA can get Sam tomorrow?" I asked. The leader of SFA's athletics department for the last 12 years subtly shook his head. "All I know is we have a tough one tonight," he replied.

Hill was right to be concerned with Corpus Christi. The Islanders opened up a lead on SFA in the first half and survived a resurgence in the second to bounce the Lumberjacks from the tournament. The irony, of course, is that the man who has built a reputation on articulately looking years ahead (an attribute that has helped him build SFA's athletics department into the premiere of the Southland Conference) was too emotionally invested in the results to think far beyond the moment.

That combination - the perfect mix of fandom in the present and vision for the future - is what has made Robert Hill both beloved and wildly successful.

"He's a true facilitator to coaches and athletes," SFA head football coach Clint Conque told The Sawmill. "Mr. Hill has the vision to adjust and adapt to the ever changing climate and challenges of managing a Division I athletics department."

SFA Athletics Stephen F. Austin athletic director Robert Hill (right) and university president Dr. Baker Pattillo (left) stand with all-sports trophies awarded by the SLC in May of 2015.
The extraordinary commitment to winning in every sport sponsored at SFA, from men's basketball to women's bowling, has attracted a talented staff of coaches who know accepting a job in Nacogdoches means securing freedom to achieve success in their profession. Conque says it best, perhaps: "He allows his coaches to coach, teach and recruit while not getting bogged down in areas that prohibit us from doing our jobs."

It doesn't always go according to plan - but what makes the overall body of work remarkable inside the athletics department is that the expectation is to be competitive always, always, and to commit the resources to make it possible.

Steep standards are ordinary in big programs and specifically in flagship sports like football and men's basketball. Extending those lofty ambitions to soccer, volleyball, track & field, baseball, softball, (the list goes on) equally? That's not frequent or normal in a small-market program. Robert Hill is not a normal small-market AD.

Sometimes that means difficult decisions have to be made. Gay McNutt, SFA's softball coach of nine seasons, resigned last year after posting just a single winning season after her last league title in 2010. Her replacement, former junior college head coach Nicole Dickson, was tasked with a very clear and public expectation. "We think she can put SFA in a position to contend for Southland Conference titles every season," Hill said in a statement announcing her hiring.

There's realistic balance, too. Dickson's inaugural season was largely derailed by a young roster and an exodus of veteran players. A 17-win season was disappointing, perhaps, but remaining patient during the construction of a program has paid big dividends in the past for SFA. There might be no better example than that of former head basketball coach Danny Kaspar, who laid the groundwork for the recent ride of success on the hardwood while carrying the Lumberjacks' through a period of perennial obscurity. Even now, while leading the program at Texas State, Kaspar's admiration for his former boss is well known. "I'm a big believer in Robert Hill," he told The Sawmill last year as we chronicled his run at SFA.

Hill's coaching hires of the last decade are diverse and varied in style and background. They all share a common trait, though: they're extremely competitive and their measurement of success or failure includes wins and losses. It's a lot less common than one would generally think. Graduating athletes and positively representing the university is a given, but at SFA, it's only half the job.

"I've been blessed to be associated with some tremendous administrators in my 26 years of working in college athletics," SFA men's basketball coach Kyle Keller tells us. "But over the last 13 months, I've had the pleasure of working with the best leader I've come to know in Robert Hill. He takes an immense amount of knowledge and continues to cultivate the championship culture we are known for."

The frequent efforts by coaches at some schools to disadvantage more successful teams in postseason play with conference tournament rules showcases the rarity of true winning cultures in mid-major conferences. That sending the best teams to the national stage actually promotes future success league-wide is a fact often forgotten or conveniently ignored in the interest of justifying mediocrity.

"The coaches who not only understand that, but promote that, are a minority," SFA soccer coach Wally Crittenden told us during a December interview in Nacogdoches. The mindset of that minority is the common denominator in offices through the athletic field house and coliseum at SFA.

"He breeds confidence within his staff and the student-athletes that compete for SFA," says Keller of Hill. "He helps to elevate those young men and women to a level where they will achieve great things, both in sports and in life."

Through steady leadership, popular management, and thorough foresight, Robert Hill, an SFA graduate and university employee since 1987, has offered an even bigger endowment to fans than merely wins:

Hope. The knowledge that almost any sporting event in Nacogdoches is meaningful. That, with few exceptions, the home team is always in it. That heartbreak, while always a part of the fan experience, will be more infrequent than jubilation. That SFA's teams, a unifying force of goodwill and identity to our community, actually matter. That whoever you are, student, alumni, or local resident, you are free to unleash the power of big dreams while being represented with dignity, class, and competitive fire on the biggest stages of college athletics.

As SFA accepts another Commissioner's Cup and stands, once again, on the symbolic mountaintop of peers in the Southland Conference, remember that there are many forces behind the scenes that have enabled this Lumberjacks rule. As blame shifts upwards, so too should credit. Hill has helped to create an atmosphere of winning unlike many institutions with the size and budget of SFA. His hand-picked staff, a big part of these achievements, knows that ultimately it comes down to heart. "He truly loves SFA and the Nacogdoches community," says Conque.

For the results of the past and the projections of the future, that community has been filled with pride. With leaders like Hill, optimism in our college town spreads like a summer wildfire.

Robert Hill: SFA's minister of winning, architect of hope

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Nice write up Isaac. Well deserved praise after a third consecutive year of the best sports in the Southland - especially after dealing with drop offs in several of the sports that propelled us to the previous two. Time to start rooting for #4!
Kinnaird Guitars
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Awesome story. All true from what I can see. I recall some skepticism when Hill succeeded Steve McCarty. Well...... RH has certainly proved any detractors wrong.
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This one deserves a bump with the news today.
Isaac Niedrauer

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Man, I think I'm going to miss Hill more than I've missed losing Underwood. Hugely consequential hire coming up.
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Robert Hill will be missed. He has done outstanding work and deserves all the accolades he gets. I don't think we would be where we are without him!
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