Nick Hill's days of donning a jersey, helmet and pads may unofficially be over with, but the former Du Quoin High School and Southern Illinois University football star isn't about to get away from the game that's taken him across the country for the past decade-plus.
On Thursday night, Carbondale High School's board approved the hiring of the former quarterback as the successor to the recently departed Dan Koester, who along with several assistant coaches resigned earlier this month. It is the first head coaching job of Hill's career, a job that came a bit sooner than he expected.
"I'm excited about the opportunity," Hill said. "I want to be a high school football coach. I didn't know it would happen this quick, but the situation came up and I was already here, planning on being the offensive coordinator. I'd developed a relationship with these kids, so I felt like it was a good situation. Being this close to the start of the season makes things a little bit tough, but I'm excited about it."
The IHSA football season starts in just six weeks, putting Hill and his assistants at a bit of a disadvantage in terms of preparation. If the short timetable wasn't enough of a challenge, Hill will be asked to help turn around a program that hasn't won a postseason game in 21 years.
"That kind of excites me, it's an opportunity where you can come in here and lay some roots, build a program up," Hill said. "They've got some talent, Carbondale athletics are always pretty good. We've just got to get them to buy into the football program and get them out there, put them in the right situation, in the right places to be successful. I feel like the kids are definitely there to win."
After helping get the Indians to the state championship game in 2002, Hill had a brief stay at Western Kentucky University on a basketball scholarship before finding a home at SIU-Carbondale as the quarterback. As a senior, he led the conference in passing yards per game and ranked second in passing efficiency. The left-hander set school single season records in passing yards (3,175), touchdowns (28), completions (258) and attempts (361). He was named a First Team All-Conference selection, Gateway All-Academic and Sports Network All-American.
Hill got a taste of the NFL in camp with the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers, but made his post-college name in the Arena Football League where he was the starter under center for several teams including Orlando, Tampa Bay and most recently San Antonio. He says his playing days are now over.
"I could probably play Arena football for the next ten years if I wanted to, but I'm ready to do this," Hill said, "I'm ready to move on to the next chapter of my life."
Page 2 of 3 - "I've had fun, I have no regrets. I've had the opportunity to be around a lot of good people, met a lot of great friends along the way, played in a lot of cities. Football has taken me a lot of cool places. I feel like this is where I want to be right now in my life and I'm pretty happy about it."
Hill's coaching experience dates back to 2008, when after being cut by the Bears he returned to Du Quoin and helped coach another state finalist team (with his brother A.J. calling the signals at QB) under Al Martin. He had that same role a season later before becoming quarterback coach at Dr. Phillips High School in Orlando, a school often ranked nationally. The following fall he became an offensive coordinator at a Class 8A school in Florida, calling plays and installing the offense.
Being a head coach, however, is a little different. Much less taking over a job with a little more than a month to prepare for the season.
"I haven't had a lot of time to get to know the kids," said Hill, "and then to be put into the head coaching position, there's a lot of other things you don't really think about as far as running an entire program. Putting together a staff - the freshman level, a J-V coach, those kinds of things. I'm in charge of hiring and getting them ready to go. There's a lot to be done, but that's not an excuse, we've got to get them ready to play for that first game against Murphysboro."
Besides, if Hill ever needs some advice, he doesn't have to look very hard. He has a couple of local coaching legends just a phone call away.
"In the past couple days I've talked to (former SIU and current University of Minnesota coach Jerry) Kill, and I've talked to Coach Martin, those are guys I can rely on for help," said Hill. "You couldn't really ask for two better guys to go to. (I spoke to them) about practice schedules, those types of things."
Hill's staff at CHS is still a work in progress, but he already has some former Salukis lined up to assist him.
"Larry Warner is going to be on the staff," Hill said, "He's great with the kids and he's been there all summer with me. Shawn Smith is going to coach the offensive line, I played with him at SIU. Then we've got some other guys that have coached before that are going to come back - Mark Albertini, who played at Murphysboro a while back and was a good football player; Chris Apple, who played at Herrin, he teaches at the school. We're still trying to get some people together, but we're going to coach the kids up and get them ready to play."
Page 3 of 3 - With Martin saying he'll retire after the 2013-14 school year, one obvious question will linger in Du Quoin for the next year: Will Nick Hill be a top candidate to replace Al Martin as the Indians head coach? But Hill isn't getting ahead of himself - he says he's a Terrier, and he hopes he can find the kind of success at Carbondale that he's used to seeing back home.
"(Carbondale) gave me my first head coaching job (Thursday night), so I'm excited about this season," said Hill. "I'm excited about building a program of my own, and with the help of the others making it a place that's special - like the place I came from. In Du Quoin, you grow up wanting to play football. We have a lot of work to do, but that kind of excites me about that, there are so many opportunities here. We'll have high expectations and we'll try to get it turned around as quickly as possible."
Carbondale opens their season at Murphysboro on August 30.