Despite a strong academic background and experience as an assistant in the powerhouse SEC, Fitz Hill’s tenure as a BCS head coach was short. But sports’ loss has been academia’s and society’s gain.
In December 2000, when he took over San Jose State, Hill became only the 17th African-American to coach at the highest level of college football and one of the few coaches at that level with a doctorate.
He resigned after 14 wins in four seasons, but the lessons he learned from sports, from the military, in school and in life have since been put to use building entirely different and more successful programs. Whether coaching sports, fighting for our country or in his role now as the first former BCS African-American coach to become a university president, the common link in his career has always been saving lives.
In February 2006, Hill agreed to become president of Arkansas Baptist College in Little Rock even though no salary was budgeted to pay him. The school enrollment had dipped to fewer than 200 students, and it appeared the college was about to be stripped of its accreditation.
“Our campus was in the most dangerous part of Little Rock,” Hill said.
What a difference five years of his leadership have made. During a recent visit to the campus and neighborhood, he described what he’s accomplished with the help of the community. (Many of the highlights are also featured in this video from the school.)
“This is Arkansas Baptist’s car wash and our fresh-market produce store,” Hill said as we drove. “Soon there will be a restaurant here. The school runs these now. This was a very dangerous corner. We take a dime of every quarter earned to go buy the boarded-up homes in our community. This is part of our entrepreneurial spirit that we use to rebuild our community. We need to have the presence. We engage our community rather than try to separate our community. Education is about inviting people in.”
Among those he’s invited is William Karambizi, who had had no high school degree and had been a soldier in the civil war and later in Darfur when Hill met him in Rwanda.
“Once I thought only about the wars around me,” Karambizi said. “Now I can go home and bring the hope that ABC gives all its students to my people.”
Hill looked with pride as we came upon ABC’s new men’s residence facility, which houses nearly 200 students, more students than ABC had when Hill became president. Next up will be the women’s dorm, which should be completed by the end of the year.
“Until recently the space for the dorms was covered by boarded-up homes, including many crack houses. We purchased all of those.” In total, ABC has purchased 37 homes and vacant lots.
The improvements aren’t just physical. The school has kept its accreditation by North Central Higher Learning Commission. Enrollment has grown to more than 1,100 students. The school’s budget has grown from $2 million to nearly $20 million (and Hill now draws a salary).
“In 2006, it was a miracle that ABC had survived,” said Billy Williams, the executive vice president and CFO of the school. “Dr. Hill’s vision of creating a non-traditional school which welcomed everyone but was based on a business model saved ABC. He emphasized to everyone, ‘read, think critically, and make good decisions.’ There was no thought of a capital campaign. He set a $36 million campaign in motion and we have already raised $23 million.”
In addition to funds, Hill has brought passion. He is a devout Christian whose faith drives him forward to believe in what he cannot see. ABC is rooted in that Christian faith. Signs across campus say that what is happening at ABC is a “GOoD thing.” Hill emphasizes, “At Arkansas Baptist we are providing leadership, but more importantly we equip students to embrace the Christian principles of serving others.”
Hill got to know issues that plague urban America firsthand as a football recruiter at Arkansas and San Jose State, where he went into inner-city homes and neighborhoods to recruit the best players possible. He often saw the effects of being raised in a single-parent family. He saw young men with an abusive parent, young men who had someone close to them addicted to crack.
“We are out to save young people,” Hill said of his calling now, beaming. “We have open admission. We are not trying to keep people out. We are trying to give people opportunity.” He referred to a study: In 2000, only 5 percent of African-American males who were enrolled in college committed a crime. “If we are going to pay $40,000 a year to house a prisoner, we can make a better investment to make sure everybody goes to college. We [as a society] are debating reducing Pell Grants, which enable so many to attend college. But there is no debate when someone says we need to expand budgets for prisons. It should cost the government less than $10,000 to support a college student with financial aid. We need to put that money into education.”
Everyone I met in Little Rock told me the same thing: President Hill brought hope not only to ABC but also to Little Rock. The people trust him. In addition to his experience coaching, people respond to his status as a veteran who received a Bronze Star Medal for his services in Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm and his ability to change lives.
The 47-year-old tells young people, “We will take anyone who believes they can use the opportunity to get an ABC degree.” He tells high school dropouts (up to 40 percent of urban students currently drop out), “Come get your GED. We will help you do that, and then you can enroll full time at ABC. We will graduate students with great minds. I want Microsoft and Google to be knocking on our doors to get our students to work for them.” Tuition is $2,700 a semester, making ABC the least expensive private school in Arkansas. If a student cannot afford to be there, Hill said the school will find a way to get him the funds to attend.
Hill is brutally honest and isn’t afraid to say what he believes, even though it might not be popular. “I really believe that African-Americans have lost that sense of community,” he said. “I think that is why we are disproportionally represented in prison and crime. Now we are fighting the new enemy: black-on-black crime. I hate racism and have spent most of my life fighting against it. But it is not the KKK [Ku Klux Klan] stopping us now. Too often it is us, and that is embarrassing and nobody wants to say that.
“The odds are I won’t be murdered by the KKK or lynched by the KKK. If something should happen, it would more likely be a random act of violence by my own people. At ABC we are trying to reverse that. In the neighborhood around campus, we went from almost constant violent crime to the past year where there was only one violent crime.”
Arkansas Baptist had virtually no sports programs, but Hill began establishing teams that would bolster school spirit and attract students who wanted to play football or baseball.
“My being a coach helps me,” Hill said. “A coach is calling plays every 30 seconds. That prepared me for this. There is constant change. I have to make quick decisions and get positive feedback all of the time. All the coaching skills, including the recruiting skills, were very instrumental in me being able to start this transformation process.”
Again, a new building, a state-of-the-art dining facility, is a sign of changes.
“We are putting the ‘neighbor’ back in the ‘hood,'” he said as we drove by. “Now on Sundays we are going to have a brunch, so after church the community folks can come and dine with our students. We will use it to build community and help fundraise so we can keep buying boarded-up homes. We want our neighbors to see how God has resurrected their college and community.”
For Hill, the commitment to mission never ends. He’ll keep building, recruiting, teaching, coaching and bringing hope to many who were hopeless.
Source: Special to ESPN.com, Fitz Hill still recruiting, coaching, leading, by Richard Lapchick. Updated: May 6, 2011, 5:26 PM ET
Richard E. Lapchick is the chairman of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program in the College of Business Administration at the University of Central Florida. Lapchick also directs UCF’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is the author of 16 books and the annual Racial and Gender Report Card, and is the director of the National Consortium for Academics and Sport. He has joined ESPN.com as a regular commentator on issues of diversity in sport.
EDITOR’S NOTE: From 2004 to 2006, Fitz Hill was a visiting scholar and research associate at the University of Central Florida’s DeVos Sport Business Management Program, of which Richard Lapchick is the chairman.