Hill Deserved To Have Reel World, But Got Real World

By Off the BASN Sports Wire
Updated: November 28, 2004

Fitz Hill

SAN JOSE, Ca. — In the movies, Fitz Hill does not lose Saturday’s game.

In the movies, his San Jose State team pulls off a dramatic upset over bowl-bound Fresno State. His players carry Hill off the field after dunking him in Gatorade. And as the credits roll, in a victory celebration, Hill kisses his wife and hugs his kids.

No movie like that one unspooled Saturday. Nothing even remotely close. Saturday was the real world for Fitz Hill.

In the real world, San Jose State quarterback Adam Trafalis fumbles away the ball on the first snap. In the real world, on the very next play, Fresno State scores. In the real world, the Spartans go on to lose 62-28.

And that was the problem. In the real world, there were just too many Saturdays like this one for Hill. That is why he resigned last week as SJSU’s coach. University officials had suggested it might be a good idea.

Hill was determined to go out with his head up. And he did. At the end, he shook hands and headed for the exit ramp at the stadium’s north end. Because the game ended at 5:25 p.m., Hill literally walked off into the sunset. But he wasn’t enjoying the scenery. His mind was racing.

“I’m going to miss the guys,” Hill said. “That’s one thought I had. And I was thinking how I wished . . . you know, two years ago when we lost to Fresno by 19-16, a bowl invitation was on the line. And we didn’t get it.”

A lot of things were out of the Spartans’ grasp during Hill’s time on the sideline. Saturday, it was more of the same: Some great offensive moments were surrounded by numerous defensive breakdowns. Fresno State had its way, as usually happens with the Bulldogs inside the San Jose city limits. Besides whipping the Spartans, they have won the past two Silicon Valley Football Classics. That’s four victories at Spartan Stadium dating to Nov. 23, 2002. In the same span, San Jose State has two over Division I-A schools.

“We didn’t win enough football games,” Hill said. “Nobody has to tell me that. I know how I’m evaluated. But I’ve worked hard, done the very best I could. I told the players, don’t worry about Coach Hill, because Coach Hill is going to be fine.”

But will San Jose State football?

And as usual when it comes to the school, the answer is complicated. The new football coach cannot be hired until the school hires a new athletic director to replace Chuck Bell, who officially retires Wednesday. A committee headed by former 49ers coach and SJSU alumnus Bill Walsh has been charged with finding Bell’s successor.

Committee member Bill Fisher, the athletic department’s faculty representative, said Saturday that the group’s next scheduled meeting is Dec. 10. At that meeting, candidates will be pared to the most serious interview prospects. By the time those interviews are completed and someone is hired, we’re looking at Christmas.

And that, remember, is just to pick the new athletic director. How long it takes him or her to hire Hill’s replacement is anybody’s guess. Former coach Claude Gilbert, who took SJSU to two bowl games during his tenure from 1984-89, was at Saturday’s game and winced slightly when he heard the timetable.

“That could kill recruiting,” he said.

It’s all part of the challenging and convoluted Spartans mix — the tight budget, bleak attendance, oversized goals.

Those issues were probably what caused Hill to fail on the field. His best and happiest moment as SJSU’s coach was the home opener in 2003, when the Spartans played Grambling State before a sellout crowd. Hill had come up with the concept of the “Literacy Classic,” inviting a team from a historically black college and tying it into a week of events promoting the opening of the new school and city library.

The event was a wild success, but Hill paid a price. He visited Silicon Valley companies to get financial support, he spoke to groups about buying tickets, he invited distinguished personalities to campus for seminars.

“I can say this now,” Hill revealed. “That was probably the demise of Fitz Hill. Why? Because of burnout. I’ve told my wife that since the Grambling game, I’ve never felt the same physically.”

The game was now 45 minutes in the past, and the mood was lighter. Hill joked that he might get a bus driver’s license and eventually coach his 4-year-old son in high school, steering the team to away games.

Right on cue, his family entered the meeting room where Hill was sitting. He kissed his wife warmly, and his kids ran up to hug him.

So that part of the movie did happen. Too bad the rest of it couldn’t.