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Chris Hill’s path to University of Utah athletics director began with getting turned down for a job

First Published      Last Updated Mar 09 2017 05:41 pm

Utah athletics » Before budgeting for athletic trips, Hill took his students on field trips.

West Valley City • The students in Mr. Hill's class understood they needed the math credit to graduate from Granger High School. Yet they wondered how they ever would use anything he taught them, continually asking, "Why do we need to know this?"

That explains why Chris Hill piled about a dozen boys into his Volkswagen van without the principal knowing about the impulsive field trip, driving to the site of their home building class. They showed him how they measured the joists and did other calculations, realizing they were applying math skills.

Standing in the library of the newly rebuilt school, Hill likens the story to a "Welcome Back, Kotter" scene. The show, starring Gabe Kaplan as a teacher who returned to his old school in Brooklyn, featured diverse characters in a remedial class and aired from September 1975 to May 1979. That run matched Hill's tenure at Granger, where he taught algebra and geometry to college-bound students and used creative methods with others who needed to pass basic math. "They were just a blast," he said.

He took over a downtrodden basketball program in Utah's highest level (Class 4A) at age 25, bringing his New Jersey intensity, Catholic high school education and thick accent to Granger. "We couldn't understand what he was saying half the time," said Jeff Thurman, a member of Hill's first team.

Hill has blended in well in the Salt Lake Valley, staying longer than he ever imagined. In March, he'll turn 67. In October, he'll observe his 30-year anniversary as the University of Utah's athletic director.

Yet he never may have launched a circuitous route toward that job if not for failing in his effort to move from Granger to Olympus, with a stronger basketball culture.

"I got turned down," he said. "Sometimes, that helps."

Olympus' hiring of Ron Huber steered Hill out of secondary education, altering a career trajectory that likely would have made him a principal and superintendent, like his father in New Jersey. The Granger experience sticks with him, though.

On a recent morning, Hill drove from the Utah campus to Granger. Following 3300 South to 3600 West, he retraced the route he always took from his home in Sugar House in the 1970s, when he drove the white van with yellow and green stripes and a smiley face on the front ("We were hippies," his wife, Kathy, said unapologetically).

Arriving shortly after the 10:33 a.m. bell signaled the first lunch period, Hill marveled about Granger's size and diversity with nearly 3,300 students. He wondered how they all fit in socially and reflected about how teaching influenced him.

"I tell everybody, teaching in front of a class with teenagers is pretty intimidating," Hill said. "And I learned to speak with them, I learned to be lighthearted, I learned I'd better know what I'm taking about. And I think that helps me so much now, when I'm speaking in front of people. … I learned it can be a great job if you work your tail off, and if you do it right, teaching is really, really hard — and so valuable."

Having played basketball and graduated with a degree in math education from Rutgers University in New Jersey, Hill spent a year as a high school coach in Garfield, N.J., just outside of New York. He joined one of his college coaches, Bill Foster, as a graduate assistant with the Utes and earned a master's degree, then followed Foster to Duke, intending to coach and pursue a doctorate.

Romance brought him back to Salt Lake City before he got started in Durham, N.C.

"To my parents' chagrin," he said, "I came out here without a job."

It all worked out nicely. Chris and Kathy Hill were married in June 1975, before he started at Granger. After placing a newspaper ad and working briefly as a painter, Hill landed a mid-year teaching position at Eisenhower Junior High in Taylorsville. He became Granger's basketball coach the following year. The school needed a math teacher, and the principal, E. Glen Smith, apparently was impressed by phone calls from Foster and Jim Valvano, Hill's freshman coach at Rutgers.

Coaching the Lancers was a tough job in an athletic program oriented to football and baseball. "Just not a very good basketball school," said Kent Norris, who remembers taking over a winless team and coaching for two seasons before Hill replaced him (Norris won two baseball state championships in the '70s).

Norris, a fellow math teacher, laughed about how a coach ordinarily would be critical of his successor, but "I have nothing but good things to say about him," he said. "Chris did a really good job."

The players responded well to Hill, once they figured out what he was talking about. He learned to slow down during his timeout instructions and say "corner," not "cohn-uh."

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Chris Hill’s professional career

1972-73 » Basketball coach, Garfield (N.J.) High School

1973-74 » Graduate assistant, Utah

1974-75 » Math teacher, Eisenhower Junior High, Taylorsville

1975-79 » Math teacher and basketball coach, Granger High School, West Valley City

1979-81 » Graduate assistant/restricted-earnings basketball coach, Utah

1981-85 » Executive director, United Cerebral Palsy; special education teacher, Utah (1983-85)

1985-87 » Director, Utah Crimson Club

1987-present » Athletic director, Utah

They were Lancers

Notable players in Chris Hill’s Granger tenure

Tom Heywood » Drafted in the sixth round in 1983 by Golden State and played for Wyoming of the Continental Basketball Association after attending Ricks College and Weber State.

John Warburton » Played for Snow College; his daughter Morgan is the No. 7 all-time scorer for the Utah women’s basketball program.

Jeff Thurman » Now the executive director of the Utah Junior Golf Association.

About the series

“First Jobs” is an occasional series detailing an early segment in the careers of notable Utah sports figures. Today: Chris Hill, University of Utah athletic director.