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."