B.J. Hill gets the keys to his own program

The coronation of B.J. Hill at Northern Colorado could best be described by the new coach himself as “kind of weird.”

After all, the same team meeting that saw Tad Boyle announce his departure to Colorado -- and promptly leave the room -- provided the backdrop for athletic director Jay Hinrichs moments later to inform the players of Hill’s promotion.

And just like that, without even having to interview, Hill became a head coach for the first time -- the result of a job well done as associate head coach and a glowing recommendation that Boyle had offered to school officials.

Recalled Boyle: “All I told the administration was, I said, ‘Listen, you have to understand one of the main reasons for the success is because of B.J. Hill. If you don’t hire him, I am. For his sake, for your sake, and most importantly for the players in the program’s sake, he’s your guy.’ ”

That Hill, 36, received the keys to a Northern Colorado program on the rise following a 25-win season was surreal in the sense that finalizing it took a matter of hours.

But it took four years in the Big Sky Conference for Hill to help Boyle transform a Bears team from the nation’s worst RPI rating in 2007 to the program’s first Division I postseason tournament bid.

Prior to arriving at Northern Colorado, Hill spent eight years toiling in relative anonymity as a junior college assistant and then a season at then-Division II South Dakota State, waiting for a Division I opportunity to come.

“You’re always having D-I guys say stuff to you,” Hill said. “ ‘I sure hope to hire you some day.’ I heard that a lot. The first couple you get excited about. Then you’re like ‘OK, whatever.’ ”

While Hill would ultimately carve out a reputation as a relentless recruiter, the Iowa native didn’t exactly have a vast network of coaching connections coming up the ranks.

Advice from Hill’s father, a former high school assistant coach who wasn’t afraid to kick his own son out of practice, would suffice.

“He taught me the way things should be done,” Hill said. “There’s no cheating hard work.”

After playing at North Iowa Area Community College, Hill got his start in coaching there and found he would need that work ethic in order to recruit players to Mason City, Iowa. The same applied to his stints at Independence (Kan.) Community College, Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College and Indian Hills (Iowa) Community College.

Hill worked the phones and put plenty of miles on his car. To get future Illinois State transfer Boo Richardson to come to Coffeyville, for example, he made the six-hour roundtrip drive to Kansas City to watch him play an estimated 15 times.

There were times, though, when taking the long road frustrated Hill. In three years, he applied for four junior college head coaching jobs -- some at programs he considered to be low-level -- but wasn’t hired despite a track record of having brought in top talent for the area’s most successful junior colleges.

“And I can’t get a sniff?” Hill wondered.

But along the recruiting trail, Hill would cross paths with Boyle, then a Wichita State assistant under Mark Turgeon. Hill steered Boyle toward recruiting Coffeyville forward Ryan Martin, who went on to play a key role on the 2006 Shockers team that went to the Sweet 16.

Boyle was impressed, and when he was hired the following season to take over at Northern Colorado, he was happy to give Hill a chance to take his career to a new level.

Hill of course was thrilled, even if his candidacy was buoyed by the fact that an assistant coaching position at a program transitioning into Division I wasn’t necessarily a coveted job.

“I couldn’t afford to hire someone with experience,” Boyle said. “I had to work scratch and claw to get B.J. the same money he was making. Financially, it was a lateral move for him. The thing that I appreciated was he was ready and eager for the opportunity.”

The Bears went 4-24 in that first season, and Hill quickly experienced his “We’re not in Kansas” anymore moment in Division I.

“When you walk into Purdue and get smacked by 32,” he said. “It’s like, OK, you better go get some players.”

Hill responded by bringing in junior college transfers to fill an immediate need. Two of his former players at Indian Hills -- Jabril Banks and Robert Palacios -- had standout careers after transferring to Northern Colorado, and Yahosh Bonner out of Salt Lake Community College was last season’s conference defensive player of the year.

Hill also recruited the majority of a roster that next season will feature four seniors, including all-conference guard Devon Beitzel.

Boyle rewarded Hill by promoting him to associate head coach after Northern Colorado more than tripled its win total to 13 in their second season together.

It was also at that point that Boyle began talking up Hill as his successor. Hill said nothing was put in writing, but he was feeling good about things once Colorado came calling for Boyle shortly after the Bears went to the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament and beat Portland in the first round..

“He had a four-year interview,” Boyle said. “They knew what they were getting.”

The day after Boyle accepted the Colorado job, Hill walked into Hinrichs' office to talk about reassuring their signed recruits when he was greeted with a congratulatory handshake and a copy of his new contract.

The hiring was revealed to the team later that day. And while the timing of it might have felt weird, Hill also relished his moment of achievement and sensed, as his players did, that this could very well be the start of something special.

“The guys were jacked,” Hill said. “They were tremendous. It was an emotional deal.”