When word came down last Tuesday that Kansas State head coach Brad Hill was going to be stepping down at the end of the season, it was about as mature a breakup between an athletic program and a coach as you could ever hope to have.
Hill came across as nothing but thankful for the opportunity he had at K-State.
“With the best interest of the program in mind, I have decided to step aside after 15 seasons,” Hill said in a university release. “It’s come time for the program to move in a new direction and regain the energy it once had, and with the new facility on the horizon, now is the perfect time. My family and I will forever be grateful for the opportunity to be a part of such a special place and we now look forward to the next chapter in our lives.”
Similarly, athletic director Gene Taylor was quick to praise Hill for his work in Manhattan.
“Coach Hill has provided an unwavering commitment to our baseball program for 15 years and advanced it to an unprecedented level with our first-ever conference championship and multiple NCAA regional appearances,” Taylor said in the same release. “He has given so much to K-State, building our program to a championship level in a first-class manner with the utmost integrity. I admire and appreciate all he and his family have done for K-State and wish them nothing but the best. We look forward to honoring him the remainder of the season and finishing strong starting this weekend against the Jayhawks.”
Statements like these aren’t all that uncommon when there is a coaching change, as each side looks to be as civil as possible, but the fact that this was a joint statement put out by the school seems to hint that these statements aren’t just eyewash to cover over an awkward situation, but rather, true expressions of how they feel. And to their credit, K-State is backing that up with the announcement that they’re going to use the rest of the season to honor his accomplishments.
Hill is certainly deserving, because no matter which way you slice it, he’s the most successful coach in Kansas State baseball history. Sure, he surpassed Mike Clark as the all-time winningest coach in program history in 2017, but more impressively, he led the Wildcats to a number of program firsts along the way.
They got to a regional for the first time in program history in 2009. Then they went ahead and did that three more times in the next four years. The 2013 season alone featured a ton of firsts. They won their first Big 12 title, hosted their first regional, and won their first regional, which, of course, put them into the program’s first super regional, where they came just one win away from advancing to their first College World Series.
“Brad is a grinder. I was there for the first regional in school history, and it was a labor of love for him,” says Southeast Missouri State head coach Andy Sawyers, who served as an assistant under Hill at K-State in 2009-2010 and then again in 2015-2016. Recruiting was so hard there. Every time we got a ‘yes’ it was like a reason to celebrate. It’s hard to recruit. You’re the northernmost school in the league, the smallest community.
“His blue collar mentality and his fundamental system of teaching baseball…Every regional in school history that man coached. I texted him when the news came out and I said ‘Coach, I say or do something everyday that I learned from you.’ He’s hired me twice, I worked for him two different stints, he means a lot to me personally. I’m a big fan of him, and I’m very grateful to him for the opportunities he’s provided me over the course of my career.”
So while the product on the field hasn’t been at the same level over the last several years, the next coach, whoever that is, will have some big shoes to fill, as winning at K-State isn’t as easy as Hill made it look there for a few years. As the northernmost program in the Big 12, there are obvious weather challenges compared to much of their conference brethren, and scheduling quality midweek games, given their location, isn’t the easiest task in the world, either. Combined with the fact that they call the smaller, quieter community of Manhattan home, it’s also not the easiest place to recruit to, as Sawyers mentioned.
At the same time, Hill has shown the next head coach that there’s a path to winning big at Kansas State. What might have been seen as a complete outpost job at some other time in history is now seen as a place where you can win Big 12 titles and potentially get to Omaha.
And it’s not as if there aren’t things going for the program. Simply being in the Big 12 is a huge deal. You’re going to be guaranteed a certain level of scheduling quality just knowing that you’re going to play your conference foes every year and it’s reassuring to know that if you win enough games against those teams, you’re probably going to end up in the postseason discussion when it’s all said and done. As Hill alluded to in his statement, there’s also a massive facility renovation just around the corner, to be ready for the 2020 season. With other teams around the conference, like Oklahoma State, announcing facility renovations of their own, this is a big step for the program to keep up with those around them.
All of that will make this an interesting job opening heading into offseason. The new head coach, whoever it is, will have big shoes to fill, thanks to Brad Hill. But that head coach will also have an opportunity to win at a high level, also thanks to Brad Hill.