- “Talking with Coach Gaines was like talking to God.”
- “He wasn’t mad but he was disappointed.”
This Time – More Than Three Decades Later – A Son
Decides to Walk in His Legendary Father’s Footsteps (Kind Of)
By Richard L. Williams
Thirty-four years ago, 18-year-old Cleo Hill Jr., fresh out of Orange High School in Orange, New Jersey, visited the Winston-Salem State University basketball program to see whether the small-college powerhouse would be a perfect fit to lace up his Pony sneakers the ensuing four years.
Although he had some Division I offers and wanted badly to attend nearby Seton Hall University, he decided to visit Winston-Salem State.
Truth be told, he mostly took the visit as a solid to his father who, besides Hall of Famer and basketball icon Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, was the next closest thing to basketball royalty at what was formerly known as Winston-Salem Teachers College or “TC.”
Hill’s father, Cleo Hill Sr., had been a legend on the hardcourt some decades earlier and he was looking forward to his son following in his footsteps. When the teenager arrived on campus with his parents and with his high-school sweetheart in tow, they went straight to the C.E. Gaines Center to greet renowned Coach Clarence “Big House” Gaines. Gaines coached a total of 47 years at Winston-Salem State, amassed 828 victories, and is one of the few African Americans to be inducted as a coach into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
“Talking with Coach Gaines was like talking to God or the President,” Hill says. “His voice was so deep and he’s so pronounced, so prestigious, and he said all of the right things.”
As they later toured the campus, the family was frequently greeted by people who reminisced about the glory days of Rams basketball and the on-court brilliance of Cleo Hill Sr., who remains the university’s second all-time leading scorer with nearly 2,500 points – second only to Monroe – and who became in 1961 the first player from a historically black college drafted in the first round of the NBA.
Many of greeters, Hill recalls, wanted to know if the teenager would be attending Winston-Salem State, thus allowing throngs of Rams faithful to relive the glory days of Cleo Hill Sr. through his namesake son. They did not realize that for every “Are you coming to WSSU?” that the youngster was asked and for every story they shared about his father’s basketball exploits, they were cementing his inclination to play basketball elsewhere.
“It was overwhelming,” Hill says. “It was just a lot.”
Hill had reservations about the scrutiny and pressure that would accompany being compared to his father whenever he took the court. However, he also agonized over disappointing his father if he eschewed the college that meant so much to him and that he helped put on the map. Nevertheless, after returning to New Jersey, Hill told his father he would not be attending Winston-Salem State.
“I said ‘I don’t want to do this – I hope you’re not mad,’” he says, recalling the conversation from 34 years ago with his father. “He wasn’t mad but he was disappointed.”
Hill decided to play basketball at North Carolina Central University, where he still ranks among the school’s all-time leading scorers.
“It’s not that I fell in love with (N.C. Central’s) campus,” he admits, “but I fell in love with the campus, and no pressure.”
‘A Prideful Institution’
Undoubtedly, Cleo Hill Sr., who died in 2015, would have been proud that his son finally came around to saying yes to his beloved Winston-Salem State. Last May, Hill was introduced as the ninth head coach in the history of WSSU’s storied program, besting more than 100 applicants for the position.
“We are thrilled to have Cleo Hill Jr. on board,” Chancellor Elwood L. Robinson says. “He is uniquely qualified to lead our men’s basketball program. He understands WSSU’s legacy as a basketball powerhouse and possesses the leadership, skill and experience to take our men’s basketball program to the next level.”
Following his playing days at North Carolina Central, Hill constructed an impressive dossier as an efficacious coach, relentless recruiter, and proficient player-development tutor. He led Shaw University to a 116-67 record in seven seasons, guiding them in 2011 to the university’s first CIAA championship and an appearance in the NCAA Division II Atlantic Regional Tournament. In five seasons at Cheyney University, he took the Wolves to two NCAA Division II playoffs. He also served as an assistant coach at the University of Nebraska.
The 52-year-old Hill inherits a program at WSSU that in 1967 became the first predominantly black school to win a NCAA Division II championship and also stakes claim to 11 CIAA titles in its 70-year history. When he makes his home debut against Morris College on Nov. 17, he will be sitting on the same bench as his father and patrolling the same sidelines as the former coach he once considered God-like.
This time, he says, there was no hesitation. He was ready to become a Ram.
“I was blown away following the interview process when taking a tour of the campus,” he says. “I just didn’t know… No offense to Cheyney or Shaw, but being here it’s just a different feel.
“I think one of the reasons we do things how we do them, in such a professional manner here – from the sports teams, cheerleaders, dance girls, the modeling troupe – they all practice extremely hard,” Hill adds. “It’s like everything is done in a professional manner. I think part of is we’re just a prideful institution. And another part, I think, is we’ve been Division I and seen how it’s done in the MEAC and we’ve played some of the bigger I-A schools.”
In addition to his father being a Ram legend, Hill says he also was a successful coach at Essex County College in Newark and created a pipeline to his alma mater and the CIAA. He says his father sent several of his best players to play for Gaines, including Therman Greene and Troy Russell.
“I looked up to his players,” he says.
Hill says he relishes the opportunity and challenge of recruiting players in basketball-rich North Carolina to attend Winston-Salem State.
“We are trying to win the battle of North Carolina and that’s a tough battle,” he says. “It’s some strong D-I schools here, some strong D-II schools here, and some strong conference schools here, and we are trying to carve out our niche.”
The recruitment process involves the player, the player’s family and high school and AAU coaches, who in some instances have more influences on the process than a lot of family members, Hill says.
He says parents of most recruits are concerned with graduation rates, the maturation process, and the character of the head coach and his staff. Occasionally, he says a conversation veers toward opportunities to ultimately play professionally, whether in the U.S. or abroad. He admits there is a different recruitment approach depending on which parent he is speaking to.
“The fathers are saying ‘I’m handing you my son, so make it happen for him on and off the court,’” Hill says. “But the moms are saying, “I’m handing you my baby,’ which is a totally different mindset.”
He says he was not surprised when national headlines over the summer showed the dark underbelly of the recruitment process in which shoe company executives were convicted for giving large sums of cash to families in exchange for five-star recruits attending certain universities.
“There are some horror stories at that next level and some of the stuff is coming to light now,” Hill says.
THE HBCU EXPERIENCE
There was a time when top athletes routinely attended historically black colleges. For many of them a black college was their only option, as segregation was a way of life in the South and racial prejudices were rife in other parts of the country.
Hill thinks that as young athletes continue to become more and more socially conscious and aware, some five-star athletes will eventually begin seriously considering enrolling in black colleges.
“I think that day is coming and I don’t think it’s far off,” he says. “I think students, but mainly more and more parents, are seeing the value of a historically black college education and atmosphere. I think there are some very talented young men and very conscious parents that want this kind of atmosphere. They don’t nourish at historically white schools; we definitely nourish at our HBCUs. I think the parents are starting to see that.”
He says coaches at black colleges should not ignore top recruits under the assumption that they have no shot at signing them.
“I’m friends with some parents who have high-level (athletes) – like top five in the country,” he says. “You just never know. I just think there has to be a connection and a trust. And if there is a connection and a trust, I don’t think there is any limitation.”
He says players with the desire and skillset to play professionally can definitely develop their skills at HBCUs and be prepared to play at the next level when they leave.
“By nature, I am a player development coach,” Hill says. “That’s what I’ve done for the past two-and-a-half years. That’s what I’ve always done.”
Cleo Hill Jr. Coaching Highlights
• CIAA Coach of the Year, 2012
• BOXTOROW Coach of the Year, 2011 and 2012
• NSSA Division II Clarence “Big House” Gaines Coach of the Year, 2011
• PSAC Coach of the Year, 2008
• Four NCAA Division II playoff berths
• CIAA championship, 2011