Don't let the white hair and the soft smile fool you.
That's what I told a young gentleman sitting to the left of me at the state basketball tournament in Guy-Perkins a few years ago.
That was in reference to his question about who the older gentleman sitting to the right of me was.
If I remember correctly, his query went something like this -- "Who's that old guy that you keeping asking questions about the game to? One of the player's Grandpa?"
I went on to tell my new acquaintance that despite the white hair and other mannerisms that did in fact make him look the part of "one of the player's Grandpa," that the older gentleman sitting next to me had probably forgotten more about the game of basketball than the rest of the combined people in the gymnasium could ever hope to know.
I told him that gentleman was one of a kind. Not only was he one of the greatest high school coaches to ever grace a bench, he was also one of the kindest, most caring individuals ever, on the court or off.
That gentleman was coach Thednal Hill.
A true legend if there ever was.
In today's microwavable, can't-wait-for-the-next-big-thing kind of society, the word "legend" gets tossed around with reckless abandon, more times than not fading before the end of the day.
Not the case with Coach Hill.
Not that the word "legend" would ever come out of Coach Hill's mouth when talking about himself. Heck, talking about himself at all was probably one of the least favorite things Coach Hill ever did.
Mention the 1,023 wins he racked up while coaching the girls' basketball teams at Viola and later Highland, and Coach Hill was quick to point out that all he did was just coach. He didn't score any of the points, the players did. He would rather give credit to the players. After all, he would say, "I had some really excellent shooters. And when you have good shooters, you're going to win some games."
When I learned of Coach Hill's impending induction into the Arkansas Coaches' Association's Hall of Fame back in 2003, I called to offer my congratulations on a Friday afternoon in January. Coach Hill was away from the house at that time, probably out in the field checking on his beloved herd of cattle, but I did leave a message with his lovely wife of 59 years, Margorie. "Just tell Coach I'm happy for him, and it's about time he made it into the Hall of Fame," I said. "Tell him I'll put something in the paper so his friends who don't live nearby can celebrate, too."
The following Monday I was sitting in my little cubicle at the Areawide Media office in Salem, typing away, when I was told I had a visitor.
It was Coach Hill. He took the time to brave the cold weather, driving from the other side of Viola to the newspaper office in Salem to thank me for my phone call.
He also wanted to check on one thing.
He had seen a blurb concerning his upcoming Hall of Fame induction in another newspaper's Sunday edition, a story that had mistakenly listed his win total as 1,063 (probably a typo), instead of the correct figure of 1,023. He just wanted to make sure that the story I ran had the correct total, which was 40 wins lower than the mistaken 1,063.
That was classic Coach Hill. Not wanting credit for even one victory that he did not earn. Mistake or not, Coach Hill wanted to make sure the facts were the facts.
Ask him about what it felt like to be a member of the Arkansas Coaches' Association's Hall of Fame, or what it felt like to own three state championships in girls' basketball, two with Viola in 1959 and 1961, along with one at Highland in 1973, and Coach Hill would always talk about the sacrifices people other than himself made that paved the way to those lofty achievements. From all the young ladies on the teams he coached having to be sharp in the classroom as well as the court, to all the traveling his wife had to do, to the way "Johnny Carter kept the stat books for me the whole time I was at Highland. He sat on the bench next to me and never missed a game. And that was a lot of games."
Not only a coach's coach, Coach Hill was also a friend's friend.
And friendship was one of the biggest reasons that Coach Hill's career stretched 34 years.
"I do miss working with the young ladies," he said at the time of his Hall of Fame induction. "And the facility at the school. That's one reason I stayed in as long as I did, because I really looked forward to going to work everyday because of them. I made many lifelong friends through coaching."
Equally at home whether in a packed arena at the state finals, or a crowded sale barn on a Friday night, to know Coach Hill was to have a true, lifelong friend on your side.
After hanging up his whistle in 1986, Coach Hill still took in as many high school games as his schedule would allow.
In these last few years of covering high school sports, I always looked forward to spotting Coach Hill in one of the area gymnasiums. I always enjoyed talking to him about the game and finding out which teams he had seen recently that were playing good ball, along with the talents of some of the individual players. And though the game of high school basketball has changed and evolved since he coached his last game over 20 years ago, Coach Hill was still on top of things. "I really enjoy the strategy of high school basketball," he would say. And he could still tell you what was going to happen two or three plays from now, pointing out with pinpoint accuracy why one team was playing well and what the other needed to do to keep up.
And he would do all that in such a low-key, down-to-earth way that made you feel instantly at ease while in the presence of such a truly great man.
When asked if he thought he could still have the same level of success coaching these days that he did back in the day, Coach Hill would say, "I don't want to sound boastful, but I think we could win some games."
No doubt in my mind, Coach. No doubt at all.
It was with a heavy heart and much sadness that I learned Coach Hill left this earth on March 26 at the age of 82.
So Coach, let me do the boasting for awhile.
* Thirty-four years on the bench at Moro, Viola and Highland, from 1952 until 1986.
* A 1,023-162 record.
* An 89.7 career winning percentage.
* The winningest coach in Arkansas high school girls' basketball history, and as of today, the fourth winningest in the nation all-time.
* From 1959 to 1962, Coach Hill's teams racked up a record of 122-3.
* From 1958 to 1969, Coach Hill's teams suffered just one regular-season loss.
* Three state championships, along with a runner-up finish in 1962.
* Countless lives touched on and off the hardwood.
A true legend.
So long, Coach Hill, we miss you.