ScuttleBu(r)t: Remembering Don Hill
Remembering Burt Angeli, Spring, 1978
My coffee was scalding, so hot it melted my plastic spoon. . . Hoping to escape the chilling words, I sought refuge by leaning against the Eddie Chambers Memorial Gym in Crystal Falls. . . I tried to keep my attention on the Skyline Conference Relays, but my attention was diverted. . . “Why do they want to get rid of ‘the man’?” pleaded Puffer Ball, a columnist with the Crystal Falls Diamond Drill. . . Ball was referring to a most recent episode in the life of Donald Marvin Hill, where a small vocal group disapproved of his basketball coaching tactics. . . What struck me was the reference in which Ball called Hill “the man” . . . After Hill’s death, those words hit home. . . An Upper Peninsula Sports Hall of Fame member with his credentials deserves that title — “the man.”
Still groggy from sleep my phone hopped off the hook at 8:30 a.m. Saturday. . . “I heard Don Hill died this morning,” reported Ron Kramer . . . Immediately, my heart sank and I sat mystified for the longest time, putting together my recollection of Donald M. Hill in the past two years.
New to Dickinson County I attempted to acquaint myself with the area coaches, prior to the basketball season. . . After examining the Norway High School gym, I decided to inquire about Hill . . . I asked a rather plump man wearing gym shorts and a Mickey Mouse t-shirt if he knew where Hill was . . Yes, this man dressed in rather odd attire and checking in football gear, was Donald M. Hill.
After a year in the business, I was never amazed to see Don Hill pop up in the strangest of places . . . Over the years, I have bumped into “the man” court-side at Crisler Arena in Ann Arbor; in Goodman, Wis for a state basketball playoff; at Ranger Field for a state Babe Ruth umpiring assignment; at Norway’s gym for refereeing in the Community School basketball tournament; at Hermansville’s Community Gym for the Gold Medal Classic; at Pontiac Silverdome for the state football playoffs; and at Rhinelander, Wis. for a softball tournament.
One of the last times I saw Donald M. Hill was at Crisler Arena. . . During this year’s Class B semifinal I roamed the arena, not looking for anything in particular . . . While scanning the press area, I noticed a familiar figure. . . Yes, Hill was reading a score sheet and viewing the contest. . . But how did Hill rate getting a ring-side seat? “I just walked down here,” said Hill. “Some kids took my seat and I didn’t want to cause trouble.” A former resident of Crystal Falls who worked at Crisler Arena recognized Hill and allowed him to sit there . . . “I knew when you lost to Forest Park, that your team wasn’t coming down here,” said the Crisler employee . . . “Hey, you can be replaced,” laughed Hill at the nervy comment.
Two coaches close to Hill weren’t included in Sunday’s roundup of comments . . . Mike Nelson of the Menominee Herald-Leader asked North Dickinson mentor Don Benzie and Norway Assistant Coach Vic Fochesato for their reactions . . . “He was my idol as a coach and I used to watch his games all the time when I was in college at NMU,” offered Benzie. “After all, when you wanted to see the best, you watched Hill.” Fochesato said, “His whole life was coaching, he was a very good coach. He was the most prepared coach I ever saw.” Fochesato added “Something else that perhaps a lot of people don’t know, is that he was a very compassionate man; he loved all of his ballplayers.”
One of the suggested criticisms of Hill was a loss of respect . . . Asp Funeral Home bulged at the number of people attending the services. . . All the members of the 1978 Norway basketball team were in attendance. . . One of Hill’s top athletes from Norway left the funeral home Monday with tears streaming down his face . . . Pete Nocerini of The Daily News only covered two of Hill’s games but looked like he lost his best friend Saturday after hearing the news . . . It’s nonsense to think that Hill didn’t have the respect of most everyone in the community and U.P.
I had one complaint about Donald M. Hill . . . He was a hard loser . . . He didn’t make my job any easier by not responding to questions . . . Can you imagine my dilemma following the 1977 Class C Regional loss to Westwood? Hill just buried his face in his hands and cried . . . John Walstrom, sports editor of The News before I accepted the role, set me straight . . . Walstrom, who called Hill the greatest coach he ever knew and credited him with learning several aspects of the game, said something to the effect “that good losers usually keep losing.” Don Hill, who won 400 basketball games, didn’t do much losing.
Assorted Hill thoughts . . . It’s wonderful that Hill achieved his 400th coach win and was named to the U.P. Sports Hall of Fame before his death . . . Hill spent 25 years helping out with the Gold Medal Classic in Hermansville . . . I never considered Hill’s court etiquette out of the ordinary . . . Some of the basketball coaches at Hill’s funereal were Forest Park’s Stu Smith, Negaunee’s Dave Hallgren, Westwood’s Irv Dieterle, Gwinn’s Dan Fleury, Marquette’s Gordy LeDuc and Northern Michigan’s Glen Brown . . . He never publicly downgraded any of his coaching colleagues . . . He dearly missed the Menominee Range and Big Seven conferences.
I deceived Donald M. Hill on my final conversation with him . . . My original request was a comment or two on Dave Kimichik attending Cornell, but I quickly scrapped that idea and hammered home on the Norway coaching situation . . . Hill appreciated the little coverage on my part to the difficulty . . . However, Hill refused to elaborate on the situation, “I still have a couple of tricks up my sleeve,” offered Hill. “Some day, and it might be at a softball game in Rhinelander, Wis., I will tell you the whole story.”
And if I bump into Hill in the hereafter, I am sure he will be coaching a basketball game or watching some kind of sporting event . . . Joe Polomis, who would travel to the other side of the globe for a press guide, grabbed my arm after the services. . . “We lost a good friend,” drawled Polomis . . . We did indeed, Joe.