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A conversation with the winningest college baseball coach in West Coast Conference history

What do Kris Bryant,  the 2016 N.L. MVP and World Series champion, and Brian Matusz, the fourth overall pick from 2008, have in common? They both played college baseball at the University of San Diego under legendary head coach Rich Hill.

Hill took over the Toreros program in 1999, and since then, he has become the youngest active coach with 1000 wins and the winningest coach in the WCC, both current and all-time. Hill has also coached dozens of all Americans, numerous future pros, and even had five of his players get selected in the 2019 MLB Draft.

TieBreaker (TB) was fortunate enough to speak with Coach Hill (CH) and discuss the rigors and excitement of coaching, what it’s like to play in the minors, and how San Diego is the best place in America to coach baseball.

Minor league baseball

Coach Hill played minor league baseball for the Class-A Savannah Cardinals before embarking on his coaching career. 

TB: What was the worst part about the minor leagues?

Coach Hill: The pay. It was $11 a day for a meal. And I mean, we live for going on the road and I can’t even remember how much we made per month, but it was poverty level and definitely put it into two checks and both got taxed and one of those checks was to pay rent and [the other to] tip the clubby; you had zero money. We actually had a contest of how long you could go the longest without using utensils. Lots of Burger King. It was loading up on pasta and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

TB: So it was a real grind, just like it’s portrayed?

CH: Absolutely. But nobody ever complained and we just kind of laughed it off. We’re playing baseball for a living and goofing around as 20-year-olds, and it was just a really cool time of life.

On leadership

TB: Do you ever have any freshman lead the team or is that pretty rare?

CH: Yeah, in our culture, everybody’s a leader. It’s not just the seniors with a “C” on their chest. Everybody comes into our program with the idea that they’re going to develop and be able to implement leadership skills.

TB: So there’s no big split?

CH: Everyone — everyone — can lead and everyone does. We don’t have team captains.

Coach Hill maintains a policy of not having a team captain, something most programs do.

On recruiting players out of high school

TB: When you’re recruiting kids out of high school, what’s the first thing you look for in a player?

CH: Talent is the first thing. You look for a skill set that’s going to … thrive at the Division I level. Then you get into the character. You got to really do your research with their high school coach, with the travel ball coach, and anybody that comes in contact with that kid and that family to try to get a gauge on if they’re a fit for USD.

On Division I vs Division III

TB: What’s the main difference between Division I and  Division III ballplayers?

CH: The talent level is different, especially pitching. The athleticism and the speed of the game, the facilities, resources, ballparks, fan experience.

What it was like to coach future National League MVP and World Series champion Kris Bryant

TB: Could you tell right away that he was going to become a star in the majors?

CH: Not like this. No. He knew he was going to be a pro [after his sophomore year] and have a good career, but no, you couldn’t see that he was going to be a Golden Spikes and rookie of the year, N.L. MVP, and World Series champion.

TB: Has his fame and celebrity impacted your recruiting process?

CH: I think so. You can’t really quantify it, but there’s a huge framed photo of him. There’s a banner of him and we talk about him all the time.

TB: Have you ever noticed any resentment among kids towards stars on the team, like Kris Bryant? Do kids who are going pro get treated any differently?

CH: Not here. Not in college. When you get to the pro level it’s different. They probably get treated a bit differently [there].

TB: Would you say that you run a disciplined program?

CH: Yes. Absolutely. Number one priority. It’s admission based. I’m a mission-driven program and a purpose driven program. And the number one thing above all is taking these teenagers into that next phase of their life, which is manhood. End of story. That’s what college is about.

Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

The College World Series

Coach Hill has taken USD to the NCAA Tournament eight times since 2002 but has yet to reach the College World Series, the tournament’s final stage.

TB: You’ve gone a bunch of times to the NCAA Tournament but no the College World Series. Is that the main goal, to get there?

RH: Yes, that’s the Moby Dick for me. I’m chasing it. I’m 32 years in and the only way you don’t get there is if you quit.

The Cape League

Coach Hill also coached in the Cape Leauge, a premier summer baseball league full of college stars and future pros.

TB: How was coaching at the Cape League?

CH: Awesome. Phenomenal. Just a great life experience. We won the championship in 1992. Played for the championship in 1991. I had a really good run there; it was a phenomenal, impactful life experience.

TB: How do Cape Cod’s beaches stack up to California?

CH: Nothing compares to California and Hawaii.

On star players from college not meeting expectations in the pros

TB: What do you think the main reason is behind a star in college not finding their stride in the pros?

CH: It’s not one single thing you can put your finger on, but usually it has to do with health. That’s the number one thing. Then there’s the mental part of the game. It’s a high-stress environment where there is so much stimulus and so many consequences, and that’s the separator where guys break down.

CH: You look at Single-A, Double-A, Triple-A. Everybody’s talented. There’s talent everywhere and there are big arms everywhere. It’s just having the mental toughness to do that every day and to be consistent.

Speaking with former players

TB: Do you ever reach out to your former students?

CH: All the time. We talk all the time, and not just the guys that are in pro baseball.

Reuben Canales/Getty Images

Life on the road

TB: What’s the toughest part about long road trips?

CH: I would say just being out of your routine of being home, being away from the comforts of home.

TB: Hardest park to play at?

CH: Gonzaga comes to mind. They have great fans and a great fan experience. But it’s the elements. It’s always cold, windy, hailing, snowing, raining.

Random questions

TB: How come managers in baseball wear the team uniforms, instead of suits like in the NBA and NHL?

CH: I don’t know. I just think it’s one of those things in baseball that a hundred years ago they did it. But it’s funny, it’s good in a way because, I mean, it forces guys that are starting to get up there a little bit in age [to stay in shape].

TB: Do you ever get mixed up with Dodgers’ pitcher Rich Hill?

CH: Yes. All the time. We’ve run into each other and kind of laughed about it, like, “I know who you are man.”

TB: Tacos or burritos

CH: It’s a tie for first.