Peace and Love.
A simple, yet profound phrase that UTRGV men’s basketball head coach Lew Hill used in his everyday life. And perhaps it was peace and love shown by a greater power in the early morning hours of Feb. 7, 2021.
Less than 24 hours after coaching UTRGV in a wild 77-75 loss at Texas Southern, Hill passed away in his sleep, having coached his final game in the same fashion he always coached, with a smile on his face and fire in his eyes.
“Very sad,” ESPN analyst and longtime friend Fran Fraschilla said. “Very, very sad day for a lot of us. I was stunned.”
At 55 and in the middle of his fifth year at UTRGV, Hill was on the rise as a coach that ‘had no enemies’, according to Texas Tech head coach Chris Beard.
“He’s just one of those guys in our game that had no enemies, was never in a bad mood, was always about the players. The game is not the same today when all woke up because one of the greats in our game isn’t here anymore.”
Hill was more than just a basketball coach. He was a friend who always had a smile on his face who was good to so many people both inside and outside of basketball.
“When it’s someone in our own basketball coaching family, and so many people have so many great memories of Lew, it makes it tough to realize that you’re not going to be able to text or call him anymore,” Fraschilla said.
The ultimate people person who had a gift for judging the character and soul of a man rather than the look him as Herman Boone once said.
“In a world that has its daily troubles, Lew always looked beyond the negative,” Fraschilla said. “He was always positive. His outlook on life was positive and was probably based on strong spirituality.”
Peace and Love
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Hill was an all-state performer at Mount Vernon High School. Following a standout high school career, Hill took his talents and infectious positivity to San Jacinto College in Texas. All he did in junior college was lead the Ravens to the 1983-84 national championship while earning All-American honors.
“He was a legend early on,” legendary Mount Vernon coach Bob Cimmino said. “I knew him from watching him when he played here at Mount Vernon. He was always the primetime player and I could see that his teammates respected him and the fans loved him.”
Following a standout career at San Jacinto College, Hill took his positive outlook and transferred to Wichita State. In his final season at Wichita State, Hill earned All-Missouri Valley Conference honors and led the Shockers to a 20-10 record and an NCAA Tournament appearance.
“He wasn’t the ‘rah rah’ player,” former Mount Vernon teammate Ricky Stanley said. “He was smooth and silky with it. I mean he was like a George Ervin-type player. He was a player like that. He’d just get it. The coach that you see, that’s the player he was. We called him Sugar Hill because his game was so sweet.”
Hill’s game was sweet as sugar, but there was also an intensity lying just beneath the sweetness of Hill’s game.
“I forget who we were playing and the other guy was getting some of the best of Lew,” Stanley said. “And Lew wasn’t a person that would really talk while he was playing. So, Lew was getting upset. He just started smiling but it was a fake smile, like ‘I’m getting ready to get at you now.’ And he just ate the guy up. Then he wouldn’t stop smiling like ‘you see what time it is now?’
“But that was Lew. He could smile at you. But, that smile, it could be a smile of encouragement or a smile to let you know ‘get ready I’m coming for you.’”
It is the same approach Lew Hill took as a basketball coach. If you have seen UTRGV play in the past five years, you know there isn’t a lot of hoopla or hype surrounding the program. There is a workmanship attitude that is the ultimate example of how Lew Hill played the game and coaches the game.
“Like some guys are these gritty type players,” Stanley said. “They really weren’t that good but their grit kept them good so now they become those type of coaches. What you see how Lew coaches his team, that’s the player he was.”
Defensive pressure, up-tempo, pushing the pace, being aggressive, and out-working opponents. Welcome to the way Lew Hill played and coached the game he loves.
A Trailblazer Full of Peace and Love
Lew Hill always knew he was going to get his chance to be a college basketball coach. Perhaps it was a matter of telling good friend and assistant Jai Steadman to “be patient, Stead.” Or maybe it was reminding himself day after day that he couldn’t “wait to get his chance.”
But, being from Mount Vernon, the prospects of becoming a head coach weren’t significant. Don’t tell that to Lew Hill. The perseverance, patience and determination to do the right thing day in and day out led to something legendary.
UTRGV Director of Operations and Mount Vernon native Chris Lowe put out the following tweet that says it all.
“Lew Hill made it from Mt.Vernon to become a Black Division 1 Head Coach man that’s legendary!!!”
And according to former Mount Vernon teammate Ricky Stanley, Hill would do all he could to help others in their coaching journey.
“He was part of the black coaches association so what Lew wanted to do, he wanted to bring other black coaches or other people who were interested,” Stanley said. “Lew would get those guys and say ‘look, this is what you need to do.’ He would walk them through step-by-step how to get in the door. Now, he couldn’t tell you how to act once you got in the door, ‘but, i can get you in the door but then you gotta be the person that sustains it.’”
“A Great Human Being”
“His outlook on life was positive and was probably based on strong spirituality,” ESPN Analyst and longtime friend Fran Fraschilla said. “And it was based on just being a good human being. The greatest compliment I can give him is that Lew Hill was a great human being and you can’t say that about everybody nowadays.”
Part of being a great human being was Lew Hill’s gift for judging character. Players such as Sean Rhea, Jordan Jackson and Solomon Hainna who were all on the second or third chance are great examples of this. One recruiting story puts this gift in perspective.“The greatest compliment I can give him is that Lew Hill was a great human being and you can’t say that about everybody nowadays.” – Fran Fraschilla
In the 2011-12 season, Mount Vernon had a very talented basketball player in Isaiah Cousins. According to Hill’s former teammate Ricky Stanley, Cousins “had some rough edges”. So rough that one coach told Lew Hill, “don’t waste your time. He’s an a^*hole. He’s an idiot. Don’t bother with him.”
Lew Hill showed that special gift he had for judging character with his response. Again, peace and love was part of his everyday behavior and interactions with others.
According to Stanley, Hill’s response was filled with peace and love.
“Man, what kind of person would I be if I didn’t at least go to Mount Vernon, my hometown, and at least see what this kid is about?”
Lew Hill gave Isaiah Cousins a chance and four years after the fact, look what happened. Cousins played four years at Oklahoma and helped lead the Sooners to the Final Four in 2016.
“Isaiah was a very, very good player,” Cimmino said. “And he was a little raw when it came to giving interviews and handling the limelight. But, Lew was absolutely perfect and I quickly bought into that. Lew told me how he would take care of Isaiah if he came there (Oklahoma). I listened. And Lew said ‘you know, a lot of the mistakes I made, I keep that knowledge with me and I can help Isaiah through some difficult situations with college.’ So, it was a no-brainer that Isaiah should go to Oklahoma.”
Hill’s ability to be a great human being and have a gift for judging character wasn’t just limited to recruiting. It was in his every day life.
“One thing is after working for him, you know, just getting close to him, it didn’t take me long to realize coach is the ultimate people person,” former UTRGV Director of Operations Caleb Villareal said. “He’s the type where he’ll get a vibe from you just off of meeting you for the first time. And he had that gift.”
“My favorite memory of Lew was just that you never saw him without a smile on his face,” Fraschilla said. “He had a very upbeat personality, He had a very uplifting, upbeat personality. I did a lot of Oklahoma games when my son was playing there for Lew and Coach Krueger. Never a day going to practice or day of a game where he didn’t have a smile on his face and that I didn’t have a 15 minute conversation with him about anything. What was going on back in Mount Vernon, head coaching opportunities, how was the team. He was a very positive force. I’m sure he coached that way with his team.”
Impact of the Gift as a First-Time Head Coach
Current UTRGV assistant coach and longtime friend Jai Steadman had more to say on Lew Hill’s ability to use this gift as a head coach.
“He had a way of talking to them,” Steadman said. “I told the recruits and I’d tell their parents, ‘I’m telling you, I don’t have to do anything. But when he gets inside that door, he’ll know the truth. He’ll tell the truth and be the truth. This is the best place for your son. I’m telling you because he will give him a chance. He’s not going to give him 10 or 12 chances. But he will give him a chance.’
“And he saw the great and good in everybody and he knew how to get it out of them. How to talk to them. There’s a lot of kids that have had pasts that we’ve had to go back and fix and mend. And they ended becoming great men and all graduated and have helped this program into the top of the WAC. So, he had that gift.”
According to current UTRGV assistant coach Luke Mackay, Lew Hill coached people, he didn’t coach players.
“It sounds simple, but it’s not,” Mackay said. “A lot of times in competitive athletics, we look to the result on the court so quickly. We want it now and we want it in a hurry. And sometimes we forget there’s a person there in that jersey, there’s a person behind the statistics. And coach didn’t do that. He coached people … he coached young men, differently, according to their needs.”
Perhaps coaching people is why players who came to UTRGV stayed in Edinburg and finished out their collegiate careers. Lesley Varner II was Lew Hill’s first recruit and graduated with a degree in Communications. Uche Dibiamaka, Javon Levi, Isaiah Fontaine, Terry Winn III, Quinton Johnson II and others have all kept their loyalty to Lew Hill and UTRGV. And Mackay gave the reasoning for that.
“Open-door policy, always, with our players. I don’t think they ever felt a situation where they couldn’t go to coach with anything at all … and again, bigger than basketball, more than basketball. A great indicator of that, you look around the landscape of college basketball right now, you see people transferring all over the place. You see programs losing players to the transfer portal all the time. You look at UTRGV and we don’t. Guys graduate, guys stay. They enjoy it here whether they play 30-40 minutes a game or they never get the bench. They stay and they finish it out.”
“We’re basketball coaches and the game is important,” Mackay said. “But really, this is a people-based organization. It’s all about the people … Really, it’s relationships and his ability to build relationships and hold relationships long-term that was something that I was able to take away from him. It’s bigger than a particular game.”
Perhaps it was Oklahoma head coach Lon Krueger, who had the biggest impact on Lew Hill coaching career, that said it best.
“Lew represented the best of all we could want in our leaders and anyone working with young people in any walk.”
Peace and Love Exuded Through a Big Heart
“He was just a special human being with a giant heart,” BYU head coach Mark Pope said. “A ton of love for the game and brought so much joy. He was a good friend TO EVERYBODY in the game of basketball.”
Lew Hill always had a smile on his face. Relationships were important. It rubbed off on all of those around him. And it was all part of taking a little-known UTRGV program from bottom dwellers in a new conference, to being at the top of the WAC standings year after year. It was part of his peace and love mantra.
“He was one of those guys that kept always saying ‘coach, I can’t wait to get my chance,'” Fraschilla said. “‘I’m gonna get my chance. I’m going to be a head coach soon. I can’t wait to get the opportunity. I don’t know where it’s going to be.’”
It just happened to be in Edinburg, Texas where Lew Hill’s mantra of peace and love was exuded in everything he did. If you were on the faculty at UTRGV, you most likely received breakfast tacos from time to time. It was Lew Hill’s way of giving back to the campus and the community and showing the UTRGV faculty his appreciation for their hard work and dedication. Hill showed his appreciation in other ways on campus.
UTRGV Athletics began a reading series this past Spring and wouldn’t you know, Lew Hill was the first employee to volunteer his time.
“He would always say, ‘we’re building something here, we’re a family,'” CEO of JUCO Advocate Brandon Goble said. “‘We want people that want that.’ And I mean, he lived it with how he treated people, how he helped them prepare. And guys that came in that didn’t play a ton, he treated them the same way he treated the stars.”
“That’s a job (at UTRGV) for the wrong person to look at as a temporary stepping stone,” Goble said. “They look at it and say, ‘okay, I’m going to go in there, flip things around. I’m gonna win and I’m going to get the heck outta there.’ And Lew never looked at it like that. Lew looked at them giving him an opportunity as he owed that community so much … his idea was ‘I’m going to do everything I can to help this community, to help this basketball team, to help this school, to thank them for giving me the opportunity.’
UTRGV Vice President and Director of Athletics Chasse Conque went one step further.
“What he did off the court and the man that he was, those are things that will have an everlasting impact on UTRGV.”
Lew Hill Will Be Missed
Southern Utah head coach Todd Simon was excited when it was announced the Thunderbirds would join the WAC. It meant SUU and UTRGV would get to play once, maybe twice per year. It also meant Simon would get to see his good friend Lew Hill across the sideline from him. And the bonus opportunity to get food, make plans and spend time with his good friend when the two teams met excited Simon.
“As we were talking about joining the WAC, we were talking about getting together and getting together down there and some of the cities. Talking about the future. Five years from now, where we’re going to be type of thing. He was all about it. He was all about the program down there.”
But, the reality set in that when UTRGV and Southern Utah face off in two years in WAC play, a cherished opportunity won’t be able to present itself.
“It’s gonna be tough,” Simon said. “That’s gonna be tough. Cause it should be him. But, you just cherish every one of these days, you know, his message of peace and love.”
And so it goes. If you ask current UTRGV interim head coach Jai Steadman, it might be the letters, or the constant bugging of Hill that he will miss the most.
But, simply put, like others, Steadman will miss his friend.
“I used to write him letters, I used to bug him,” Jai Steadman said. “Just kind of followed him around to tournaments. And he never got rid of me up until Sunday when we got back. I’ve been following him around, trying to learn on and off the court, literally. And I’m gonna miss my friend.”
Peace and love. Peace and Love to a great, great human being.