His Elma High School swan song occurred in 2015. But Jim Hill has never lost his passion for coaching football.
More than four years after his resignation as the Eagles’ varsity coach, Hill has remained on the sidelines — teaming with Jeff Niemi to coach Elma’s eighth-grade football team.
“There’s not a lot of plays, just fundamentals. Blocking, tackling and having fun,” Hill said last month. “You teach them how to execute. We’ve had a lot of success there in the last three years.”
Not many middle-school teams, however, are coached by a Hall of Famer. That’s a distinction Hill added to his list of accomplishments after being inducted into the Washington State Football Coaches Hall of Fame on Feb. 22 in Renton.
Hill’s credentials for that honor are formidable. The 1982 Elma High graduate guided the Eagles to four state Class 2A championship-game appearances, capturing titles in 1997 and 2001.
In 21 years as a varsity coach, Hill compiled a 125-96-1 record. During one span in the late 1990s and early 2000s, his teams earned state berths in nine consecutive seasons.
An Elma native, the often-blunt Hill is one of the rare Twin Harborites to coach state-championship teams in two sports. His Elma baseball team went all the way in 1994.
He was also a rarity in that his two football title teams sported distinctly different styles.
With a wide-open pro-style attack engineered by quarterback Ben Dougherty, the Eagles rallied from a 28-6 halftime deficit to overcome Pullman, 37-34, in the 1997 2A championship game at the Tacoma Dome.
Four years later, the Eagles drastically shifted gears, building their offense around the power running of Todd Basler and the rollout passing and running of quarterback Danny Hill (Jim’s son). With Basler rushing for a 2A title-game record of 234 yards, Elma dominated Othello in the final, 43-22.
“You figure out what you can do well. Some years it’s harder than others,” Hill said of the stylistic changes.
“When people look at those teams, they always focus on the offense,” he added. “But defensively, with Coach Clark (current Elma head coach Ron Clark) as my defensive coordinator, we played really, really tough.”
With the exception of the 1997 championship contest, Hill’s most dramatic wins may have come in state semifinals.
The 1998 Eagles outlasted Montesano in overtime, 41-40, in a shootout in which the East County rivals combined for more than 1,000 yards of total offense.
Elma also came out on top in a bizarre 2002 semi against Lynden Christian. With his team leading 19-14, the LC quarterback attempted to run out the clock by taking an intentional safety on the game’s final play. But he dropped the ball in his end zone and Elma linebacker Caleb Rose fell on it for a game-winning touchdown.
As the win over Pullman exhibited, the Eagles earned the reputation during Hill’s tenure of being a strong second-half team.
Their quick-strike offenses made them well-suited for playing catch-up football. Veteran Montesano High coach Terry Jensen said conditioning was another factor.
“What really stood out for me is the physicality his teams brought to the games,” said Jensen, who coached against Hill while at Monte and Forks. “His teams had a toughness that really reflected Jim’s personality. You always knew you had better be ready for a physical battle, because if you weren’t you generally would not have a chance against them. They would just wear you down.”
A standout quarterback at Elma, Olympic College and Central Washington University, Hill drew his coaching inspirations from both his high school and college experiences.
He describes his high school coach John Matau (one of the truly colorful characters in area football history) as a master motivator. Central coaches Tom Parry and Mike Dunbar taught him the value of practice discipline and high-level strategy, respectively.
“They were all different and I loved them all,” Hill reflected.
Far from a self-promoter, Hill readily agrees that the stability of his coaching staff contributed heavily to the Eagles’ success during their glory years. He added that virtually everyone from his players to school staffers to members of the community deserves a piece of the Hall of Fame award.
“When an honor like this occurs, it’s not a one-man show,” he concluded. “It was just one big Elma family.