April 25, 2007
By CSTV.com Columnist Eric Sorenson - I suppose the first thing I should do is apologize for the length of this interview. San Diego coach Rich Hill and I found a lot of common ground and we just kept powering on. So if you find this to be of Playboy Interview-like length, my bad.
Now, knowing the high energy of Coach Hill, I gave serious consideration to just walking up to the guy, saying hi, turning on my recorder and telling him, "Okay coach. Readyyyyyy.... go!" and letting him get his motor running on any and every subject he wanted. He's that type of guy.
But before I start, let me say this... you KNOW an interview is going to go well when the guy you're going to talk to sends you an Email beforehand with a few recent songs he suggests you download. That was really cool. I doubt this is the case, but if he was trying to score points with this writer - it worked. I took his advice and downloaded "Three Libras" by A Perfect Circle, "Mad World" by Gary Jules and "See the World" by Gomez.
So, about an hour before the Toreros game at Loyola Marymount on Sunday, I hooked up with Coach Hill in the USD dugout and let the music do the talking, so to speak.
Me: First of all, thanks for the tunes you suggested. I downloaded all of them
Coach Hill: Cool. How'd you like 'em?
Me: The Perfect Circle song, I liked a lot. Though I still like some of their more rockin' Tool-like stuff a little better. And yes, that "Mad World" song by Gary Jules was the remake of the old Tears For Fears song.
Coach: Yeah. What did you think of that one?
Me: I had heard that version before. And usually when people do remakes of songs I kind of think, "C'mon do your own stuff" but at the same time it's kind of an interesting pace and sort of haunting, you know? It's a different song from the way Tears for Fears played it.
Coach Hill: Yeah. That's what I like about it. What about "See the World"?
Me: Oh I loved that one. Loved it. I had heard of Gomez before, but I don't know that I'd heard any of their songs knowing it was them. I thought it was pretty cool.
Coach Hill: I loved it too, man. It's kind of an upbeat, feel-good song.
Me: Yeah. Kind of a good-to-be-alive kind of thing. I thought to myself, "ah, that's kind of like Coach Hill right there."
Coach Hill: Yep. That's right.
Me: Okay, on to other things. So if there's one thing I remember from the SoCal Media Day back in January, you said, "It's a great time to be a Torero." That still the case?
Coach Hill: (laughing) Oh yeah. It's an even better time to be a Torero!
Me: Well you have to like the way things have gone so far this season, right? Is it about what you expected?
Coach Hill: Well we don't even use the word 'expectations' in our program. You go into a season where we lost so many good players, like Steve Singleton, Keoni Ruth, Josh Butler, Bryan Lilley. And at the same time we got back some experienced guys too. And you don't really know how those guys are going to step up or how the new guys are going to perform. But I think early in the year we got Sean Nichol to transfer in from Portland and A. J. Griffin, a freshman, and both have been spectacular. And those are two unheralded guys that have really carried us.
Me: Yeah. I got to see Griffin in relief yesterday and he was outstanding.
Coach Hill: Yeah. Well lately, we've seen guys like Abruzzo, Snyder, Buschini, Magness - you know, the seniors - the guys that were supposed to get it done are getting it done for us. Now we've really got the whole thing going, our pitching and our hitting. The last three weekends, starting with Portland up until here yesterday - even in our two mid-week losses - we really played well. It's starting to come together for us at the right time.
Me: It's weird to hear you saying it's the best you've played when I think about you guys starting out beating Texas and sweeping Cal Poly. I think, wow, if this is the best you guys have played, that's saying something.
Coach Hill: Yeah that's true. But we like where we're at right now.
Me: Speaking of the Texas series and all, one of the things I wanted to ask you about was, how much do you hate the RPI?
Coach Hill: Well this year, I love it. (Laughs) I mean, whether you love it or hate it, the fact of the matter is that it's the underlying premise of the NCAA committee. You know, we're always on the bubble. We have to schedule with the RPI in mind. So a lot of thought and a lot of research has gone into our schedule. But the bottom line is you still have to win games. And we've won games at Texas, Fullerton, Irvine, at Houston, Wake Forest, Virginia Commonwealth. You know, our administration has made it possible to have some of these teams come to San Diego and that's how we've been able to build our RPI.
Coach Hill: But the down side of that is, being on the West coast, it's still incredibly difficult to build a good RPI. I mean, we went 3-1 one week and our RPI dropped nine spots. Meanwhile, Texas is beating people like Nebraska, South Carolina is playing Vanderbilt... it kind of snowballs for those teams. So now, if we're like Number 20 or so, you can't leapfrog those guys. 'Coz they're not going anywhere.
Me: I could see that. Especially with how the WCC is perceived as a "lesser" conference.
Coach Hill: Uh-huh. Exactly.
Me: I remember Mark Etheridge and I were doing a radio show together last year and he said he thought you guys were on the bubble. And I said, "Wait a minute. They swept Texas! Anything they do the rest of the season almost shouldn't matter." And he came back with some RPI stats and how you did vs. the Top 50 and Top 100. And I just let him know that the RPI was a three-legged dog that needed to be shot.
Coach Hill: (Laughs) Well, it's a basketball formula. They made it for basketball originally. So for example, we lose games in mid-week to people like UC Riverside and San Diego State, I mean these teams are good. But we're a private school, so our pitching depth isn't going to be amazing, you know. And that's exactly where baseball is much different than basketball.
Coach Hill: But I think the committee has done a much better job the last few years. They've taken so much criticism for the RPI, that now they look at the whole body of work and they're going into the strength of schedule a bit more. And what really helped us last year was the fact that they saw that we tried. We got into airplanes and we flew all over the country to play better teams. So they rewarded us for trying to play the best possible schedule we can.
Me: Well I was just looking at things this morning. You guys are 32-14. Texas is 31-12. Your RPI is 18. Theirs is seven. Strength of schedule, you're 11, they're 12. Really close. But in the rankings, Texas is as high as number four, number six and you guys are down at 22 and 25. That has to piss you off just a little, huh?
Coach Hill: I don't remember who it was, but one of your peers called the rankings nothing more than a beauty pageant. And I thought that was very, very apropos because that's what they are. We don't even worry about rankings. It's fun. The administrators love it and the alumni love it 'coz that's what they read in the papers, you know? To us, we know it's just a bunch of guys sitting around a table deciding things.
Me: That's true. But I still think in the deep recesses of the committee's mind those rankings help a team like Texas over you guys.
Coach Hill: Definitely. I mean they see it all year long, there's their name.
Me: In fact, you guys were out of the rankings for a while this year.
Coach Hill: Well we went 2-and-2 one week. We had a good mid-week win, I think against San Diego State, and then lost two-of-three at Gonzaga. And Gonzaga's good.
Me: Oh hell yeah. I saw them beat Oregon State down in Arizona earlier this year.
Coach Hill: They're legit, yeah. And that was on the road, but we got bounced out of the rankings for going 2-and-2 against good teams.
Me: So, would it be fair to say that you believe the WCC is a lot better than most people think? Is that a true statement?
Coach Hill: Mega-true statement. You know, I've been in this league 14 years and I'd rather play anyone outside of conference than anyone in our conference. And I know that's probably cliche-ish as a coach. But this conference is so difficult on the road, day-in, day-out. Man, you get on the field against these guys and it's pure baseball. Not big stadiums with 10,000 fans, 50 different uniforms, TV and guys out there big-leaguing it. I mean, these coaches work, man. You can see the attention to detail with the short game, pick-offs and trick plays. It's a great league, tons of big leaguers come out of here every year.
Me: Oh yeah, that's true. Always a lot of drafted players. About the scheduling thing, how did you guys get Texas to come to your place twice in the last few years?
Coach Hill: Get this... I picked up the phone one day, and I heard, "Rich, this is Augie..." (laughs). "We wanna come to San Diego. Do you wanna play us?"
Me: Really? ho-lee...
Coach Hill: I said, "Let me check my schedule" and I put the phone down for a second. (he then starts pumping his fists and over-acting his excitement)... Yeah we're free that weekend."
Me: (Laughing like a little kid) Yeah I bet.
Coach Hill: (Coughing slightly while laughing) That's basically how that went. (Then composing himself a bit) You know, that's why I respect Augie Garrido so much, 'coz he wanted to get his kids out of Texas, try some new things. He knew that USD wasn't going to be a raucous, intimidating environment. It was somewhere where they could just focus on baseball. He wanted to get his guys into some good weather and play a good team.
Me: I think it's really awesome that Augie would do something like that.
Coach Hill: Yeah. Yeah.
Me: And it's also refreshing because it's something that Cliff Gustufson would never have done.
Coach Hill: No way, not at all.
Me: He would've been content playing his 50 home games.
Coach Hill: I mean, we understand the importance of playing home games. But at the same time, what it boils down to is the experience of our student athletes. I feel you have to play the best teams you can possibly play. If you have the dream - and I'm a dreamer - I want to play in the College World Series, so we have to take our California boys and put them in environments like Texas, Rice and Texas A&M, those post-season types of settings, so that when we do make it there, it's going to be like no big deal.
Me: Who do you guys have next year? Any other far-flung trips?
Coach Hill: Well, we have Hawaii... I'll let you guess why we play at Hawaii (laughs). That's another thing, our kids benefit from my addiction to surfing. We'll play Cal Poly, go up to the central coast. We'll go to Hawaii. I want to take our team and do a fall trip to Australia.
Me: Wow. I didn't know you were that big into the surfing thing. Cool. I've done it a few times, but I need to do it more to get comfortable on my board.
Coach Hill: Well, let me tell ya', it will change your life. If you have any kind of an addictive personality, you'll want to go every day, twice a day. It's that strong.
Me: Good. Then I'll be able to kick this college baseball addiction.
Coach Hill: No, you're passionate about it. That's cool. That's why I like reading your stuff. You and Mark Etheridge and Kendall Rogers. It's good.
Me: Yeah, there's not a lot of us out there.
Coach Hill: Yeah... Hey where are you from anyway?
Me: Well I grew up in Omaha.
Coach Hill: Nice.
Me: Yeah, I spent a lot of time as a kid getting dropped off at Rosenblatt in the morning and getting picked up by my parents that night.
Coach Hill: That is sweet. And that is THE Mecca of college baseball.
Coach Hill: And that's somewhere where we haven't gotten yet. And I don't care if we're a quote-unquote "mid-major" or anything else. You have to think that way. You have to shoot for the stars. You know, you may just get the moon.
Me: Oh I don't blame you for thinking that way. Look at Wichita State for cryin' out loud. They're mid-major and they've been there a bunch of times.
Coach Hill: And there's always one team that makes it where you're thinking "Where did these guys come from?" San Jose State. The Citadel made it one year. Louisiana-Lafayette snuck in.
Me: Even Southwest Missouri State made it a couple years ago.
Coach Hill: Yeah. So you never know.
Me: Well that leads me to another question, as far as post-seaosn goes, would you like to see your team be shipped out, or...
Coach Hill: (interrupting me)... Yes. (laughs). Get us out. Get us out of California. Get us out of the West. I'd rather take that any day.
Me: (laughing) Well that was a quick response. I assume you guys would never host a regional, right?
Coach Hill: No, we couldn't host. But we've talked to Tony (Gwynn) over at San Diego State and he said if it ever came about, they'd be willing to let us host over there. But I'm not sure our administration would be up for that or not. Because you have to bid a lot of money, you know, so it hasn't gotten to that point yet.
Me: Well I thought it was cool that Pepperdine got to host one last year. I was stunned. But glad.
Coach Hill: Awesome. That was awesome. I loved that they hosted.
Me: Has the administration talked anything about renovations to Cunningham Stadium?
Coach Hill: I've got a huge rendering of the improvements we're going to make. It's going to be close to $13 million in renovations. It's going to be big time. It'll be a three-sided deal with the stands down each line and we're going to have a new clubhouse, kind of like the one down at Irvine, down the third base side. Have you seen that new outfield fence at USC?
Me: Yeah, they did that up right.
Coach Hill: Is that bitchin' or what? That's the kind of outfield fence we're going to have too. People will be able to see through it as they're walking by. The plans are there. We start this summer. We've gotten approval from the board to do all that stuff. So we've just got to start raising the money.
Me: Being the success you've had at USD, especially the last five or six years, have there been any feelers from the big money schools? I mean, I'm surprised no one from the SEC or Big 12 or even the Pac 10 hasn't snapped you up.
Coach Hill: I get asked that from time to time. But I'm not about that. Not money. What it really boils down to is my family. My boy is a freshman in high school, my daughter's a seventh-grader. My wife is totally into the San Diego thing. It was important to us that the kids go to the same schools all the way through. That's been the driving force of me staying at USD. Plus the challenge of taking a team like USD to Omaha, that's really cool to me. I love that.
Me: So you have had some inquiries then?
Coach Hill: Yeah. Yeah. I haven't gotten too far into that though.
Me: Well it seems to make perfect sense to me. Who could NOT like living in San Diego anyway?
Coach Hill: Yeah. Lifestyle to me is huge. I mean if you saw my life for a day...
Me: I've gotta get a CSTV camera crew and follow you around, huh?
Coach: (laughing) Oh yeah. It'd be awesome. I mean, I have pancakes with my kids, then take them to school. Then get to the office and do some work. Then, I'm in the water surfing from 10:30-to-noon.
Me: So you really do surf just about every day then?
Coach Hill: Well, not every day. Especially during the season. But in the off-season, yeah. Then at noon, I go back to the office in my board shorts, flip-flops, drinking a smoothie. Then practice in the afternoon. By eight o'clock I'm at home grilling steaks. (laughs)
Me: Let me see, I'm not real smart, but if I'm doing my geography right, you can't do things like that at, say... Ole Miss, or Oklahoma, or even USC really.
Coach Hill: Right. So if you say, "Let's put a price tag on that..." and you make seven figures at another place. To me, it's not what life's about, man.
Me: No, I could totally see that... okay, the other thing I was going to ask was, in the short times I've hung around you, you're kind of a high-energy guy. Have you ever considered motivational speaking or becoming an evangelical preacher?
Coach Hill: (laughs) No... and it's not all about baseball to me. It's about educating these young guys (he points to his players). What's cool to me is they have the dream of making it as major league players. You know, when I was a little kid, and I'm sure you were the same way growing up in Omaha, you'd go to bed at night dreaming of playing in the majors. That's where I wanna use every gift and talent that I have to help them make it.
But I've done some speaking before and I'm pretty good at it, you know? Because I use every day situations as metaphors and I use humor and I speak real to people. But it's still about being an educator and mentor with my players.
Me: I better start to wrap this up... ummm, best concert you've ever been to?
Coach Hill: Oh wow... let's see. I would have to say... probably Foreigner, back in the late 70s. And that was when they opened for Rick Derringer. (Laughs, can't finish his sentence.)
Me: Ohhhhh! I used to LOVE Rick Derringer! My brother actually had an album of his that was really great. That guy could wail a guitar.
Coach Hill: Oh yeah! Rock and Roll Hootchie-Coo, man!
Me: That's right!
Coach Hill: And if not Foreigner, probably a toss-up with Styx, at the Oakland Coliseum.
Me: Now wait, what year with Styx? Because things changed a bit with them with each album.
Coach Hill: That would've been... maybe the summer of '81.
Me: Oh okay. That was before they started getting into all that horrible Mr. Roboto crap.
Coach Hill: Yeah. It was before all that stuff. It was old school Styx.
Me: Okay, if you were on a deserted island and had only one CD, what would it be?
Coach Hill: Jack Johnson. A home-made compilation CD of everything he's ever done.
Me: Jack Johnson. Good stuff. That's very surf-like.
With that, I shook coach's hand, told him I'd see him down at Cunningham Stadium for the Friday game against Pepperdine and promised to improve my surfing.
And coach, while I'm at it, here's a YouTube moment you're gonna dig: