The first three weeks of the college football season created quite a challenge for Mike Hill, the Charlotte 49ers’ new athletics director.
The 49ers’ season opener against Fordham at Richardson Stadium was delayed not once, but twice, by lightning. The second week brought another home game, this one a much-anticipated contest against Appalachian State, that would shatter the program’s single-game attendance record. The final game of the season-opening, three-game homestand against Old Dominion was moved up two days because of the impending threat of Hurricane Florence.
Three games, three potential logistical and operational nightmares for a program led by a first-time athletics director barely seven months into the job. And it all came off seemingly without a hitch.
For Hill, it was nothing he hadn’t seen before.
Hustling from meetings with his staff to tailgate parties to greeting donors in the chancellor’s suite, Hill didn’t stay in one place very long. Until the games began, that is, when he sat down and watched intently.
“I was prepared for it,” said Hill, who came to Charlotte in February from Florida, where he was the Gators’ executive associate athletics director. “At Florida, it seemed like we had lightning delays every week or so. We had games rescheduled because of hurricanes a couple of times. And, dealing with a sellout crowd was something else I was used to. That’s a fun issue.
“But it was an eventful first three weeks, for sure.”
This week is different for Hill. He’ll be sitting in the visiting athletics director’s box at McGuirk Alumni Stadium in Amherst, Mass., on Saturday, watching the 49ers (2-1) play Massachusetts in their first road game of the season.
But the overall challenge he faces in his job - chiefly fixing the men’s basketball and football programs while lifting the profile of the 49ers’ athletics department in a city and region dominated by the ACC and pro sports - won’t be far from his mind.
“Without a doubt, he’ll get that done,” said Florida men’s basketball coach Mike White, who reported to Hill during the final three years of Hill’s 25-year stint in Gainesville. “He is a star.”
Hill, 49, has dug in quickly over his first seven months in Charlotte. Before his introductory news conference announcing him as the successor to long-time athletics director Judy Rose, Hill had already fired interim basketball coach Houston Fancher after the 49ers finished the season with a 6-23 record. A few weeks later, Hill hired Ron Sanchez, the top assistant of coach Tony Bennett at Virginia.
In July, Hill hired former Syracuse and Tennessee athletics administrator Chris Fuller to a newly created job of deputy athletics director for external affairs. Fuller is in charge of marketing, ticketing, media relations and revenue generation.
He also dove into a $40 million-plus project that, with a consultant recently hired, will be the backbone of a plan for the improvement and construction of new athletics facilities for the 49ers.
But as Hill also spent much of the summer preparing for the 2018-19 school year, he did something equally as important. He listened, and continues to do so.
“He allows me to express my vision about what I want to do, and that’s really refreshing,” said 49ers baseball coach Loren Hibbs. “We want a chance to win a conference championship and make it to (the College World Series). What our goals and standards are match directly to what Mike has talked about.
“The open exchange of information is so good. You may throw something at him and he might say you can or can’t do it. But at least you’ve talked about it.”
Hibbs, who has been at Charlotte since 1992, said Hill has been supportive but has made clear that he’s not going to accept the status quo. Although Charlotte often fields nationally competitive teams in sports such as men’s soccer and men’s golf, only two 49ers teams - women’s cross country and men’s track and field - won Conference USA championships during the 2017-18 school year.
“We’ve all got to get better and Mike has talked about that a lot,” said Hibbs. “It’s pretty obvious we haven’t competed the way we should have for the last 10 or 15 years. Overall, we need to make an improvement.”
Said women’s basketball coach Cara Consuegra: “The biggest thing so far is his listening and wanting to know where we are and what do we need. What are our biggest challenges? That’s refreshing with a new boss. He has very much a servant’s heart. He wants us all to be better and he has the kind of mindset that can make us better.”
‘Don’t mess with happy’
Hill was born in Anderson, S.C., and grew up in nearby Clemson. He had (and still has) family in Charlotte. He remembers water skiing on Lake Wylie and also watching on television from his grandparents’ living room on Commonwealth Avenue as the 49ers’ lost in the national semifinals of the 1977 NCAA basketball tournament to Marquette.
After attending North Carolina, where he earned a degree in political science and communications, Hill worked as assistant executive director at Miami’s Blockbuster Bowl for three years. He then went to Ball State as assistant athletics director.
From Ball State, Hill went to Florida in 1993. He climbed the ladder in the Gators’ athletic department. Eventually he became the executive associate athletics director for external affairs, where he led the department’s marketing and branding efforts. Among his key accomplishments: negotiating an $8.5 million naming rights agreement for Florida’s basketball arena and a multi-million dollar, multi-media rights agreement with Fox Sports/IMG for the school.
Hill was content in Gainesville.
“I was happy,” Hill said. “And as (former Gators basketball coach) Billy Donovan always told me, ‘Don’t mess with happy.’ ”
But Hill was also ready to run his own department, and he leaped at the chance to return to his Carolinas roots when offered the job in Charlotte after Rose announced her retirement earlier this year. Hill signed a five-year contract at $400,000 per year and runs an athletics department with a budget of $29.5 million.
‘Mike had a plan’
Fixing men’s basketball, Hill says, might be his most important task.
The 49ers’ basketball program has been mired in a prolonged slump. The most recent of Charlotte’s 11 NCAA-tournament appearances came in the 2004-05 season. Since then, the 49ers have made just three postseason appearances (all in the National Invitation Tournament) and last season featured a 15-game losing streak, longest in school history.
The long stretches of losing and coaching turnover - the program has now had five coaches (including two on an interim basis) since Bobby Lutz was fired in 2010 - led to a sense of malaise around the program. That’s been manifested in the stands, where attendance dropped to an average of 4,008 last season, lowest in Halton Arena history.
“We all know what basketball can be here. Charlotte has seen and felt what what basketball success is,” Hill said. “There’s been a Final Four run before. It’s a matter of putting those pieces back together.”
Hill thinks he’s found the man to do that in Sanchez, considered one of the top assistants in the country during his time at Washington State and Virginia under Bennett.
“One thing I told Ron out of the gate is I wasn’t going to put a timetable on this,” Hill said. “We all need to recognize that it will be a work in progress. People want to hear, ‘Well in Year X he’s won so many games and what has he accomplished?’ I don’t think we can do that.
“Ron has to get in and assess the state of the basketball program, which will take time. Once he gets a chance to do that, he will lay out his vision and we’ll go from there.”
Hill knows what a successful basketball program looks like. As the direct supervisor of Florida’s basketball program, he played an instrumental role in Florida’s rise to national prominence under Donovan and now with White.
When Donovan left Florida to coach the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder in 2015, Hill was ready with a recommendation for who might replace him to then athletics director Jeremy Foley.
“When Billy left, Mike had a plan in place,” said Gators athletics director Scott Stricklin. “He sat down with Jeremy and had identified Mike (White) as the guy. It turned out to be an unbelievable hire and Mike (Hill) probably doesn’t get enough credit for it.”
White’s teams have won at least 20 games in each of his three seasons at Florida. And the electric atmosphere in which the Gators play in the O’Connell Center comes from a consistent winner but also with a marketing vision fostered by Hill.
When a magazine article termed the arena the “House of Horrors,” in the early 2000s, Hill took it a step further and had a student dressed as the grim reaper ominously stationed near the visitor’s bench. He was also instrumental in the idea of naming the Gators’ student section the “Rowdy Reptiles.”
Hill managed to make the most of an inconvenient circumstance early in the 2016-17 season when renovations to the the Gators’ arena were being completed. Instead of playing true road games during the non-conference portion of the season, Hill scheduled several games at neutral sites around the state in cities such as Tampa, Lakeland, Jacksonville, Lake Buena Vista and Sunrise (that game, incidentally, was against Charlotte, an 87-46 Florida victory).
“He did a masterful job with that,” said Stricklin. “It gave Gator fans around the state a chance to see us play and it was to our RPI benefit. Mike really took what could have been a negative situation and made it a positive.”
Young football program
The dynamics of Charlotte’s football situation are different than basketball’s. The 49ers’ football team had a comparably poor season in 2017 (going 1-11) as the basketball team, and attendance also suffered (averaging 11,903 in 15,304-seat Richardson Stadium). The heat was on coach Brad Lambert to such an extent that Rose was compelled to release a statement after the season that he would be retained.
The football program is in just its sixth season of existence, so there is little tradition to draw on or glory days to which to aspire. In fact, the program’s infancy and how it moved so quickly into the Football Bowl Subdivision (college football’s highest classification) will play a part in Hill’s appraisal of the program. The same will go for how he evaluates Lambert, who was hired to launch the program in 2011 and is the only coach the 49ers have had.
“I appreciate the fact that at some point we’re going to have to shed the ‘new program’ label,” Hill said. “I also understand the situation that there wasn’t a football team here six years ago. So I’m looking it at through the lens of the program being five years old and it’s trying to grow and have some stability. Coaching stability, that’s a consistent factor in successful programs, for what it’s worth.”
The 49ers have gotten off to an encouraging 2-1 start.
“Football develops over the season,” Hill said. “It’s how we play, how we look, not just wins and losses. Brad evaluates things the same way. So we’ll know how we’re doing as the season goes along.”
Although Hill was primarily focused on basketball at Florida, he often sat with former coach Steve Spurrier at Gators football games in recent seasons.
“Mike always asked good questions, always made good observations,” Spurrier said. “He’ll get that thing figured out up there in Charlotte.”
Among his myriad duties, Hill is also focused on how the 49ers are branded and perceived in the Charlotte region. There are early signs of Hill and Fuller’s influence: signs have gone up around uptown Charlotte promoting the 49ers’ football program and the school has partnered with a business that provides all the necessary tailgating services for fans at football games, especially those arriving on the new light-rail service to UNC Charlotte.
Hill also held a “Fan Fest” at Halton Arena that featured the 49ers’ football and volleyball teams. He greeted all 49ers varsity athletes at a convocation style get-together in Halton Arena in August.
Hill has proven to be particularly savvy on social media, and pushed each sport in the athletics program to be more active on those platforms. The 49ers’ football Twitter account consistently promotes the program and has been a source for matters such as which uniform the team will wear each week.
Hill is frequently on Twitter himself, sending out messages of support for the 49ers or, sometimes, mundane, personal observations.
Then there’s the story of Hill’s beard - an example of how he’s not afraid to use social media to boost awareness of the 49ers and raise a little money in the process.
Going unshaven on his honeymoon this summer, Hill’s new wife Jessica James-Hill tweeted that she liked his beard. She suggested 49ers fans donate $49 to Charlotte’s athletics booster club as a challenge for him to keep it.
The fans did, raising $3,829. Hill still has the beard, but said it’s coming off in mid-October.
It was an out-of-the-box idea that quickly caught on with the 49ers’ long-suffering fan base.
Not too far into his introductory news conference in February, Hill hinted at how things might be different with him in charge.
“It all starts by looking in the mirror,” Hill said to a room full of fans, alumni and students. “One AD can’t sprinkle magic pixie dust. You have to look in the mirror and ask what you can do to help this place. Put your support where your mouth is. This place needs you.
“49ers mine for gold. My mantra will be ‘gold standard.’’’
“Hey, there might be a hashtag there.”
Ever since, #goldstandard has become the 49ers’ slogan and rallying cry on Twitter and other platforms.