HILL THE HAWK: Armond Hill played eight seasons in the
NBA, mostly with the Atlanta Hawks. PHOTO: courtesy NBA
Expectations have risen for Columbia
Poring over the boxscore, Hill sees his team has
shot just over 50 percent from the free throw line for this game,
and the brow of this intensely competitive yet reserved man is
creased with anger. You can see the thunderheads forming in the
normally sunny skies of Hill's disposition.
Hill has worked hard to revive
the Columbia program. Here he confers with his mentor, former
Princeton coach and Hall of Famer Pete Carril.PHOTO: Nick
"A game like this, I didn't see
anything positive," Hill says with more than a hint of disgust.
"You can't miss free throws like this. You can't get outrebounded
by a smaller team. Those are very annoying things. I think they are
starting to believe what they are reading (preseason basketball
publications picked Columbia as high as third in the Ivy League),
instead of coming out intent on making themselves
"You must understand where you are
at, and how far you have to go."
It is a measure of the development
of his program that Hill can now criticize the quality of his
team's victories. The men's basketball program at Columbia has
begun the climb out of the abyss, light years from where it was
just a few seasons ago, buried at the bottom of the Ivy League
standings. After a 10-4 Ivy mark that was good for second place in
1992-93, Columbia finished last or next-to-last in each of the next
four years before climbing to a fourth-place tie at 6-8 last
In the mid-'90s, Columbia was a team that
had become accustomed to losing. People around the Ivies were
reprising the refrain that it was impossible to produce a winner at
Columbia, impossible to compete with conference Goliaths Princeton
and Penn, impossible to overcome the impediments fashioned over
decades of disappointment. After all, Columbia last won an Ivy
League championship in 1968, and the team has had just two winning
seasons since 1980.
Then along came Armond Hill. An assistant
coach and former star player at Princeton, Hill had a plain-spoken
message for the Columbia administration.
"I think we can win," Hill told them. It
wouldn't happen immediately, he cautioned, and it wouldn't be easy.
But it could happen. Columbia could win in the Ivy League, and
restore some of the luster the program had not possessed since the
glory days of All-American Jim McMillian '70 back in the late
"I thought at the time and I continue to
believe that we were very, very fortunate to get a candidate of
Armond Hill's caliber," said John Reeves, director of physical
education and intercollegiate athletics at Columbia, who was the
point man in the school's search for a successor to Jack Rohan in
1995. "By caliber, I mean his educational background, his
basketball background, his honesty and integrity, his commitment to
teaching and his interest in art and literature and education as
well as basketball."
Four years later, Reeves remains
optimistic that Hill is the right man to attract players who fit
into Columbia's overall outlook.
"We needed, and still need, to find guys
who want to write their own history," Hill said, his eyes blazing
with purpose. "Because we have none right now. The last time
Columbia won was in 1968. That's 30 years ago."
In 1968, Armond Hill hadn't even begun a
basketball career that would see him become a two-time high school
All-American guard at Bishop Ford High School in Brooklyn. At
Princeton he was named All-Ivy, All-East, and ultimately, Ivy
League Player of the Year in 1976. An eight-year career in the NBA
followed, with Hill helping Hubie Brown resurrect a moribund
Atlanta Hawks team that went from 29-53 the year before Hill's
arrival to 50-32 by his fourth season as the starting point guard
Basketball Coach Armond Hill: Beneath Calm Exterior, Burning to
Bring a Winner to Broadway
"When we came to Atlanta, we were trying
to turn around a program that had suffered major losses for four
straight seasons," said Brown. "So we picked Armond on the first
round out of Princeton to be our point guard, and he was our
starting point guard for 4 1/2 years. The program was not only
turned around, but it made the playoffs in three of the years and
won the division championship. And he was a major catalyst as the
point guard of that team.
"He was the perfect point guard for our
system, because we pressed and trapped," Brown recalled. "At 6-4,
he was an outstanding defender who had the ability to penetrate,
make the play, and then when fouled, shoot over 80 percent on the
foul line. His was a major contribution for the type of team we
Although proud of his playing
accomplishments, Hill is the last person to bring them up in
discussion. He understands that his NBA pedigree can serve as an
icebreaker with recruits interested in attending Columbia and
getting an Ivy League education. But he knows that the power of his
message and the intelligence with which he presents it are the
greatest factors in attracting the players he needs to help the
"We've made some progress, but recruiting
is so tough," he said. "Our challenge is to find guys who want to
come and play and be trailblazers and say, 'Yes, it is possible.
Princeton and Penn don't always have to win.'"
Columbia was 4-22 in 1994-95, which
precipitated the retirement of Rohan, the coach who had led the
Lions to their Ivy title in 1968 during his first stint on the
bench. After Rohan first retired in 1974, four others served as
head coach before Rohan took the job again from 1990 to
When Hill arrived on the scene, he
immediately set about improving the atmosphere surrounding the
program. Losing had become pervasive, so much so that it didn't
seem to bother some around Levien Gym. At the time, the respected
Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook wrote, "It might be
difficult to find a new coach in America who faces a tougher job
than Columbia's Armond Hill."
"When I came here, we had an attitude of
not caring about winning and not caring about playing," said Hill,
his voice going flat at the memory. "We had to find guys who cared,
guys who love to play, guys who want to be successful, instead of
accepting defeat and accepting being mediocre."
The attitudes changed more quickly than
the results. Though Columbia went 7-19 in 1995-96, that record
included a two-point loss to Princeton and a sweep of a road
weekend at Yale and Brown, Columbia's first Ivy road sweep in three
years. Hill was finding a few winners, including then-first-year
guard Gary Raimondo, who today is one of four seniors who have
brought pride back to Columbia basketball.
"I think the seniors have come a long way
with Coach, through a lot of ups and downs," said Raimondo, who
earlier this season became Columbia's 20th 1,000-point career
scorer. "All of that history brings us together. We've been
together when we've lost and been together when we've won. All of
that has helped to create a special bond between us."
Columbia posted a 6-20 record in 1996-97,
a season after which Hill stated: "The premium now is on winning."
What followed didn't exactly satisfy Hill (his expectations remain
an unspoken challenge to his team) but it did put Columbia back on
the Ivy League map and reminded those around the league of long-ago
days when teams wanted no part of the Lions.
Columbia went 6-8 in the Ivy League in
1997-98 and won 11 games overall, both bests since the 1992-93
season. The Lions delivered their first sweep at Harvard/Dartmouth
since 1985, and posted their longest Ivy win streak on the road
since the 1970-71 season with four straight victories.
"I think he gets as much out of players as
any coach that I have ever seen, and I think he presents a very
respectable product every time that we take the floor," Reeves said
of Hill. "After the four straight road wins last year, people
around the Ivy League perked up and started to take a close look at
This year's team is built around a nucleus
of four seniors--Raimondo, Abe Yasser, Justin Namolik and Erik
Crep. The rest of the roster is comprised of sophomores and
first-years; there's not a junior on the team, which could create
some leadership problems next year. But that's next
"I'm proud of my seniors," Hill said.
"We've come a long way from those early days of getting beaten by
20 and having long bus rides home. We've cried, we've fought, we've
done everything as a group."
But these accomplishments are not enough
to satisfy Hill, and he doesn't want them to be enough to satisfy
"We've made some progress, but we have a
long way to go," Hill said. "I tell the players, `Now, you are
here, and what are you going to do when you are here?' Now is
Pete Carril believes Hill is up to the
challenge of trying to bring winning basketball back to Columbia.
The Hall of Famer and Ivy League coaching legend won 525 games in
his 29 years at Princeton. Today an assistant coach with the NBA's
Sacramento Kings, Carril has an unshakable belief in the man he
successfully recruited to Princeton in 1972, winning a celebrated
recruiting war over then-basketball powerhouses like Notre Dame and
"The guy sees everything," Carril said.
"He's not an egomaniac. He doesn't think the world revolves around
him. You can see him immersing himself into the character of his
players. He relates to the players very well. He's going to give it
a day's work, and he's going to be honest with his kids. That's
Carril and his boss, Sacramento Kings Vice
President of Basketball Operations and former Princeton star Geoff
Petrie, had dinner with Hill this past summer when they were in New
York scouting players at The Goodwill Games. It was then that
Carril, who brought Hill back to Princeton as an assistant coach in
1991, saw something in his usually stoic protege that made him
"We've made some progress, but we have a long way to
Hill calmly instructs his club
during an overtime win over Stony Brook earlier this
PHOTO: Alex Sachare
"What I liked was that he was so excited
about his team," Carril recounted. "Armond was never a verbose type
of guy. He very rarely showed emtion. That's why people sometimes
thought he didn't care. When he started talking about his players
the way he talked about them, I could see then and there that this
guy was going to be a success. It was two hours, but I saw
everything that I wanted to see.
There was a time when Carril wasn't sure
Hill wanted a career in coaching, and that was fine with the former
Tiger mentor. Hill, who holds a degree in psychology from Princeton
and has a lifelong interest in art, had established himself outside
of basketball following his NBA playing career, first working at
The High Museum of Art in Atlanta and then returning to New Jersey
as an art curator at the Lawrenceville School.
But the Lawrenceville administrators
enticed him to add coaching basketball to his duties, and Hill
began his journey back to the sport at which he excelled. He guided
Lawrenceville to the 1990 New Jersey State Prep School championship
and was named Coach of the Year in 1989 and 1990. Shortly
thereafter, Carril came calling, and Hill became a contributing
member of the coaching staff that helped Princeton lead the nation
in scoring defense four straight seasons.
The lessons Hill learned from Carril, and
from his NBA coaches like Hubie Brown, Don Nelson and Lenny
Wilkens, are being put to good use today.
"I am demanding," Hill said. "I am asking
the players to bring their best. And so, like any teacher, I want
to see them improve. So they have to deal with me, yelling a little
While Hill has relied on his seniors to
help him teach the younger players how to play Division I
basketball, the future of the program depends on attracting
talented young players like freshman center Mike McBrien, an
all-city player from Sacramento. McBrien, an immediate starter at
Columbia, made it clear that Hill was a big part of why he is in
"He's a teacher, and he stresses the
small, fundamental things," McBrien said of Hill. "I'm here for the
education, first of all. But also, this is an up-and-coming team. I
wanted to be a part of that. I liked the offense, and I liked Coach
Hill. Coach Hill can teach me a lot. He's been in the NBA, played
at Princeton, and has all kinds of experience. Hopefully, that will
rub of on me."
Hill knew it wouldn't be easy to turn back
the clock to the 1960s and the glory years of McMillian, Heyward
Dotson '70 and Dave Newmark '69, or the undefeated regular season
posted by the 1951 team that was led by John Azary '51, Jack
Molinas '53, Bob Reiss '51 and Al Stein '52. But at 45 years old,
Hill is a man who is in his element, with a thirst for the
challenge at hand and a basketball philosophy in which he has great
"Winning basketball should be played with
consistency," Hill said. "If you are true to your teammates and
true to yourself, that's what you are going to step out to do when
you step on the floor. Every time. All this time."