While Bob Huggins was making a case for the Hall of Fame at West Virginia, Frank Martin was reaching the Final Four at South Carolina, Brad Underwood was signing a lucrative contract at Illinois and Matt Figger was earning his first shot as a head coach at Austin Peay, a man that used to coach alongside all of them at Kansas State was trying to put his life back together.
Dalonte Hill, once the nation’s highest-paid assistant with a salary of $423,750 and an invaluable recruiter during K-State’s basketball resurgence, hit rock bottom. A second drunk-driving arrest cost him his job at Maryland in 2013. A third sent him to jail for 60 days and left him re-evaluating everything two years later. His coaching career, which once seemed bright, had taken a dark turn.
“It was humbling,” Hill says now. “I lost a lot of things that I used to take for granted.”
Some of those things are slowly starting to come back into his life. Thanks in large part to the trust he built with fellow K-State coaches while working under Huggins and Martin from 2006-11, he is getting a fresh start as a college assistant after four years in exile.
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New Austin Peay coach Matt Figger, fresh off a Final Four run with Martin at South Carolina, hired Hill as an assistant earlier this month. The job and salary are a far cry from what Hill was once accustomed to, but they feel like blessings.
“I told Coach Fig I would beat him here if there was an opportunity for me,” Hill said. “That’s how anxious I was to get back into college coaching.”
He wasn’t kidding.
“He got here the day before I did,” Figger said. “That’s part of what made it a very easy choice for me to hire him. It was a no-brainer. I have a great amount of respect for him and I trust him with my life. He’s one of my guys.”
It’s fascinating how things turned out. When Hill left K-State six years ago to take a similar job at Maryland, he was the one who appeared on the fast track to becoming a head coach. Without him, star recruits Michael Beasley, Rodney McGruder and Jamar Samuels would never have played for the Wildcats. He also signed Melo Trimble and Dion Wiley with the Terrapins.
Today, Figger is the hot young coach.
“It’s a dream come true for me to be a head coach,” Figger said. “To be able to come to a place like Austin Peay that has basketball tradition, it’s the perfect first job for me.”
Hill is happy to join him. He has never been more eager to help. He already dreams of duplicating the success they had together at K-State helping Martin win 117 games over five seasons, a span that included four NCAA Tournaments and one Elite Eight.
It’s unlikely he will be able to recruit five-star prospects to a mid-major school in Clarksville, Tenn., but he is going to try. He helped operate a pair of AAU teams while he was out of college coaching and hopes to build off the relationships he developed with those players the same way he did when he constructed a pipeline to K-State.
“It all comes down to relationships,” Hill said. “Outside of Michael Beasley, we were never recruiting the absolute best guys. We recruited guys that wanted to play for us and understood what we were about. We want the same here.”
This time around, Figger hopes Hill can be known for more than his AAU connections.
“Dalonte has got one of the best coaching minds I have ever worked with,” Figger said. “He’s a team guy with no ego. I don’t think people understand how good our coaching staff was at Kansas State. We were not the smartest guys in the world, but for every weakness someone else had a strength that made us work well together.”
Hill wants to put that coaching mind back to good work without losing sight of what is important off the court. He wants to win, of course, saying the goal at Austin Peay is bigger than conference championships. But he also wants balance.
When he coached at Maryland, he spent so much time on the job he’s not sure he ever stopped working. After practice, he socialized with prominent high school coaches who could help him on the recruiting front. That led to lots of dinners and drinks and, ultimately, his undoing. He wishes he spent that time at home with his three daughters.
His routine has changed since then. His days now consist of work and family. Not much else. Dance recitals have replaced nights out. He quit drinking for a year and now tries to limit his alcohol to an occasional glass of wine, and he says he stays away from the steering wheel on those nights.
“I have learned how to balance my life,” Hill said. “Being away from coaching allowed me to focus in on my daughters and realize how much fun it can be to go on field trips with them and support them instead of letting their mom do all the work. When I was young I was always on the go, always coaching, always in the gym, and I missed out on that.”
This is a new beginning for Hill. He still wants to be a head coach and thinks this could be a step toward that goal. But that’s not why he took the job. He doesn’t miss money and notoriety. He misses being around the sport he loves and helping student-athletes.
He also misses the magic of that old K-State coaching staff.
“Look at all the success Frank Martin and Brad Underwood are having,” Hill said. “It’s Coach Fig’s turn to show everyone he’s ready to be a great head coach. I’m just blessed he thinks I can help.”
Kellis Robinett: @kellisrobinett