Kansas State baseball coach Brad Hill couldn't stop smiling as he ended practice Wednesday.
No one knew what to expect from him the day after K-State announced Hill would step down at the conclusion of the season and end his 15-year run with the Wildcats, which featured unprecedented heights and then painful lows. But he seemed at peace with his situation and spoke enthusiastically about his final days on the job.
"I’m going to give this everything I’ve got," Hill said. "I told the kids at practice, 'I’ve got 10 days.' They are going to get the best of me for 10 days. It’s not over yet. Obviously, you’ve got KU and then Wichita State. No greater thrill for me than to get some wins against those people to finish out the season. And then, for me too, I do care about these kids. I want them to have some momentum going into next year. I want them to have a winning taste in their mouth leaving here."
It's that type of enthusiasm that helped Hill convince K-State he was the right man to lead its baseball program when he took over for Mike Clark in 2004 and then set the school record for victories by winning 463 games.
The team was in a tough spot back then, lacking the facilities and talent to compete against traditional Big 12 powers. The Wildcats had never reached the NCAA Tournament and were more accustomed to losing seasons than winning records. But Hill changed that when he guided K-State to a regional in 2009 and then three more, a magical run that ended with a Big 12 championship and a super regional in 2013. The Wildcats came within one victory of Omaha and the College World Series.
His successor will have big shoes to fill.
But the baseball program could also use a jolt of energy.
The Wildcats have been on a steady decline since 2013, when the Wildcats rewarded Hill with a five-year contract extension. They have not played in a regional or finished better than sixth in the Big 12 since, and they are currently in last place of the conference standings with an overall record of 18-29 and a conference mark of 3-18.
What went wrong?
"That’s a hard thing," Hill said. "Trust me, that is a yearly evaluation by me looking at what we have done. Unfortunately, we had some (recruiting) classes fall apart on us a little bit. As you look at this year, we have six seniors and they are all junior college kids. That is not the way a program should be. You should have four or five seniors and then a nice combination of other classes."
K-State remained patient with Hill during the program's slide, but even Hill knew it was time to step aside when he met with athletic director Gene Taylor earlier this week.
He said reality set in for him when K-State held its annual awards banquet for all sports this spring. The football team celebrated a bowl victory, the men's basketball team cheered 25 wins and an Elite Eight, other teams went to the postseason. Baseball was hardly mentioned.
"The baseball team hasn't done much," Hill said. "The baseball team is lagging right now, and that points to me."
That has worn on him for a while. So much so that he avoided tears when he told K-State players he planned to step down, because he knew the timing was right.
"It’s been thought about probably the last couple years, honestly," Hill said of stepping down. "The success and where we are at right now hasn’t been where it needs to be, from my standpoint No. 1, but also the expectations of what we kind of established. Five and six years ago the program was going to regionals and that was the expectation, to be in a regional."
"Unfortunately, right now we are hoping just to get into the Big 12 tournament. That is unacceptable and I am in charge. I’m the leader of the program. It has been a thought the last couple years that maybe it is time for me to step aside and let somebody new come in and get some new energy and new passion and get the program back to where it needs to be."
With Hill's contract, which paid him $315,000 this season, set to expire on June 14, it seemed like a forgone conclusion this would be his last year with the Wildcats. The only question was how Hill and K-State would handle his exit.
After such a long and mostly successful run, both sides agreed to take the high road. Hill announced Tuesday that he will step down at the conclusion of the season and Taylor thanked Hill for taking the baseball team to special places.
K-State's final home series of the year, which starts Friday against Kansas, will serve as a going-away party of sorts. Players and fans will get three straight days to honor Hill.
Hill said he was humbled by an outpouring of support on Tuesday and Wednesday. But now he is looking forward to coaching seven more games. He wants to go out with a bang and give the Wildcats momentum before a new coach comes in and K-State breaks ground on new baseball facilities.
K-State is still mathematically alive for the final seed in the Big 12 tournament, and that's what the Wildcats are aiming for. If K-State sweeps KU and the Jayhawks lose their final six conference games, the Wildcats are off to Oklahoma City. Whenever the ride ends, Hill says he will catch up on sleep.
That's something he hasn't had much of over the past five years.
"I am disappointed we couldn't sustain it," Hill said. "That is probably my biggest disappointment. We had the program where we wanted it. We had expectations and even a taste of Omaha. We were so close to Omaha and now we are back where I don't want to be. Making the Big 12 tournament is a goal, and that shouldn't be. The goals here should be the occasional regional, and Omaha should be in the back of their minds."