By Jared Redding
After helping Warren Central win the school’s first football state championship in 1988, offensive coordinator Johnny Hill was lured to Oxford High School by then OHS head coach Dennis Dupree.
Hill left behind a juggernaut in the making for an Oxford program that had seen very minimal success on the gridiron.
Don Whitten, a former Oxford Eagle sports editor, was one of those curious about the Holly Springs native’s move.
“[Whitten] asked me, ‘Why do you want to leave a place like Warren Central, a powerhouse, and go to a place like Oxford where they, in a good year, win two games?’” Hill said.
The answer was simple. He felt home. He wanted the same for his family. The hiring of former Ole Miss coach Robert Youngblood as defensive coordinator also assured that success was looming.
“I wanted to get closer to home. They had a good school and a good place to raise four boys,” Hill said. “We changed things real quick. Those kids in ’89 were hungry. They were tired of losing. Although we like to have killed them, playing them both ways, we did pretty good that year.”
They were successful. Hill and Youngblood played a vital role in what was a dramatic turnaround for Charger football under Dupree. The team went 10-3 in 1989, highlighted by a massive upset over the Pearl Pirates in the Class 4A playoffs.
“I remember that game like it was yesterday,” Hill said. “Warren Central and I had good battles with Pearl and knew how good they were. They dropped down to 4A and we had to play them in the playoffs. This was David vs. Goliath. We were a 33-point underdog. We got after them. We played so hard. It was a lot of fun. Everything fell together.”
Three years later, Hill succeeded Dupree as head coach, but it would be brief. Four years later, Hill left Oxford for Tupelo High School to lead the Golden Wave football program.
“It was real tough,” Hill said. “Tupelo was a large school. I was going to be the athletic director there, and it seemed like a good move but I left behind a good team at Oxford.”
Hill, a former quarterback, free safety and kicker at UT Chattanooga, handed down the athletic genes to his four boys. Each was a superior athlete and it showed on the field. Some of them even played together at the same time.
“It was unique,” Hill said. “One time I had three playing for me at the same time. Walt was a senior, Chad was a junior, Jake was a sophomore. It wasn’t exactly designed that way. Chad pitched it to Walt on a halfback sweep with an option for a pass and Jake caught a touchdown. It was a Hill-to-Hill-to-Hill play. The Jackson paper wrote that later.”
Hill and his wife Linda returned to Oxford where he was the head coach in 2000 and retired after the 2015 season. Each of his four boys grew up, learned the game, and later wanted to make a profession out of it.
Walt and Jake played football at Ole Miss, while Chad played baseball for the Rebels. Stan was a quarterback for Marshall University.
Walt and Chad are currently officials in the Southeastern Conference and National Football League, respectively. It is an occupation that Hill, although tough on a coach, respects very well.
“I’ve always tried to give referees the respect they deserve,” Hill said. “It’s a tough job. I’m the one who thinks all coaches need to officiate one game and then they wouldn’t be so critical. Then I think every referee needs to coach a game as well so they see what they go through.”
It also adds another wrinkle to family bonding time with Walt and Chad.
“It’s funny watching games with Chad and Walt because when I’m trying to watch the game, they’re watching the officials to see if they’re doing their job right. It’s comical,” Hill said.
As for Hill’s youngest two boys, Jake and Stan chose to follow in their father’s footsteps: coaching. Both have served on their dad’s coaching staff at Oxford, playing key roles in some of the best teams Oxford has ever had.
“For us, there is no difference on the field than being off the field,” Hill said. “They understood where I came from, and I turned them loose. We did a lot of things together. I always had fun with them, just like with my players. I’m going to treat all of (the players) like they were mine. I enjoyed them as kids, and still do as adults.”
Jake currently serves as head coach of Manlia High School in Arkansas after a brief stint in New Albany. Stan currently serves as offensive coordinator at Northwest Mississippi Community College. They each share a philosophy similar to their mentor father.
“One of the key things is that you need to hire good people and surround yourself with good people,” Hill said. “Players make plays, my job is just to put them in a position to win. Don’t ask them to do something they can’t do. You can keep teams unbalanced, but the players have to make it happen. That’s always been my philosophy.”