When Brad Hill was hired in the summer of 2003 as the head baseball coach at Kansas State there weren't a lot of people around Manhattan at the time that could tell you much about the K-State baseball program.
Coming fresh off a Division II national championship at the University of Central Missouri, formerly Central Missouri State, Hill came to Manhattan with an impressive resume. Hill's record at CMSU was 418-91 during his nine-year term as the head coach. He was a seven-time Central Region Coach of the Year that guided the Mules to the Division II College World Series in seven of his nine seasons in Warrensburg. His .714 winning percentage in his 16-year coaching career puts him currently at 6th all-time on the NCAA list.
But a great resume wasn't going to change the daunting task of building a winning program at a school that had never made a NCAA tournament, was playing in a conference that consistently had at least half of its' teams in the top 25, and isn't located in a hot-bed of recruiting talent like California or Texas.
But he knew of some of the challenges that awaited him in Manhattan. "Changing the perception of the program. It was viewed as a program that wasn't very strong", said Hill. "Getting the guys to understand the time commitment, work ethic and the way to go about their business in order to be a successful program was going to be a major challenge."
Hill wasn't the only one that made the transfer to Kansas State from CMSU. Assistant coach Tom Myers, Operations Director Scott Thomason and two players also joined Hill in Manhattan.
In his first season at Kansas State in 2004, the Wildcats finished with a 26-30 record overall and a 4-23 record in the Big XII conference. This was a far-cry from the 51-7 record that Hill had at CMSU in 2003. Hill lost more games in just the Big XII conference in '04 than he had in over 2 entire seasons at CMSU. It was going to take Hill a few years of recruiting to get the guys he wanted into the program.
There are certain traits that Hill looks for in his recruits. "We look more at attitude. Kids who play hard and play with a passion", said Hill. "The guys taking extra swings in the cages before the game, the way the player gets on and off the field, and how they communicate out on the field. We really look at those things."
In his second season in Manhattan the Wildcats' record improved to 30-25 (8-19). The more time he had to bring in his own recruits the better the program became. Kansas State's standing in the Big XII would rise each year over the next six seasons from 2005-2010. From 10th in 2005, to 9th in 2006, 8th in 2007 and t6th in 2008, 4th in 2009 and then 3rd in 2010.
Hill believes that it was a game in 2005 that he saw the program first turn a corner under his watch. It was a victory over No. 1 ranked Texas in Austin that gave Hill the confidence that the program was headed in the right direction. "That was the signature win. It planted that seed on what we could become, or wanted to become as a program." The victory came on a Sunday afternoon in Austin in front of 5,100 fans that saw the eventual-national champion Longhorns fall to an up-and-comer 5-3.
The game against Texas in 2005 may have been the seed, but the last three seasons at K-State have shown the steady growth of a program that is in it for the long haul. A program that had never been to a NCAA tournament in its' 114-year existence has now made a regional for the last three-consecutive years. They've had the Big 12 Pitcher of the Year in AJ Morris in 2009. Nick Martini was the Big 12 Player of the Year in 2010 after a stellar sophomore year. Coach Hill was also named the Big 12 Coach of the Year and Midwest Coach of the Year in 2009 after a school-record 43 wins and the programs' first-ever NCAA appearance. They've also had 17-All Big XII selections in the past three years.
With all of the recent success you would think that the program would change its' goals from one season to the next. "It all starts with the Big XII tournament. The goal to get to a regional is there, but you have to make the conference tournament first", said Hill. "Finish in the top 6 in the conference and you have a shot".
It's not just one season and one recruiting class that has come through the program that has made the impact that Wildcat fans have noticed over the last several years. They've seen All-Americans and All-conference performers leave the program and they've stayed successful. Part of that is the recruiting, and part of it is the development of players once inside the program. With strength coach Scott Bird having his office and weight room facility right there at Tointon stadium, the program has allowed the players to develop both from a skill position and a strength position in ways that wasn't possible before. Over the last three years Kansas State has had seven players drafted in the top 7 rounds of the MLB draft. Six of those players were not drafted out of high school.
The change in Athletic Director at Kansas State recently has also benefitted the program. "The support from John Currie has been tremendous. He wants our program to be successful and is pushing K-State baseball more than it ever has been before. They're giving us recognition and really pushing the program."
While most of the country was just watching the College World Series in Omaha, coach Hill was back out on the road recruiting the next batch of players that will hopefully develop into a team that will play in Omaha one day. The Wildcats already have three signees for 2012 that were drafted in this past MLB draft. Braden Shull, a left-handed pitcher was taken in the 27th round by the Philadelphia, Robert Youngdahl, an outfielder was taken in the 37th round by Boston, and Nate Williams, a right-handed pitcher was taken in the 38th round by Atlanta.
Hill credits his time as an assistant coach at Kansas for instilling a belief in him that Kansas State can one day make the final eight and play for a national title in Omaha.
Hill was an assistant in '93 when Kansas earned a spot in Omaha after winning the Mideast regional in Knoxville, TN. That KU team lost its first game of the regional to Fresno State, and then had to make its way through the losers' bracket in order to advance. Kansas won three straight games against Tennessee, Rutgers, and Clemson to advance to the title game against Fresno State.
Kansas beat Fresno State in 10 innings after trailing 2-1 headed into the 9th inning. Some late-game magic sent the Jayhawks, and coach Hill to the programs first, and currently only, trip to Omaha. It was this tournament in Knoxville almost twenty years ago that reminds coach Hill that what was accomplished at a now rival, can be fuel and an example of what could happen at Kansas State.
"It set a precedent for myself as a coach, that if it happened at KU, it can happen anywhere", said Hill. "It was the sense of accomplishment in reaching the College World Series from a program that hadn't seen much success, in a part of the country that it wasn't supposed to happen. If it happened at Kansas, it can happen at Kansas State."