Fitz Hill saw the train coming. So he jumped gracefully out of the way.
Far too gracefully, if you want to know the truth.
Hill, who resigned Monday as San Jose State's football coach, went out in a classy way that allowed him to retain some nobility. He has accepted a position as a ``visiting scholar'' at the University of Central Florida. Hill will teach and do research in the areas of sports diversity and ethics.
Perhaps that is why Hill did not quit in a screaming fit -- or while pointing bitter fingers at the chaotic and muddled factors that make it nearly impossible to win at SJSU. It wouldn't have been scholarly or ethical.
``I have no regrets,'' Hill said. ``But I wish we'd had more wins and had given the fans and the Bay Area more great times than losses.''
Based on Hill's record, you couldn't make much of a case that Hill deserved to keep his job for the final two years of his contract. He won only 14 of the 46 games he coached the Spartans, with one more remaining Saturday against Fresno State.
As the defeats piled up, SJSU alums naturally weren't happy. Hill heard often from the most vociferous. He has lost 40 pounds since taking the job before the 2001 season.
Finally, sources say, San Jose State interim president Don Kassing met with Hill for a heart-to-heart chat two weeks ago. Kassing told Hill he should ponder an exit strategy at the end of this season.
``I'm just embracing the change that many wanted,'' Hill said. ``I don't want to stand in the way of any support the players might get. I understand the nature of this business.''
Hill's detractors often accused us media types of taking it too easy on him. We probably did. But that's because we could see what he -- and every other man who has coached football at SJSU the past 10 years -- has been up against.
Hill was one of just five black head football coaches at Division I-A schools. But at San Jose State, that never held him back. The school's dysfunctional view of football reality did.
Under former school President Robert Caret, the athletic department was given a mandate to balance the budget. The home attendance is miserable. Thus, the Spartans had to schedule a raft of ``body-bag'' games. They are given that nickname because a less prominent team travels to a dominant school -- Ohio State, Nebraska, Florida -- and gets creamed in exchange for a guarantee of several hundred thousand dollars.
``Do you want to balance the budget or win football games?'' asked Hill, explaining the problem.
Most football teams of SJSU's stature schedule one game per season against a team from a Bowl Championship Series conference, which feature the big cheeses of college football. Hill's teams averaged about three per year. During Hill's tenure, his teams were 1-11 against schools from BCS conferences. Against more similar football programs, Hill was 13-21. Still not very good. But there were reasons for that, as well.
Hill recognized he wasn't the genius of all football geniuses. His skills were organizational -- he earned a bronze star in Desert Storm for setting up a base in Kuwait -- and in the recruiting area. Such coaches succeed by hiring great Xs-and-0s men as assistants.
But in Silcon Valley, that can be a nightmare. Hill's own salary was $166,000, less than some assistants make at Stanford or other Pacific-10 Conference schools. Beyond that, last winter when Hill wanted to make some moves on his coaching staff, he was told that a state hiring freeze prevented him from bringing aboard new assistants if he dismissed others. Hill had to raise funds for a hire.
So what kind of coach will want a job with so many impediments? And what will the school look like when that coach gets here?
Three weeks ago, Athletic Director Chuck Bell announced his retirement, effective Dec. 1. That now puts SJSU in an interesting bind: Normally, a school's athletic director hires a football coach. But the Spartans have no athletic director. Kassing hopes to turn that negative into a positive by telling A.D. candidates that they can bring along or hire their own guy.
Meanwhile, you shouldn't feel too sorry for Hill. He will be paid the $332,000 left on his contract and is moving back to Little Rock, Ark., where he lived and worked before coming to the Bay Area.
``With my eight months in Desert Storm and my four years at San Jose State, I think I'm prepared for any challenge,'' Hill joked. ``I made it out of here in one piece.''
And then he gracefully left the building.