Kiley Hill was excited when he was named the new head coach of Western Carolina University’s women’s basketball program on July 8. Yet, Hill knew he was stepping into a difficult situation.
Hill’s hiring came less than three weeks after the university’s Board of Trustees did not approve the employment contract of the previously named head coach, Heather Kearney, who had been brought on board to replace former coach Stephanie McCormick when athletics department leadership decided it needed a change in program leadership after four years.
Inheriting a staff and a team that had been through a whirlwind of emotions is something Hill said he was prepared for. “My wife (Molly) taught me something many, many years ago as an elementary school teacher for 10 to 15 years — you’ve got to meet people where they’re at,” Hill said. “That’s been my entire focus, meet them where they’re at. Right now, they are in a tumultuous situation. Fear, doubt, worry have all kicked in. They don’t know who I am, what changes I may make. They’re very uncomfortable.”
Communication is the key, he said. “We’re going to talk. We’re going to figure out those things that help them be successful. But they’ve also got to take ownership on that side. I think from a standpoint of communicating with my staff in this situation, communicating with others, I think it goes back to being steady, being consistent and being a great communicator. And knowing where I stand so there’s no agendas. Our main agenda is to help these kids, serve these kids and get them back to where they feel they can compete at a very high level,” Hill said.
Hill comes to WCU after serving the last three seasons as the associate head coach at Southern Miss. Prior to that, he was the head coach at NCAA Division II Valdosta State for 16 years. Hill also served three seasons as the assistant coach and recruiting coordinator and one year as the head coach at West Alabama, also a Division II school.
While at Southern Miss, Hill helped lead the Golden Eagles to a 56-40 record. In 2016-17, Southern Miss finished 23-11 and returned to the Conference USA championship game. Last season, the team was 18-14 and reached the second round of the Women’s Basketball Invitational postseason tournament.
As the head coach at Valdosta State, Hill compiled a 279-177 record and was regarded as one of the top coaches at the Division II level. In 2012, he was named South Region Coach of the Year by the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association. During his last 10 years there, his team’s averaged 19 wins a year.
Conversely, Hill takes over a WCU program that has struggled during the last decade. During the last 10 years, the Catamounts were 87-216 overall, and 50-139 in Southern Conference play, including an 0-14 mark in league play last year.
As a coach known for rebuilding programs, Hill is looking forward to the challenge of turning WCU’s fortunes around. During the interview process, he presented Director of Athletics Randy Eaton with a five-year plan. “What a wonderful challenge and what a wonderful opportunity to take that challenge and grow. It’s almost like a startup company. That’s what I do. I’ve had the opportunity to build programs and be a part of those opportunities,” Hill said.
“I think if you don’t know where you’re going, you’re not going to know how to get there. I’m about to be 47. I was blessed to become a head coach when I was 26 years old. I’ve been doing this awhile. Back when I was 26 or 27, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. Now I know some of the pitfalls that I can avoid. Some of the stuff that would’ve bothered me, now it doesn’t bother me,” he said.
Hill has spent the summer assessing the team from top to bottom. Hours after being introduced as head coach, he had the Catamounts on the practice court. The following day, it was off to conditioning.
The Catamounts return eight players, including four underclassmen, from last year’s team. One of those is Jewel Smalls, who was voted SoCon Freshman of the Year by the media. Smalls averaged a team-high 11 points per game. Her 330 total points was the second-most by a freshman in program history.
“Kiley is a proven head coach, which is evident by his record at Valdosta State,” said Joe Foley, women’s head coach at Arkansas-Little Rock. “And with his recruiting ties he has developed from Southern Miss and Valdosta State, I know he will lead Western Carolina to new heights. He is a tireless worker, great communicator and a great family man. Western Carolina could not have made a better choice to lead their women’s basketball program.”