Children often dream of being astronauts or cowboys when they are growing up. This was not the case for Mike Hill, the new 49ers Director of Athletics.
Growing up in Clemson, Hill has been exposed to college athletics his whole life.
“I fell in love with college sports. I discovered at an early age that you could actually have a career working in college athletics. I knew I wanted to be, I wanted to work in some capacity in college sports,” Hill said.
Chasing that childhood dream of being an AD, Hill moved from Tiger Town into Chapel Thrill when he attended UNC for college. One of his first stops on campus was to the athletic department seeking a job but was turned away. He returned the fall semester of his sophomore year and once again was denied.
However, after hanging around long enough, Hill was offered a position with the sports information office in Carolina’s athletic department the spring semester of his sophomore year.
“I worked 30 hours a week. They had to kick me out of the Smith Center because I just loved being around it,” Hill said. “My life was totally immersed in sports, that’s what I did, and I loved every bit of it.”
Dave Lohse was responsible for hiring the student assistant staff in UNC Athletic Communications when Hill was with the University. During his job interview with Hill, he said it was “clear” that he would be a help around the office.
“Mike was charismatic. People were drawn to him and he was simply outstanding in every sense of the word. We trusted him and knew he would do a great job. We gave him a lot of personal responsibility. He was not the kind of employee you had to spend time on looking over their shoulder to make sure things were going well,” Lohse said.
Steve Kirschner was an intern on the staff of the sports information staff when Hill was a junior.
“He was someone who you just knew he was going to be someone who just spent his life in the sports administration. He has such a passion and was so interested in soaking up every experience and the knowledge,” Kirschner said.
An internship the summer before his senior year led to a job with the newly-formed Blockbuster Bowl after he graduated from Chapel Hill in 1990. His experience with the bowl showed him what goes into event management and the importance of establishing relationships.
“Working for a bowl game was not my ultimate goal in my career, obviously, but it was a great start. It was a great open door,” Hill said.
After working with the Blockbuster Bowl for two years, Hill wanted to find a new job – this time on a college campus. He got on staff at Ball State where he was an administrative assistant. Being at a small school meant wearing a lot of hats.
“I think the first weekend I was on staff, actually I remember going on a football road trip and scooping ice cream for the football players. That’s what you did, whatever you were asked,” Hill said.
Hill described a short list he made of schools that, if he could ever end up there someday, “it would be a dream.” One of the five schools on that list was Florida.
During his time with Ball State, an entry-level marketing position opened in Gainesville. He applied, got the job, packed up and moved to the Sunshine State. He remained an employee of Florida’s Athletic Department for the next 25 years.
Among many of his responsibilities with the Gators was the men’s tennis administrator. Bryan Shelton, the men’s tennis coach at Florida had nothing but high praise for Hill.
“I believe having Mike as a boss has made me a better coach and a person. He has the ability to positively influence people he is around. He has a special ability to relate to people and care for others. I think the way he treats people from the bottom to the top describes his personality and sets him apart from others,” Shelton said.
In a business where moving around is necessary for success, Hill was expecting to remain a Gator for five to seven years, however every couple of years he was promoted in the department, given new opportunities to grow.
“I was at one of the best programs in the country, very happy there,” Hill said. “I’ll never forget Billy Donovan, our basketball coach at the time, told me once ‘don’t mess with happy.’ He said ‘you’re happy, don’t mess with that. If you’re going to leave Florida, it’s got to be something that you’re confident you can enjoy,’ and so here we are.”
Though always keeping his childhood dream in mind, Hill said he was “very selective” when it came to applying for AD positions.
“I’ve declined most of those opportunities because I was happy at Florida. So, it was going to have to be the right fit for me. When this job opened up, I immediately started telling people who I’m close to, ‘Hey, this is one I think I want,’” Hill said.
One reason the Charlotte job stood out for him was that it would return Hill to his roots. As a kid, he would come to Charlotte to visit his grandparents. However, with all his visits to the Queen City, he never made it out the Charlotte campus.
“I was stunned, blown away by the beauty of the campus. This is a big-league university and a big-league campus. I’ve been here for a week and I’m so proud to be a part of this,” Hill said.
One of the reasons Hill stood out to Chancellor Phillip Dubois is because of his extensive history with a power five school.
“If you’ve worked in a big athletic department with a budget many times larger than ours and you have very sophisticated understanding of collegiate athletics, that’s an experience you can bring to the table when you come to Charlotte and help Charlotte grow into being a larger and more significant program,” Dubois said.
As for his vision for the 49ers in the future, Hill says he doesn’t want to “put a ceiling on what we have as a vision for this place.”
“I don’t know why this program can’t be a program that’s competing with the very best athletic programs in the country,” Hill said. “I know we have a lot of work to do and I know it doesn’t happen overnight. We all want to pick up the remote and fast-forward to the end and see the end-result, but it’s that work in between is really required to get us where we want to be.”
To capture his goal in one statement, Hill said he wants the program to “continue to grow it to a point where people are envious of our accomplishments.”
Lohse has been watching Hill’s career from the sideline ever since his time at Carolina. Seeing Hill finally fulfill his childhood dream was no surprise.
“I think he is a lot the same person he was as a student here. And that person was a remarkable human being,” Lohse said. “As I said earlier, Mike is charismatic in the good definition of the word. People are drawn to him and that makes him a dynamic and pragmatic leader. To this day I have a strong affection for Mike as a person and I truly believe in my 41 years at North Carolina he is one of the best hires I’ve ever made – literally right up at the top of the list.”
Fellow Tarheel, Kirschner, has also had the privilege of watching Hill rise through the ranks. He said what stood out about Hill’s career is that he’s been “very patient.”
“I think that patient career path, where he learned from great schools, all of his experiences are going to serve him well as the athletic director of UNC Charlotte,” Kirschner said. “I’ve known him for 30 years, the fact that he’s the athletic director now is probably the least surprising thing to me”