Moments after his team’s first playoff victory since 2009, which was filled with more ups and downs than a roller coaster, Nick Hill was at a loss to explain it all during an ESPN3 interview.
“When I was with ESPN afterwards, I just couldn’t even really get any words out,” he said after Saturday’s 34-31 victory against No. 3 Weber State in a first-round FCS playoff game.
When he spoke on a media call minutes later, his voice cracked with emotion as he explained the pride in his players and the deep roots he has in the Southern Illinois community.
Less than three years removed from a 2-9 season, the Salukis were featured on ESPN’s SportsCenter, which aired SIU’s game-winning fourth-down touchdown pass with less than a minute left, along with a game-changing fake field goal that went for a touchdown.
Hill, a DuQuoin native who starred as an SIU quarterback during his playing career, said the job of leading his alma mater has been transformative.
“It’s changed my life,” he said. “I wouldn’t be the coach if I didn’t play at SIU. I get that. I’m thankful that our players are getting to share in some of the experiences I got.”
Hill shared dozens of postgame hugs and high-fives that were caught on camera during the ESPN3 broadcast and applauded his players for sticking with the program during lean times, which included four-win seasons in 2016 and 2017.
“Ultimately, this game is about the players,” he said. “I’m proud of them committing.”
One postgame hug with fifth-year senior safety Qua Brown, part of Hill’s first recruiting class, was especially gratifying.
“It’s been a long five years,” Hill said. “Building something that’s sustainable takes time. It goes against what everybody in the country is doing right now. These guys … they’ve stayed, they’ve stuck together, they’ve believed when it was tough to believe.
“We all believed in each other, and they went out and got maybe one of the biggest wins in Saluki football history,” Hill said.
During pregame warmups, Hill noticed several hundred fans in maroon at Stewart Stadium in Ogden, Utah, where Weber State had won 20 of its past 21 games and was on a school-record 11-game home winning streak.
In the locker room before kickoff, he told assistant coach Pat Poore that those supporters would be critical to the team’s success like they were during his time as quarterback for wins against FBS programs Indiana in 2006 and Northern Illinois in 2007.
“I said, ‘Man, SIU turned out,’” Hill told Poore. “We’ve got a couple hundred people here. I said, ‘If we get rolling, that crowd will start chanting S-I-U and our players will feel it like it was against Indiana and Northern Illinois and some of those big ones.’
“Our players will remember that,” he told Poore. “I do.”
Along with ESPN taking notice of the Salukis, alums spread out across the country shared their excitement on social media, including former safety Jeremy Chinn, who finished as NFL Rookie of the Year runner-up last season.
After the win, Chinn simply tweeted, “who’s next????”
SIU (6-3) will travel to face fellow Missouri Valley Football Conference member South Dakota State (6-1) at 8 p.m. on Sunday, May 2. The game, which is a rematch of SDSU’s 44-3 victory March 20 in Carbondale, will air on ESPN2.