Retiring CUSF boss: 'It's all about getting the play right'

Mar. 6—CHAMPAIGN — Tonight at the Donald C. Dodds Jr. Athletic Complex, Kelly Hill will referee her final game, pressing pause on a lifelong relationship with women's basketball.

While the Parkland-Spoon River game could be Hill's last time on the court, she expects to stay involved in the world of officiating somehow, perhaps by mentoring newer refs after she moves to Colorado.

"Just like teachers, there's not enough good ones — not enough good teachers, not enough good referees — and somebody needs to invest and help them be seen and heard and advocated for," Hill said.

The other job she's preparing to retire from does involve advocating for teachers: On July 1, it was announced Tuesday, Hill will step down as executive director of the Champaign Urbana Schools Foundation, a post she has held since 2018.

Several of Hill's family members are teachers, but she personally has never worked in the education system.

Still, her career as a college coach gave her similar experiences.

"You have to think on your feet and be flexible. You have to be able to hopefully portray a positive energy to keep people moving forward, because negativity doesn't move the needle forward as far as I've ever seen," Hill said. "Being a 'half-full' person in terms of how you think about the world serves me well and serves other people well that we can be leaders, we can be a positive change for those that maybe need to be lifted up a little bit."

Hill was a player, first, while she was studying at Cal State Fullerton and then the University of Southern California.

After graduating from USC, she took an opportunity to be an assistant coach, then head coach at the University of Nebraska and later was head coach at Western Illinois — 12 years of college-level coaching, all in all.

"I thought I would stay in that forever, but I chose to get out of it," Hill said. "I wanted to have a family and knew that coaching was really going to be challenging to do that."

Hill made her way to Champaign and began training people to coach through Human Kinetics.

She especially liked helping little leagues and YMCA teams, which are usually run by parents with little to no "real" coaching experience.

Afterward, Hill went on to train different kinds of leaders with the Girl Scouts and then build houses with Habitat for Humanity and finally joined the CUSF, all while officiating college women's basketball.

Besides coaching, Hill said CUSF ended up being her favorite job.

"It's been a really great way to kind of wrap up a lot of the things I've always believed in," she said. "Giving back to a community that gives so much to those of us who grew up in it."

Hill grew up in Colorado, but has spent over 30 years in Champaign-Urbana.

One common thread between the variety of work Hill was involved with was supporting and training leaders, which is certainly true of what she's done at CUSF.

The organization supports teachers as well as other school staff, like social workers and occupational therapists — "all those people that surround the teachers and do the work," Hill said.

"It's a hard profession. It's probably a little bit underpaid for the work that's required," Hill said. "But I think teachers and coaches are similar in that they really give a lot of themselves and they also get a lot back. It's a really interesting two-way street that really fuels them if it's a good experience."

From her time as director, Hill is most proud of recruiting "amazing" board members to work with her fellow staff members who "made this job fun and made it easy."

The COVID-19 pandemic also had a major impact on teachers during the time Hill was director, and she will remember how people pulled together to find the best solutions they could.

"I was proud to be a part of that nucleus of nonprofits, just passionate community people that were willing to step outside of whatever we thought we were going to do when a crisis came and, well, 'What are we going to do?'" Hill said. "That spirit really was a positive in a dark time."

In some ways, Hill sees CUSF's role in the community in the same way she sees a referee's job on the basketball court.

They aren't there to take sides, but they want to make sure that people who need support get it and that everyone is playing fair.

"It's humans officiating humans. We all make mistakes from time to time," Hill said. "We could care less who wins. It's all about getting the play right."