Turning David into Goliath

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Dudley Hilton has made a career of making afterthoughts into football powerhouses

By John Overby

It all started because the cows went dry.

Or that’s how Dudley Hilton tells the tale of how he got into coaching, at least.

He was working at Armour Food, Co. in Springfield when he got laid off, enabling him to go to St. Catharine College to get a degree so he could coach and teach.

“Getting laid off allowed me to go up the totem pole, I guess,” Hilton said. “They called me back to work, so I had to make a decision. I ended up staying in school, moving on to Eastern [Kentucky University] to get my degree. It turned out to be the right choice.”

It was during his high school days at Springfield High School and Washington County High School (the county schools were consolidated during his junior year) that he first got the urge to coach.

Both his high school football coach, Charlie Kolasa, and basketball coach, “Corky” Yankey, allowed Hilton to call plays and run the offenses on both the gridiron and the basketball court.

This allowed him to see things from a coach’s perspective at an early age.

“Anymore, it’s hard to find somebody that trusts a high school kid to call his own plays,” Hilton said. “Looking back on it now, making decisions when I was playing high school, that really helped me. Now that I’m coaching, I was making some of those same decisions I am now. They must have seen something in me, and that really gave me confidence.”

After Hilton began commuting to Eastern Kentucky University, he had the opportunity to reconnect with Kolasa, who was the principal and head football coach at Burgin High School at that time, a stop on his way to Richmond.

Kolasa allowed him to come in before or after class. While Kolasa was the head coach, he again gave Hilton the opportunity to call a majority of the plays as an assistant.
After graduating from Eastern Kentucky University, Hilton found it difficult getting a job as a football coach.

After a full year of searching, Hilton finally got his first offer.

Springfield Superintendent Red Graham called to offer him a position as the head coach of the eighth-grade squad. It seemed like the perfect opportunity for Hilton to jump in to a position after being unable to find a coaching job for so long, especially considering he was a Springfield native.

But that all changed when an acquaintance, former Washington County High School basketball coach Harlan Davis, told him about a head-coaching opportunity on the high school level at Breathitt County

“He told me that he knew I could get the job,” Hilton said. “I went in for the interview on a Monday, and I was hired on a Tuesday.”

By the time Hilton got the job, however, football practice was well under way. At this point,

Hilton’s team consisted of 13 players, only two more than is allowed on the field at one time.

Hilton even tried to convince his principal to only field a junior varsity squad that first season because of the low numbers but was denied. The team eventually grew to 19 players by the start of the season, and Hilton’s first chance to build a team from the ground up was under way.

Many of the lessons he was able to teach his players were a direct result of his upbringing in Springfield.

Hilton claims that he was “not a very good student” in school, but he believes he was able to succeed with the encouragement of his mother, Dorothy Hilton.

“My mother tried her best to raise me,” Hilton said. “A lot of people are probably surprised that Dudley Hilton went on to make it. I give my mother a lot of credit that I was able to make it on my own. I left Springfield and had never really been away from home, but I stuck it out and I made it. I bet a lot of people are surprised that Dudley Hilton become what he became.”

There was one lesson that didn’t stick, however.

“Mama used to beg me to do something else,” Hilton said. “’You’re getting those little boys hurt,’ she’d say … but she was proud of me.”

Hilton’s first team went 2-9 and was 4-7 in Hilton’s second year.

It was the last time Hilton would ever field a team with a losing record at the high school level, a span that stretched over 34 seasons.

In his third year at Breathitt, Hilton’s team lead every game going into halftime but eventually went 7-4 on the year.

Hilton could sense his team was on the right track.

“Football is a tough game,” Hilton said. “You’ve gotta be a tough person. It takes a while to build toughness. We blew a few games that third year because we hadn’t reached that toughness. You’ve gotta be strong to win. The heart wants to play hard, but the strongest team usually wins. We weren’t quite there yet, but you could tell they were getting stronger every year.”

In only his fourth year at the helm, Hilton lead his team to a perfect 11-0 regular season and was considered the number one team in Class AAA football in the state of Kentucky.

“Those kids saw that that I took it serious, and that made the kids want to play for me, I think,” Hilton said. “In four years, our kids got to be tough because they knew I demanded the most out of them. The good Lord’s blessed me with the ability to motivate kids, to get them to run through that wall, so to speak. That has truly been a blessing for me.”

Hilton would stay at Breathitt for eight years before Bell County came calling.

“You know how you can get a little success, other people start wanting you,” Hilton said. “I didn’t really want to leave Breathitt, but Bell County really wanted me, so I took the job.”

Calling his new stop a reclamation project would be inaccurate as Bell County had “never really accomplished anything,” as Hilton put it.

The team went 6-5 his first season but was already 10-1 by the next year.

It was at Bell that Hilton would suffer “the hardest loss I’ve ever had.”

After defeating Covington Catholic, the No. 1 team in Class AAA, Hilton’s team “stubbed our toes” in a hard-fought game to Ashland in 1990.

“I thought I’d missed my opportunity to win a state title,” Hilton said. “We were so close that year.”

Bell would bring back a host of juniors that next year, and Hilton would find redemption, defeating Meade County for the Class AAA state title.

His team seemed destined to repeat as state champions with a majority of his championship squad returning that fall, but the team would fall to Fort Thomas Highlands, a program that Hilton claims “cost me about five state titles.”

Hilton would stay at Bell until 1996.

“I just needed a new challenge at that point,” Hilton said.

Bourbon County, Hilton’s next stop, certainly fit that description. The program had never won a playoff game, competing in the same district as football powerhouses like Mercer County, Boyle County, Danville and Lexington Catholic.

But as he had already done on numerous occasions, Hilton turned around Bourbon’s program, this time quicker than even he expected.

“The people in Bourbon really got behind me,” Hilton said. “They thought I could walk on water, I guess.”

After defeating Owensboro Catholic 39-28 for the Class AA state title in his first year, Hilton became somewhat of a local celebrity around the Lexington area as a result of his team’s Cinderella run to the championship.

“All the big television stations, the newspapers, they were all coming to talk to me,” Hilton said. “I enjoyed talking to the press, and everyone enjoyed talking to me. I think it was because of my old Springfield accent.”

Hilton left Bourbon after four years when Bell offered him his job back, Hilton couldn’t resist the temptation to return to the program he had helmed for the majority of his career.

He would spend the next 10 years at Bell County, winning another state title in 2008, this time in Class AAAA, his third championship in three separate classes.

Most notable about this title was the presence of his son, John Dudley Hilton, starring at middle linebacker on defense and in the backfield on offense. He would play a major factor in the win, catching a 9-yard scoring pass with 3:40 remaining in the game for a 15-7 lead, snagging a key interception, racking up 10 tackles and being part of a defense that denied Bullitt East a two-point conversion that would have tied the game with 10 seconds to play.

“He was just two weeks old when I won my first state title,” Hilton said, “so I carried him into the stadium for my first one. In that last one, he carried me out.”

John Dudley also played a major factor in Hilton’s next big coaching move, a switch to the University of Pikeville in 2010, his first venture into the college ranks.

“This will be my son’s eighth year starting for his dad,” Hilton said. “Not a lot of people can say that. He lost four games in his [high school] career, all of them to eventual state champs. In college, he’s led the team in all three years he’s been here in tackling … It’s just been a joy being able to coach him like this.”

With his current stop at UPike, Hilton will be going into his 40th year in coaching.

For his high school coaching career, Hilton won 345 games in 36 seasons, matching the state record established by Bob Schneider of Newport Central Catholic over a 44-year span (since surpassed by Philip Haywood). He also posted a .774 winning percentage.

He won 26 conference championships, 22 district or regional titles and has a state runner-up finish.

He has been named Coach of the Year by the Kentucky High School Athletics Directors Association, the Kentucky High School Coaches Association and the Louisville Courier-Journal.

And recently, Hilton was named to the KHSAA Hall of Fame because of these achievements.

“I was here at the house when I got the phone call [that he would be inducted],” Hilton said. “A little tear came into my eyes. I never did think this old boy could do anything like that. I didn’t know I’d win three state titles. I came from Springfield, where Bardstown boys did stuff like that, not Springfield boys. It’s breathtaking.”

With all of the success Hilton has had, he has never forgotten his roots in Springfield.

“I’m thankful for the opportunity to do the things I’ve accomplished, just being an old country boy out of Springfield,” Hilton said. “I’m a thankful man that I got my raising in a good Christian church in Springfield. I’ve still got a lot of friends there in Springfield, I know that. I’m proud to be from Springfield, proud to say that’s my home.”

And he especially remembers the cows.

“Who knows where I’d be if I hadn’t gotten laid off,” Hilton said, “but it turned out to be a real blessing.”