Right on ‘Q’: Quentin Hillsman fought his way to become a head coach at age 35
It’s 6 a.m., and the man called ‘Q’ is running furiously on a treadmill in his home in North Clay. It’s the new routine for the new head coach of the Syracuse women’s basketball team, and sleep isn’t high on the agenda. There’s a television set positioned in front of him; he’s watching game footage of backdoor screens and full court presses.
Rest is an afterthought; basketball a 24-hour-a-day job these days for Quentin Hillsman. But what could he possibly be trying to accomplish, pre-dawn, midway through his first season as head coach of a Division I basketball program?
‘To win a national championship,’ he said, matter of factly. ‘If that’s not your goal, you shouldn’t be coaching.’
Twenty years ago, the 35-year-old journeyman wasn’t coaching, he was a 15-year-old playing. His goal was just to make it out of the rough neighborhoods of southeast Washington D.C. Now, as one of the youngest head coaches in America, he wants to take the Orange out of the gutter of the Big East.
With nine losing seasons in the past 10 years – and a total of 14 conference wins in the last four years – Syracuse women’s basketball has disappeared from the forefront of the Big East, where it was among the tops in the late ’80s under Barbara Jacobs. Furthermore, the situation at Syracuse has gone from bad to worse lately, as seven players left the program in the three years under head coach Keith Cieplicki.
But it’s Hillsman’s team now. And sentiments from the players and around the conference indicate that he is well-qualified to direct a change, even if he’s twice as young as many of his conference coaching adversaries.
At 8-11 this season, Syracuse is far from a national title contender and Hillsman recognizes the process requires patience and a few rebuilding years. The five-year deal he signed in October cemented his status as head of the SU women’s basketball program and ensured the nomadic coach would finally sit still in one place.
After one-year stops as an assistant at Siena, American, Laurinburg Institute (N.C.), Patterson School (N.C.) and Alabama, Hillsman came to the Orange in March 2005 without much intention of making it his permanent residence.
But after just a year on the bench, Hillsman was named interim head coach to replace Cieplicki, who resigned in June. Four months later, Hillsman was given the job outright.
‘I wanted to be a head coach – that was my goal,’ Hillsman said. ‘But you don’t put a time limit on that stuff. Realistically, I thought if I am a head coach by the time I’m 40 I’d be happy.’
Instead, he reached that goal sooner than expected. And while he looks, acts and talks the part of a time-tested coaching vet, he brings both youthfulness and energy, evidenced by the jumpsuit he wears to practice, the diamond-studded tie clip he adorns for games, and the childhood nickname ‘Q’ he asks everyone to call him.
It’s for some of these reasons Hillsman immediately struck a chord with his players, expressing a sharp reversal from the rigid and tension-filled atmosphere during Cieplicki’s days.
‘He’s a motivator,’ sophomore guard Mary Joe Riley said. ‘He always stays on us; he knows everybody’s personality. If he knows yelling at you will make you play better, he’ll yell at you. If he knows it doesn’t make you play better, he won’t.’
When sophomore point guard Cintia Johnson found out over the summer that Hillsman was taking over, she was shocked at first – he’s so young, and he’d only been at SU for a year, she thought.
Though he may be young, Hillsman has played for enough teams, driven enough miles and coached at enough schools to speak with validity. Johnson learned this quickly, and she’s reaped the benefits of her coach’s understanding.
‘He’s the type of person that motivates me to be a better person because he’s small just like I’m small and I’m sure he went through the same things I’m going through when he was in college,’ Johnson said. ‘He motivates me to go out here and play harder because he was in my position once upon a time.’
No far-off fairy tale here. It’s been little more than a decade since Hillsman himself was a basketball recruit hoping for a chance to play for a college program. For him, basketball has been a lifelong itch, as well as an avenue out of the place he was born.
The only child of a computer business consultant and music teacher, Hillsman grew up just minutes from downtown Washington D.C., but worlds away from the white-collar atmosphere commonly associated with politically-charged nation’s capital. At the time – the early to mid-1980s – Washington was dubbed the Murder Capital. As a boy, Hillsman felt blessed just to have a loving family and stable home.
‘I don’t want to give the impression that it was the projects or anything,’ Hillsman said. ‘But it was urban living, right outside southeast D.C. It was a basic, hard-nosed kind of neighborhood.
‘My neighborhood was tough; it was one of the top areas for murder in the country. But it also gave you a sense that you had to overcome that. That’s where a lot of my drive and will comes from. I know where I came from.’
Hillsman used sports, as many do, to build himself a better life. During the day he’d spend hours at the basketball hoop in the driveway behind his four-bedroom, split-level home. At night, he would slide his bed to one side, lay tape down on the floor and shoot jump shots at the mini-hoop on the wall, creating a tiny Capital Centre in his bedroom.
Hillsman played more than hoops. He boxed, too. There was a local boxing gym he’d go to for a daily workout, starting when he was just a boy. The gym – Oakcrest Boxing Center – was a home to Sugar Ray Robinson at one time. Hillsman didn’t go there to star gaze; just to learn to fight.
‘That’s what we did when I was young,’ he said. ‘I boxed ’till I was 13 at Oakcrest, to learn to defend myself.’
It’s the same sort of toughness he preaches now to his team. Out-manned and often outmatched due to injuries, SU has been an underdog to most of its opponents all season. But the effort has always been there.
‘They play hard,’ Marquette coach Terri Mitchell said. ‘You can just see the mentality there changing. It’s fun to coach against and you can see as time goes on they’re going to keep getting better and better.’
Hillsman intended to step into coaching, but he fell into the women’s game accidentally. He had already finished playing college ball and ended his career at St. Mary’s (Md.) – a small Division III school with a strong academic reputation – as the leader in single-game and single-season assists.
Now he was working with true basketball phenoms, the kind he had once hoped to be, at the Newport School in Kensington, Md. He was an assistant coach for a roster that included future NBA players DerMarr Johnson, Rodney White and Jamison Brewer when he got a phone call.
‘The girls coach quit a week before the season started so they asked me to coach,’ Hillsman said. ‘That year, we went 22-7.’
Less than a decade later, Hillsman is standing on the sidelines of Gampel Pavilion in Storrs, Ct., giving his team the old-fashioned head-cocked grimace. He’s urging the Orange to avoid the precarious traps of Connecticut, his school’s rival and the No. 7 team in the country. A few yards down from him is Geno Auriemma, the Huskies coach, a legend of women’s basketball lore, and it seems impossible these two could be in the same tight circle.
‘I look at it as competing,’ Hillsman said. ‘I look at every game as an opportunity, to see if you can gameplan, to see if you can compete with these other coaches.’
Other coaches see it too; they see a fiery young coach with lofty expectations and the will and determination to see them completed. After Syracuse’s 79-55 loss to then-No.18 Marquette on Jan. 3, Mitchell said she was amazed by the energy and passion displayed by SU.
‘It just wasn’t a team that felt like they were done,’ Mitchell said. ‘What I see Q doing is having them play with a lot of energy.’
‘I know his young ladies are going to work hard,’ Providence head coach Phil Seymore said. ‘He has some talent there but they had some injuries that he’s fighting against and he’s trying to get the most out of his players. I think Syracuse got a gold mine in signing him.’
The gold mine Seymore refers to is in part because Hillsman, touted as a recruiter, has already made his mark with two successful initial recruiting classes – highlighted by conference freshman of the year candidate Nicole Michael as well as 6-foot-4 junior Vaida Sipaviciute – and the 10th-ranked class in the nation for 2007.
For the first time in a while, the future of Syracuse women’s basketball looks bright.
It’s 11 a.m. now, and Hillsman is on his way out to practice, clad in a navy blue jumpsuit and sneakers. He’s trying to implement an up-tempo, transition-filled style and it requires hard work and effort from not just the players. He’s a hands-on teacher, one of the reasons he’s stayed with coaching women over men.
‘I think (the girls) really have a will to learn,’ Hillsman said. ‘Basketball is so fundamental; you need to teach the game. I love teaching the game. To make a living doing it is unbelievable.’
He’s come a long way since those days down in D.C., but many of the lessons he learned still stay with him today. He and his wife, Shandrist, have established a program, the Celebration of Excellence, aimed at helping inner-city children in Syracuse and building a stronger, broader community. After attending the Providence game on Jan. 6, 21 kids were brought to meet the players and received autographs and pictures. It can happen next month, too, if the children achieve the goals Hillsman set out for them to do.
Goals, like the ones he set for himself years ago, and the one he has in mind a few more treadmill miles down the road. It won’t happen overnight, Hillsman said, but the signs of progress and the steps in the right direction are impossible to ignore.
‘Our players are visibly shaken when they lose – that’s a big step,’ Hillsman said. ‘And it matters. It’s not like ‘This is OK’. The culture and the atmosphere is changing.
‘With the injuries we had at the start of the season, and the stuff going on, honestly, tell me honestly, did you think we’d be where we are?’
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