Sprague High School opened its doors on the southern edge of Salem back in 1972. And over the first 15 years of its existence, the Olympian football team made the state playoffs exactly twice and was 0-2 in post-season games.
Robin Hill arrived at Sprague High in 1987, and, over the course of 25 seasons, the Olys were part of the expanded playoff structure 20 times. In that same time frame, Sprague advanced to the state championship game twice - winning the title contest in 2004. It was the crowning achievement for Coach Hill, who had patiently developed a culture encouraging teamwork, individual effort, self-sacrifice, and more, that pushed his athletes to extend their own limits in search of team success. He was also careful to include academics in his emphasis on excellence.
Hill grew up in Washington state - living in the Shoreline School District near Lake Washington. He was a 3-sport athlete, playing football, basketball and baseball for the Shorecrest Thunderbirds. From Shorecrest High School Robin moved on to the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma where he became a 2-sport standout – now in football and baseball - for the Loggers.
After graduating from UPS, Hill spent a dozen years in Seattle-area schools as a PE teacher and coach. Initially, he was the head baseball coach and an assistant football and basketball coach at his high school alma mater. He later moved to rival Shorewood High where he served as head football coach for seven years before heading south to Salem.
Hill recalls being welcomed warmly by the Sprague community. He cultivated a gradual acceptance of his position as head coach by those who comprised his coaching staff, many of whom remain as some of his closest friends. Hill’s success as Sprague’s football coach came during a period when schools within the district and the Valley League were growing and becoming some of the best “sports schools” in Oregon. Between Robin’s Olys and Tom Smythe’s McNary Celtics, the Salem-Keizer community was involved in four football title games in a period of nearly a decade. Similar success was being realized district-wide in other sports and activities.
Hill says that his favorite sport as a participant was baseball. He loved the mental components involved in the game. But he says decisively that football was always his favorite sport to coach. Robin cites the Olympian’s 2004 football championship as the high point in his coaching career. (The Oly baseball squad won a state championship in spring of that same 2004-05 school year with many of the same players who had captured the 2004 football title.) His program drew great coaches and developed great coaches. His coaching staff was filled not only with a select group of outstanding paid coaches, but also with volunteers. Total staff size was 18. The number of players participating in the program had swelled from around 100 teens when he began at Sprague, to roughly 190 - freshmen to seniors. For his part, Robin humbly says that surrounding himself with a great group of coaches and letting them do their jobs was the real key to success for all his teams.
Hill left Sprague in 2011, ending 25 years at the school. But the coaching “itch” returned and two years later he returned to the sidelines when he accepted the head coaching position at McMinnville High School. He served as the “head man” for the Grizzlies over two seasons before finally hanging up his whistle for good.
Robin Hill is a competitor. He has never shied away from tough challenges. As a coach, however, he was largely in control. In fall of 2021 he faced a challenge that he didn't control, one that would require every bit of those competitive instincts he had exhibited over his years in athletics.
Hill and his wife Karen shared that Robin faced a significant medical issue. A large tumor in his chest was found to be cancerous. The tumor was also pressing on Hill’s larynx, limiting his voice to a whisper. Several rounds of chemotherapy did shrink the tumor for a time - but it quickly returned to its previous size. The first attack on the cancer had failed.
But Hill didn't concede. He fought back. In June of '22 Robin underwent CAR-T therapy in which his own T-cells were harvested, genetically re-engineered, and then infused back into the bloodstream. When successful, the therapy effectively knocks back the cancer.
Robin spent nearly two weeks in the hospital, fighting a fever and other complications from the therapy. He returned home to recover and slowly improved. By September doctors could find no evidence of cancer. And at Thanksgiving, Robin was able to declare himself in remission.
Surgery is currently scheduled for this spring to fix paralysis of a vocal cord caused by the cancer.
Hill spent most of his time as a head football coach over his 40-year career coaching high school athletes, but he also invested his time coaching five other sports - boys and girls basketball, baseball, softball, and girls golf. His approach to sports did not start nor end with wins and losses but with developing relationships and teaching values - working hard, working together, and dealing together with adversity. It is this recipe for building relationships and success that Hill used not only as a coach but as a teacher. It led him to become one of the most respected and admired teachers on the Sprague campus. His approach was embraced by the Sprague community. The lessons learned as a competitor on fields and courts, together with those relationships built, helped maintain him in his fight against cancer.
Hill says he has always felt like he had a life-long connection with many of his players after watching them come together as teams season-after-season. The ground swell of support he received from so many of his ex-players during his two years of cancer treatment is evidence of the strong links he has forged with the young people he was fortunate enough to coach. Robin says he received similar strong support from longtime friends and family members during his cancer challenge and felt very fortunate to be surrounded by so much love and encouragement.
Robin and Karen have spent the last few months traveling the United States. He continues to receive notes of encouragement from former players and teaching colleagues among others. It is further evidence that Hill has been more than just an outstanding coach. He is a man who influenced, touched, and changed lives over four decades. That those he coached, those he coached with and against, and those for whom he was a colleague and friend would be so willing to shine their light back on him during a very difficult time only proves once again that he is a Beacon.