After he went 7-14 in his first two seasons as head football coach at the University of Pikeville, Dudley Hilton had started to wonder if his coaching magic had left him.
That is, until Thursday night, when Hilton and Pikeville, an NAIA team, faced Morehead State of the NCAA Division I's Football Championship Subdivision. The season opener for both teams produced an outcome that raised eyebrows around Kentucky.
Pikeville 13, Morehead State 10.
"I didn't know if those days were over or not," Hilton said Friday morning of achieving a signature victory. "Looks like we've still got a little left in the tank."
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Hilton, 65, is a Kentucky high school football coaching giant, winner of 345 career games and three state championships. Two of his state titles and most of Hilton's victories came in two separate stints as the head man at Bell County.
However, it is the 1997 Class 2A state crown he won at Bourbon County — a school with meager football history — that stands as one of the more improbable coaching achievements in Kentucky sports history.
Three years ago, Hilton surprised many when he stepped down at Bell County to take the head coaching job at UPike. Along with a new challenge late in his career, the move also allowed him to coach his son, Pikeville junior linebacker John Dudley Hilton, in both high school and college.
The elder Hilton's first two years (4-6 and 3-8) as Pikeville head man did not include winning at a clip anywhere close to what he was accustomed to in high school.
Before this season kicked off Hilton made what he believes is a key hire, adding Brian Williams as defensive coordinator. Williams was a 1980s-era Kentucky Wildcats defensive end in Jerry Claiborne's old wide-tackle-six. The Middlesboro product also has extensive experience as an NCAA Division I assistant.
"He's got that Jerry Claiborne grit," Hilton said of Williams. "Brian had been in Texas working with (ex-UK head man) Guy Morriss (at Texas A&M-Commerce), but he's still got family here in Kentucky and wanted to get back. At this level, you're lucky to get a coach with this kind of experience as a coordinator."
Morehead State had beaten NAIA schools (Kentucky Christian and Southern Virginia) by a combined 122-0 in its prior two season openers. Last year, the Eagles offense averaged 38.4 points a game.
Yet Thursday night, UPike spoiled new MSU head man Rob Tenyer's debut by holding Morehead to one touchdown. Chris Watson, a 6-foot-7 senior defensive end from Daytona Beach, Fla., led the Pikeville "D" with eight tackles, a quarterback sack and a blocked field goal.
Offensively, the Bears had two 100-yard rushers. Seth Millar, a transfer from Georgetown College, ran for 108 yards; Marquis Terrell, a redshirt sophomore from Hogansville, Ga., added 100. Millar's 23-yard touchdown scamper with 2:48 left in the game was the difference.
"Our kids played great defense," Hilton said. "And our offense just kept pounding it at them until we broke through and got it done."
On the Pikeville roster, there are two Division I transfers who got ample attention this pre-season. However, Hilton said that wide receiver Nu'Keese Richardson (Tennessee) and quarterback A.J. Graham (Marshall) did not play against Morehead due to "internal team issues."
Even though Pikeville is an NAIA school, the Bears earning a victory over Morehead State is not as surprising as it first appears. Hilton said Pikeville has the equivalency of 24 scholarships spread over its roster; Morehead plays football in the non-scholarship Pioneer League.
Then again, as a public university, MSU has other resources that the athletics department at a small private school such as Pikeville does not.
This season, what Pikeville does have as opposed to Hilton's first two years is experience. "My first year, we had five seniors," he said. "Last year, we had six. This year, we're up to 14. I feel like I've got more men on my team instead of boys."
During the 91-mile ride home from Morehead, the euphoria on the Pikeville team bus is a long way from what Hilton was feeling last November. Then, at Lexington's St. Joseph's Hospital, the coach underwent open-heart surgery. "Had five bypasses," he said.
Hilton says that experience has changed some things in his life.
"We got that big win over Morehead, I got home about 2:30 (a.m.) and I was up at 6 (a.m.) and out walking a good 3 miles," he said. "The Lord has blessed me."