Who else but the winningest coach in Southeastern Conference baseball history to verify Hill Denson’s legacy as one of Mississippi’s baseball pioneers.
“They call me the Godfather of the SEC because of my success at Mississippi State,” said Ron Polk, who won a SEC record 1,218 games from 1976-2008, all but two of those years at Mississippi State and is known as the person who made baseball so popular in Mississippi. “But Hill did a tremendous amount for Mississippi baseball as well. When I got to Mississippi State in December of 1975, I met Hill when he was at Callaway (High School). He was a young baseball coach, but very impressive. He was one of the few high school baseball coaches in Mississippi who wasn’t a football guy. He had some great teams at Callaway and then he built Southern Miss into a great program. We played each other home and away every year he was at Southern Miss. We have become close friends. I feel he and I are two of the main reasons why baseball is so popular in Mississippi. It’s come a long way and Mississippi has just as good or better baseball at the high school and college level any other state in the country.”
Denson, 75, coached for baseball for 53 years, winning 1,295 games, including 1,069 at collegiate level. He retired this year after 19 seasons at Belhaven University. The Bay Springs native and Southern Miss graduate was an assistant coach under Lamont Echols at Manhattan Academy and head coach at Chamberlain Hunt Academy before coming to Callaway. He won 216 games, two Big Eight Conference titles and one state championship in 10 seasons. He was the Director of Game Promotions with the Nashville Sound, the Class AAA team of the Texas Rangers and assistant coach at Vanderbilt (1982-84) before taking the head coaching job at Southern Miss in 1984, replacing his coach at Southern Miss, Pete Taylor. Denson won 468 games in 14 seasons. Denson had 12 consecutive winning seasons, including back to back NCAA Tournament appearances in 1990-91. He coached eight All Americans and 35 of his players played professional baseball. In addition, Denson helped the Golden Eagles program become one of the top 20 in the nation in attendance on a regular basis, a long way from he started in 1984 when the school didn’t charge admission to games. So Denson went out and sold tickets and advertising himself to help the program become more popular. His Southern Miss baseball program became so popular it ranked No. 11 in the nation in attendance in 1995 and 1996, averaging 2,040 per game. In 1999, Southern Miss’ field was named after him.
Denson then came to Belhaven where he won 613 games in 19 seasons before announcing his retirement this May. Denson won six conference championships, was the Conference Coach of the Year three times and led the Blazers to the NAIA World Series in 2010.
Denson’s highest honor was being named to the American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2018, one of eight Mississippians to be inducted into this prestigious group. He is also a member of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame, Southern Miss Athletic Hall of Fame, Belhaven Athletics Hall of Fame, Jones County Junior College Bobcat Sports Hall of Fame and the Mississippi Semi-Pro Hall of Fame.
“Coach Denson is a pioneer and legendary figure in the sport of college baseball, and it has been our privilege to have him lead the Belhaven baseball program for 19 years,” Belhaven Athletic Director Scott Little said in a news release. “Above all the Hall of Fame accolades and countless wins, his current and former players know he cared about them as people. That’s a great legacy.”
“I was blessed to have played for Coach Denson because he showed us how to be a man and love your family,” said Willie Smith, who played for Denson on Callaway’s state championship team in 1981, recognized as one of the best teams in Mississippi history and one of the best in the nation that year. Smith is now a production and human resource manager and a missionary Baptist pastor in Jackson. “He told us when we won 19 games in a row that we weren’t that good so don’t get cocky. He said we can get beat. He said it doesn’t matter how good things are going, don’t get overconfident. That was a great moment of influence for my future and during my work career I have relied on that thought process.”
“Coach Denson was the guy who put Southern Miss baseball on the map,” said Mark Carson, who was a pitcher on the 1990 and 1991 teams that went to regionals. “He was the guy that made Pete Taylor Park relevant on a spring night of a three game series and made the Right Field Roost a popular place for fans. His direction and leadership provided the first renovation to the field in 1990-91 and the program has flourished ever since. His direction made USM relevant in the country and put Southern Miss on the map nationally. Mississippi is one of the best baseball playing states in the country from high schools to junior colleges to senior colleges and his finger print is all over it because he is so well known and has produced so many coaches under his coaching career.”
Carson is one of those coaches. He coached at Briarcrest Christian School in Memphis from 1991-97 and has been at Northwest Mississippi Community College for the past 22 years, the last 15 as head coach. Carson has won 416 games, took his team to the 2007 national junior college World Series, won Region 23 Coach of the Year in 2007 and has had 14 players taken in the major league draft at Northwest.
“I went to Southern Miss to major in mathematics and never really entertained the thought of coaching for a living until I played for Coach Denson, “ Carson said. “I decided my senior year to pursue coaching and much of that decision was because of Coach Denson.”
Alex Riser, who played for Denson at Belhaven in 2010 and 2011, remembers his talks about life.
“One of the biggest things for me was his annual speech to the players about becoming a man and how a man should act and treat others,” Riser said. “He always told us that he was going to treat us like men and he expected us to act like men. He said we should always take care of our business. Don’t procrastinate and do things in a timely manner and always say please and thank you. Coach Denson would make it a point to visit with us about how we should stand at attention during the National Anthem and never break eye contact with the flag during it. He said people gave their lives for this country and the least we could do was give our undivided attention to the flag for two minutes.”
Denson made such an impression on Riser that he named his ninth month old son after Denson.
“I dealt with a lot of ups and downs on and off the field along with injuries in my first year and I was at a point that I thought about hanging it up and just finishing school,” said Riser, who is a vice president for a finance company and co-owner of a restaurant chain in the Hattiesburg area. “Coach sat down with me and convinced me to stick with it. He told me the easy thing to do was to quit, but if I quit it would stick with me for the rest of my life. Sticking with it and fighting through adversity was going to be hard but much more rewarding in life. Instead of quitting, I came back stronger than ever and really enjoyed my senior year. I had an absolute blast. I think going through that prepared me for life after baseball and coach was by my side the entire time. Coach is a “do as I do person and not a do as I say person.” If there was a random piece of trash on the ground he would always pick it up and throw it away. His love for his wife, Mrs. Judy, is amazing. He treats her with the upmost respect and they demonstrate how marriage is supposed to be by supporting one another both spiritually and emotionally. He treats others with respect and always wants to hear their story. He definitely sets the bar high but it makes me want to be a better person with my wife, son and career.”
Bill Selby was one of the greatest players in Southern Miss history, still holding single season records for home runs, doubles and slugging percentage. He is a big Hill Denson fan and is thankful he had a chance to play for him. Selby played for Denson for two years (1990-91) and helped the Eagles to back to back NCAA Regionals.
“Hill was easy to talk to, he understood different personalities and could relate to each of us, and he took a genuine interest in myself as a person as much, if not more than, as a player,” said Selby, who is in his 15th year as an assistant coach at Northwest Mississippi Community College after a 14 year pro baseball career. “When I first talked with him during the recruiting cycle it was always about the relationship he developed with myself. I try and pattern my same recruiting approach that way.
“Hill always had a unique way of letting me know when I was a little out of kilter with my ‘competitiveness’ without killing my spirit. His favorite description of me was I could be a ‘turd’ when things weren’t going well. Yet I never felt like he was challenging me as a person. It was his comical approach to knowing what I had to get a hold of to be more successful as a player and teammate. I can remember one time during the course of a season that had become a little ‘overcompetitive’ and broken a helmet during a game. The next day I had a chair down the first base line waiting for me along with my helmet that had been pieced back together with athletic tape. So I got to observe that game from my chair, in full uniform, with that helmet on. And of course I try and use that same approach. With the sensitivity of many players’ psyches and the need for them to understand what needs to change or not change I find myself trying to gently or comically handle my players with same level of respect and/or humor.”
Nelson Pope transferred from Provine in Callaway in 1979 and Denson immediately made an impression on him and he still remembers things Denson said 40 years ago.
“Coach reached out to me right away (my coach at Provine told him I transferred), and made sure that I met some of the guys on the team. It was very apparent in the way he ran his program that he loved baseball,” said Pope, who played for Denson at Callaway in 1979-80 and is now a senior market access executive for a biopharma company. Coach is a baseball guy. We wore matching practice uniforms, we did organized station drills, our infield/outfield was an orchestrated thing of beauty, and he expected us to perform. I was an ok talent on a great team, but one of the things Coach said to me was ‘Nellie, you do what I ask, now you do it ugly sometimes, but you get it done.’ That may sound silly, but I took it as a real compliment. It meant a lot to know that I was getting it done, and to this day, I still may do it ugly (sometimes) but I get it done.”
“You look at Ron Polk and (LSU’s legendary coach) Skip Bertman and you say Hill Denson in the same sentence,” current Southern Miss coach Scott Berry said. “That’s what a big influence Hill Denson has had on baseball in Mississippi and in the South.”
“Hill has been a builder in the baseball world,” said Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame executive director Bill Blackwell, who has been the executive director since 2016 and was in professional baseball for 33 years, including 12 years with the Jackson Mets and Jackson Generals. “When he took over at USM, stands were minimal and selling tickets and advertising was unheard of, but he built it into a great program that continues today. He oversaw the turf installation and sold the advertising for Smith-Wills Stadium when Belhaven began playing in that facility. His work ethic and professionalism drove him through a great career.”
Mike Christensen is a long time Mississippi baseball expert, working as a sportswriter for The Clarion-Ledger/Jackson Daily News from 1984-2010, writing baseball stories and columns for many years about Mississippi high school, junior college, senior college, minor league and major league players, coaches and teams. He now does a blog called All Mississippi Baseball where he keeps up his followers with current news about players, teams and coaches with Mississippi connections. He also covered Southern Miss in the early years of when Denson was at Southern Miss.
“Coach Denson is one of those people who makes you feel
like you’ve known him 20 years the first time you meet. Just a really
good guy. When I covered Southern Miss for the JDN and C-L, he was
always available and always accommodating and would give a thoughtful answer to even a stupid question,” Christensen said. “I can imagine that kids he recruited and their parents felt instantly comfortable with him, impressed but never overwhelmed. Obviously, he could coach. From Callaway High to Belhaven, his teams won consistently. He laid the foundation for what Southern Miss baseball is today. With all due respect to the coaches who preceded him there, he turned USM baseball into a major program, one that competes for conference championships and NCAA bids virtually every year. That should not be taken for granted. He moved on to Belhaven, a very different kind of school and program and took them to the NAIA World Series. I think that’s amazing. In my 35 years in Mississippi, he’s one of the most memorable people I’ve met.”
Rick Cleveland, whose late father Ace was the Sports Information Director at Southern Miss for more than three decades, grew up in Hattiesburg and knows what an incredible feat Denson did by raising Southern Miss baseball program from where it was to helping get it to where it is today.
“Look at USM baseball now – all they have achieved in recent years (the highlight was the College World Series in 2009) – Hill jumpstarted all that,” Said Cleveland, who was a sportswriter, sports columnist and sports editor during his 33 years at The Clarion-Ledger/Jackson Daily News, leaving in 2012. He was executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame for several years and now is Mississippi Today’s sports columnist and also a syndicated columnist. “Even his boss (former Southern Miss athletic director Roland Dale) told him he couldn’t do it and he did. Not only was he a fine coach, he was a promoter and salesman, which USM baseball badly needed at the time. They had never charged admission before, and Hill sold season tickets – himself. I thought he was crazy, but he proved me and just about everybody else wrong. He is also one of the most friendly and funniest people I know. An amazing career for an amazing guy.”
Charlie Gray was there for the early years with Denson at Southern Miss. Gray was an assistant coach with Denson from 1985-92 as Denson was building the program.
“When Hill arrived at USM its probably safe to say that he was the only person who had the “vision” and determination to make his alma mater the program it has become,” Gray said. “His approach and attitude was very simple. There was no reason why USM could not be a first class program. He wouldn’t had settled for anything less. In his early years he was single handily responsible for bringing night baseball games to USM and building its stadium.
“My time there his players loved him. Hill touched so many of his players and coaches’ lives by just being the type of man he is. Sure he loved teaching the game, but most of the respect and admiration he got from his players and coaches was not what he taught them on the field. He never made the game any bigger than it was and it was never about just him. Hill has the ability to see the good in everyone around him and the loyalty he gave to all was more than anyone could have asked for. There is no doubt in my mind that everyone that was fortunate to have been in a program where Hill was in charge ended up a better person for it.”
Denson began thinking about retirement several years ago.
“I am just wore out, but seriously I began thinking about retirement when Belhaven moved from NAIA to Division III four years ago,” Denson said. “We were in a four year period where we couldn’t compete for championships and the post season so it was hard to recruit. We wanted to finish this four year period out before I handed the reins over to someone else.”
But Denson isn’t getting out of baseball. Even though he’s going to spend more time with his wife Judy, his daughters Jill and Molly and granddaughters Wyn and Hadley, Denson is still going to contribute to the game he loves. Denson helped invent a portable pitching mound in 2005 to be in Smith-Wills Stadium in Jackson, Belhaven’s home field, and is a consultant for a company that builds the mounds out of St. Louis. He has helped baseball programs all over the country. Denson has also been a site rep for the NCAA Regionals and Super Regionals for the past 25 years and hopes to continue that role. He has been all over the country from Oregon to Virginia and many places in the South like Ole Miss, Georgia Tech, Texas, Florida State and LSU. Denson was the site rep for the Fayetteville Regional and Super Regional this year where Ole Miss lost to Arkansas in the Super Regional.
‘I enjoy working with the schools around the country talking about the mounds and also working the Regionals and Super Regionals,” Denson said.
Denson has also enjoyed a long marriage with Judy, who met Denson back in 1968 and celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary last year.
“I was doing the weather on WLBT (Channel 3, the NBC affiliate in Jackson) and Hill saw me and wanted to meet me,” Judy said. “We had a mutual friend and she set up a double date. I didn’t know anything about him, but I liked his name and she said he looked like George Hamilton. We hit it off and were married 10 months later that year.”
Judy had a very popular talk show – Coffee with Judy – on Channel 3 from 1970-79 and also helped launch the Nashville Network. They were in Nashville for two years before leaving when Hill accepted the job as head coach at Southern Miss in 1984. Judy has continued her singing career no matter where Hill was working in Jackson, Nashville, Hattiesburg and then back in Jackson.
“Hill has always encouraged me to sing and work at my various jobs,” said Judy, who has worked as a TV personality in Jackson, Nashville and Hattiesburg and also worked for New York Life for 14 years. “I went to a lot of his baseball games, but not every one. If he was on the road, the girls and I would listen to them on the radio or keep up with them. Hill has never brought the game home with him. I couldn’t tell if he won or lost when he came home. He left the game in the dugout.
“There are many things that people don’t know about Hill. He is in great shape. He walks five miles a day. And he reads his Upper Room devotional every night before he goes to sleep. We attend Christ United Methodist Church (in Jackson). We did when we were here when Hill coached high school ball (at Manhattan and Callaway) and then again when we came back when he coached at Belhaven.”
Hill has influenced thousands of young men over his half century of coaching.
“There were so many guys who played for Hill that give him thanks for helping make them the man they are today,” said Judy, when they celebrated Hill’s retirement one day this spring at Smith-Wills Stadium. “There were many mothers who were so happy that their sons had a chance to play for Hill. I admire Hill for how he has led his life. He is blessed to do what he loves and I’m blessed to be with him.”
Judy and Hill plan on traveling to see their daughters and granddaughters (Jill and her husband and their two daughters live in Chicago and Molly lives in Georgia) and also go to other places around the country that they haven’t had a chance to go. They live close to the Yacht Club by the reservoir and play in a jam session most every Tuesday night (Hill plays a drum instrument and Judy sings) and they spend a lot of time at the club with friends. Hill and Judy are also part of a group of musicians who play at the VA hospital in Jackson on the first Wednesday of every month from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. The public is welcome. So he’s going to stay busy, just not on the diamond.
“I’m looking forward to retirement,” Hill said. “I’ve spent more than 50 years coaching baseball and I’m ready to do something else. We are going to have a great time.”