Denny Hill began his unparalleled swimming coaching career in the fall of 1967 at … Ferndale.
It wasn’t until the next school year that Hill moved to Ann Arbor Pioneer. After his one season at Ferndale, he was lucky there was a second season.
“The problem was all the seniors kind of quit,” Hill recalled. “I had been their third coach, and I was requiring them to come to practice. We won three meets. I thought: ‘Oh, my God, what did I get myself into?’ “
Mike Turner began his spectacular hockey coaching career in the fall of 1973 at … Southgate Aquinas.
It wasn’t until the next school year that Turner began coaching at Trenton — and like Hill, he was lucky to get a second season coaching.
At least Hill’s swim team swam indoors.
“We had to play at an outdoor rink,” said Turner, who played for Harry Neale at Ohio State. “We won three or four games. They didn’t win any games the year before. When we practiced, I was the best guy on the ice.”
Despite their inauspicious beginnings, Turner and Hill went on to have legendary careers, becoming the state’s all-time best coach in their respective sports.
And both have decided their coaching careers have come to an end and announced their retirements.
“It just got to the point where it was time to move on,” said Hill, 69. “Those 12-hour days were getting kind of hard and the same thing I was doing earlier in my career seemed to be getting a lot harder.”
Turner’s retirement was the result of a thought process that covered the last two years.
“I just knew after everything I’d been thinking for the previous two years that the time had come,” Turner said. “I’d done enough, I’d put things in numbers and perspective.”
Numbers don’t lie — and both Turner’s and Hill’s numbers are staggering.
Hill coached the boys team at Pioneer for 45 years, winning 15 state championships and 567 dual meets. He coached the girls for 38 seasons with 16 state titles and 444 dual meet wins, giving him a combined record of 1,011-128-2.
Turner, 64, became the winningest hockey coach in state history this season and finished with a record of 629-126-52 and 11 state championships.
A Lansing native, Hill began coaching after graduating from Michigan State where he swam. Moving from Ferndale to Pioneer was a no-brainer for someone looking to be competitive.
“I knew that I had a chance at doing pretty well there,” he said. “The selling point was that Pat Wallace, the coach at (Ann Arbor) Huron, convinced me that we were getting a 50-meter pool and we were going be able to run a real good summer program. In the area there were all these swim clubs, so there were over 2,000 kids swimming in the summertime so there was a big feeder program. It was just a matter of putting all that together.”
Hill had immediate success, but it took awhile to win his first state championship.
“I knew everything to know about swimming, I just had to learn about kids,” he said. “We didn’t win until ’77 and Huron had won twice during that period of time and the first big question mark was whether we could win or not. Once we started winning we figured it out.”
In March, Hill was honored by the National Interscholastic Swimming Coaches Association with its Hall of Fame Award, the highest award it can bestow upon a coach.
In addition to the 15 boys state titles, Pioneer also had 16 runner-up finishes.
“Once we got it going, it was on a roll,” Hill said. “Only six times we weren’t in the top four and that kind of blew me away when I saw that. The whole atmosphere and the whole tradition was always the state meet.”
Hill’s assistant was his wife, Liz, an All-America swimmer at Michigan who swam for him at Pioneer. They didn’t begin dating until a few years after she graduated from U-M.
“Liz and I were able to tie it in to the family,” Hill said. “She was just fantastic with all those kids and preparing them to get into my group, and near the end she was doing all the scheduling and all that stuff. As long as she did the work, I’d take the credit for coaching.”
The truth is Hill was never big on taking credit for the state titles. He was always quick to credit the swimmers.
“We had great kids and they were willing to work at it and that made it fun,” he said. “We were getting a lot out of it and I think the kids were getting a lot out of it so it was a fun thing.”
Hockey wasn’t always a fun thing at Trenton, which was one of the state’s biggest football powerhouses in the ’70s. Unbeknownst to Turner, the school considered dropping the program. It had nothing to do with the sport, but everything to do with the players.
“In those early years you couldn’t even get other coaches in the building to come to the games,” he said. “They were an embarrassment. It was terrible, the things I heard. The school board was ready to get rid of hockey. They weren’t going to put up with it anymore.”
That meant Turner, who graduated from Redford Thurston, had to do more than choose the most talented players for his team.
“It was making decisions on kids, trying to learn and know more about these kids,” he said. “There were kids I refused to take because of their history, the baggage that they brought. We just started taking better kids, good kids. There were so many young kids playing. It was like: ‘Hey, you want to be a bum? I’m not taking you. I’ll take the next guy, and we’ll still win with the next guy.’ “
Many talented players chose to play Junior A hockey instead of playing for Trenton, but that changed when the Trojans won the 1976 state championship and were runner-up the next year before losing in the ’78 semifinals and capturing titles in 1979 and ’80.
But in the late ’70s and early ’80s student enrollment in the district took a dramatic drop and Turner lost his teaching and coaching job.
Even when he was recalled as a teacher, Turner couldn’t get the coaching job back until the 1994-95 season, meaning he missed 13 seasons.
Turner returned with a better understanding of the defensive side of the game and won two titles with two runner-up finishes in his first four years back.
Trenton’s defense enabled the Trojans to win games they were not supposed to win, like the 2004 championship game when they beat a Muskegon Mona Shores team that featured three Division I players — including current Red Wing Justin Abdelkader, or three more Division I players than Trenton had.
The Trojans of 2008, ’09 and ’10 also became the first public school to three-peat, before Turner closed out his career with the ’14 state championship. This year, he was also named USA Today’s national coach of the year.
And he accomplished it all in a closed district that did not accept school of choice students.
Like Hill’s Pioneer swimming teams, Trenton was always a threat to win a state championship no matter the talent level.
“The thing I’m most proud of as I look back through the years is our consistency,” Turner said. “We’ve always been there. We’re one of the teams that you have to go through to advance.
“To be consistent like that has taken a lot of hard work, but a lot of praise goes to our kids because we haven’t always had the best talent down here. We’ve overachieved.”