LONDON — It was great to see University of Pikeville football coach Dudley Hilton out and about over the weekend. He and wife Jan attended a portion of the basketball tournament at North Laurel High School Friday evening.
Hilton, the longtime coach at Bell County High School, is doing very well after undergoing open heart surgery back in November. He’s nearly back to full strength and was downright giddy when speaking about a couple of former Division I players he may have coming to Pikeville next season.
Hilton said he first went to see a doctor in November after experience some numbness in the fingers on his left hand and was quickly sent to the hospital for tests.
“I got through that football season and about as soon as it was over with I had some signs with my heart. One thing led to another and the next thing I knew they had me on that table. I had five bypasses, but I’m back good. It’s been five weeks now,” Hilton said.
The coach won two state championships at Bell County and another at Bourbon County while compiling 345 wins over 36 seasons coaching high school football. When he left Bell for Pikeville, the 345 wins were tied for the most all-time in the state of Kentucky and the number still stands as the second-most ever.
Hilton called the time he spent waiting for his surgery “the longest hour of my life.” And added that the worst part was the boredom of being confined to his house during his first few weeks of recovery. With Thanksgiving taking place during that time and the Christmas holiday season gearing up, Hilton said it meant a lot to hear from former players and other colleagues from his past.
“I’m just so thankful for the many blessings I’ve had. With the internet, cell phones, e-mails, facebook and all that stuff there have been so many kids that I’ve coached over the last 37- 38 years that have got in touch with me. You just don’t know how much it means when you go through a surgery like I went through to have so many people that care and are praying for you and things like that,” he said. “At this time of year there ain’t no man in the country more thankful than I am. I’m also thankful for all the people I’ve touched in my coaching career that have got back in touch with me, people I hadn’t heard from in so long.
“A lot of people were concerned about me and I really appreciate that. I think that’s probably what got me through it more than anything. I’ve got my strength back, I’m probably about 90-95 percent right now.”
Hilton said he and Jan had come to London to shop on Friday and came to the gym hoping to watch Bell County and Pineville play. He’s also keeping an eye on some area players that may be able to help out the UPike football team down the road.
While Hilton hasn’t yet had the same success at the college level he enjoyed during his high school career — his first two Bear teams have gone 4-6 and 3-8 — Dudley says he feels like things are on the right track.
“I’ve got more of an established coaching staff now. I had a hard time early getting that lined out. I had to let a few go and few quit me and this and that. Now we know where we’re going, we’ve got better connections and we’ve got some top-notch kids coming in next year,” said Hilton. “We’re excited about this coming year. The first year I was there I had three seniors, last year I had four seniors and I think this year we’re going to have about 15. It’s just like high school, you’ve got to have seniors to play. Hopefully we can keep John Dudley’s class together and by the time they’re seniors we should have about 20 or 25. If I can keep my coaching staff, keep my players there and have a bunch of seniors, that should help us.”
Since the end of football season and up until his heart surgery, there had been rumors around that Hilton could be returning to the high school ranks. The biggest rumors suggested he could be heading to old rivals Harlan County or Corbin, but Dudley brushed those aside for the most part this weekend.
“There are no jobs open at those places, (but) you can’t stop people from talking. The same thing happened when I was at Bell County, I stayed there for 20-some years and every year somebody said I was leaving and going somewhere else,” Hilton said. “It’s the same way at Pikeville, too. Everybody is still talking about that. Right now I’m satisfied where I’m at. It’s a different stage, a different game and it’s took me a while to get used to it.
“A lot of people don’t think I’m happy. Well, when you win four games one year and three the next you’re not happy. I’m used to winning and hopefully we’ll get on track and things will spark up for us. You know it could change tomorrow, but right now I’m happy where I’m at.”