By Derek Smith
FNF Coaches Contributor
A Kentucky coach has started a tradition of welcoming eighth-graders to his program that is modeled after NCAA Signing Day. It has helped foster an environment in which players of all grade levels feel part of the team.
National Signing Day is about former high school recruits officially becoming a part of a new team, a new school and a new chapter of their lives.
In Bell County, Ky., football coach Dudley Hilton understands the importance of welcoming future Bobcats to the program and holds his own version of National Signing Day.
Before Bell County’s spring scrimmage, the eighth-graders who will be freshman at the high school in the fall take part in a mock signing day ceremony in front of the varsity players, coaches and parents.
“It’s really gone over big for us,” Hilton said. “Our community really enjoys it. Just like the colleges, but we don’t put the hats down on the table.”
The event helps the rising ninth-graders become more comfortable with the idea of playing high school football and makes them feel like they’ll have a role on the team the next four years, he said.
“We get a good turnout and they do it because they want to be a part of the football program,” Hilton said. “It’s a way to get to know our eighth-graders a little bit better.”
A mandatory, one-hour weightlifting class every day when school starts back in August supervised by Hilton lets the new freshmen know that expectations come with signing their “national letter of intent.”
“When they come in that door they know they’ve got to work. We never take a day off,” said Hilton, who competed in football, basketball, baseball and track in high school in Springfield, Ky., earning a scholarship at Murray State.
Hilton, 71, started the tradition when he began his third stint at the Pineville, Ky., school in 2017. He previously coached there from 1983-96 and 2001-10 with other stops at Breathitt County, Bourbon County, Taylor County and the University of Pikeville in between.
“They asked me to come back again because they had their first losing season in the history of the school,” he said. “I got sentimental, and that’s one reason I came back.”
Pineville, population 1,781, is located in the Daniel Boone National Forest near the Tennessee border, half way between Lexington, Ky., and Knoxville, Tenn. The 3A high school has about 650 students in grades 9-12.
“They didn’t have anything to hang their hats on. If they don’t have football, what do they have?” Hilton said. “I didn’t realize that until I left. I’m a plain, old country boy. I can relate to country kids and they respond to me.”
Hilton, who never has been an assistant coach in 46 years on the job, is seven wins shy of hitting the magic number of 400 victories. He’s won three state championships – two at Bell County and one at Bourbon County – and finished state runner-up in 2019.
The Dudley Hilton Profile
Team: Bell County, Ky., High School (1983-96, 2001-10, 2017-present)
Years as head coach: 46
State championships: 3 (1991, 2008, 1997 at Bourbon County)
2019 record: 14-1(3A state runner-up)
Coaching record: 393-123
All-time rank: 44
Active rank: 25
Family: wife, Jan; son, John Dudley; daughters, Pam and Jennifer; and four grandchildren.
Accomplishments: No. 2 all-time in wins in the state of Kentucky; inducted into the Kentucky High School Athletic Association Hall of Fame in 2015; playing surface at Bell County High School named “Dudley Hilton Field.”