TAMPA — On the eve of his first regular-season game as FC Tampa Bay coach, Ricky Hill preached to his team about the value of staying calm under pressure.
Hill knows that importance firsthand.
When Hill began his pro career in England in the mid 1970s, he could count the number of black players playing professionally on one hand. From the time of his first pro road game as a 17-year-old rookie, he was the target of racist chants and harassment.
Fans would fling bananas onto the field. Later in his career, when he represented his country as part of the England national team, he sometimes had to pull his jersey over his head while running through the tunnel to avoid being spit on. During one game at Manchester City, a fan ran onto the pitch, tapped him on the shoulder and punched him in the face.
"I never thought all the people in the stands were racists," Hill said. "It's just how it was. My demeanor never changed. Life is going to throw you curveballs. You have to take the good with the bad. But I never wallowed in self-pity. It fueled me, because I wanted to score the goal to quiet them up."
And many times over his playing career, Hill did. The mild-mannered 52-year-old of Jamaican-born parents never lost his charm or ability to smile through it all.
"He went through some tough, tough times," said Hill's 23-year-old son, Shane, a player for FC Tampa Bay. "He always told me when I was growing up not to give people the satisfaction by retaliating. It was a way of life in England back then."
Hill believes he has been lucky to stay in the sport for nearly his entire life — as a player, coach and later an agent. He's still heralded in the British town of Luton, where he spent 15 years playing and was one of Luton Town's top players.
To continue in coaching, he has pursued opportunities far and near. He coached in Trinidad and Tobago, and this is his third coaching stint in the United States; his first was as a player/coach for the Tampa Bay Rowdies in 1992.
As FC Tampa Bay opens its second season tonight against the Montreal Impact at Al Lang Field, the club is confident that Hill's player-friendly style, along with several veteran offseason signings, will be the key to creating a title contender.
And, personally, Hill feels he has the opportunity to prove something. He believes there is a stigma in England that black coaches can't be successful. He pitched implementing the NFL's Rooney Rule, which advocates interviewing at least one minority candidate for every coaching vacancy, to soccer teams in the United Kingdom. He said it received little support.
"Hopefully through my efforts and how I conduct myself over the span of my professional career, others will have the opportunity coming through; I can only try," Hill said. "I'm here for a reason. I feel happy being that flag bearer. We always want more."
FC Tampa Bay owner/president Andrew Nestor was immediately impressed with Hill. Much like he was as a player, Hill valued being technically sound, but he also relished the freedom of being creative. Nestor said he noticed Hill's ability to command respect without being overbearing.
"He has an authority about him without having to come down on players," Nestor said. "That kind of character allows him to be a steady leader for the team in what is a very long and hard season. That's really important because you're always going to have ups and downs. You can never hit the panic button, and you can never think things are going great and take your foot off the pedal."
And while the moments before any season opener usually contain the most optimism, there is a different feel to this season's club.
"I've never had a coach like him before," forward Aaron King said. "He's a players' coach. We can ask him questions, and we know where we stand. It might not be the answer you want to hear, but it's the truth.
"Coming where he came from, I'm sure he had to deal with all kinds of adversity. It reflects in his personality."
FC Tampa Bay is in preliminary discussions to host English Premier League club Everton for a match this summer.
Everton, a nine-time first-division champion, has had discussions with several American clubs to play in July, during the EPL's preseason training. The club is slated to play Major League Soccer's D.C. United on July 23.
A possible game against FC Tampa Bay would likely be held in the second or third week of July at Al Lang Field, but Raymond James Stadium is also a possible site.
The Liverpool club has one of the strongest fan bases in the EPL and would be a significant draw in the United States.
Eduardo A. Encina can be reached at email@example.com.