Okoro said Hill-Eley took a chance on him out of high school when others had turned away because of his poor grades. The coach also visited him twice in the hospital, an effort Okoro said the university's top administrators did not make.
"He's just a genuine, good guy," he said.
Morgan's program needs the kind of jolt that Hill-Eley gave it when he first arrived as the young wiz behind a new high-powered offense. As head coach beginning in 2002, he stabilized a program that hadn't played better than .500 football in more than two decades.
But after coaching the Bears to winning records in each of his first two seasons, Hill-Eley struggled to push the program past mediocrity. His overall record at Morgan is 54-69 and he has said that without more resources, he will be hard-pressed to make the Bears a perennial contender in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.
The players, however, are feeling optimistic after surviving a tough season and its harrowing aftermath."I can say it's a new beginning," Ayers said. "Everybody's tired of losing."
They've rallied around their embattled coach, gathering for spirited weight lifting sessions and counting down the days until spring practice. "Now that he's back," Council said, "everybody's coming together."
The situation is far from perfect, Hill-Eley said, noting that he still doesn't have the budget to offer benefits to all of his assistants and that he's had to combine some positions so he can offer decent salaries. He's three coaches short of a complete staff. And he has yet to meet with Wilson to discuss the program's future, though he's scheduled to speak with the president later this month.
When asked about Hill-Eley's budget concerns and his future, Banks said: "It's an ongoing assessment. We're still looking at everything."
Hill-Eley said he's trying to keep his focus on day-to-day work with his team. "I haven't even thought that far ahead," he said when asked about the likelihood he'll be at Morgan past this season. "My biggest goal is nothing more than to take this adverse situation and make it a rewarding one."
His contract includes two university option years beyond 2013. But Hill-Eley still isn't sure what lay behind Morgan's apparent plan to seek a new coach after last season.
"They never explained it or said it was a misunderstanding or anything," he said. "It's almost like it never happened."