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Morgan State football coach Donald Hill-Eley working to rebuild his program after firing that wasn't

Donald Hill-Eley has always told his Morgan State football players that life is 10 percent what happens to you and 90 percent how you respond.

Now, after enduring as strange a few months as any college coach could fathom, Hill-Eley is striving to live by his own lesson.

In late November, following the Bears' third straight losing season, Hill-Eley accidentally received an e-mail outlining the university's plan to seek his replacement. For almost six weeks after that, as rival coaches ramped up recruiting for 2013, he heard nothing official about his status. Day after day, he reported to work but was not allowed to have contact with his team.

During the same time, the chairman of the university's Board of Regents attempted to oust Morgan president David Wilson, the man seemingly behind Hill-Eley's own uncertain situation. That coups was ultimately unsuccessful. In early January, Hill-Eley finally heard from Kevin Banks, the university's vice president for student affairs: Morgan would honor the final year of his contract and he would remain coach.

"I'm just going at it," Hill-Eley said in a recent interview. "It isn't the worst thing that's ever happened to me in my life, and I can't be sitting around moping. It's like I tell these guys, 'Life is about how you respond.' "

Banks said he could not comment on the errant e-mail or any talks about removing the coach but said of Hill-Eley: "We felt it was in the best interest of the university to honor his contract, particularly the best interest of the student-athletes, so they can have continuity."

Hill-Eley said his near-firing prompted serious self-examination. The Bears will have new offensive, defensive and special teams coordinators next season, and day-to-day preparations will include a new focus on the psychology of winning close games.

"It's almost like starting again from zero," said Hill-Eley, who has coached Morgan for 11 seasons. "I had to go back and think about how I could do things differently to meet the needs of the university. I can't just say, 'Oh, it's all the administration.' Some of their points are probably valid."

The uncertainty around Hill-Eley played havoc with Morgan's roster. Linebacker Elandon Roberts, a finalist for the Jerry Rice Award as the best freshman in Football Championship Subdivision play, transferred to the University of Houston for the spring semester. Top-tier recruits from the Mid-Atlantic region shunned the university. "Anybody who was privy to the information really didn't want to deal with being around it," Hill-Eley said.

The program also coped with the on-campus shooting of popular offensive lineman Tyrell Okoro in late November.

"It was tough," said sophomore defensive back Nathan Ayers. "It was a very frustrating time. We heard all these rumors that all our coaches were going to be fired, and then our teammate was in the hospital. It almost made you want to leave the situation."

Talk around the team was all about who would transfer and who wouldn't, said sophomore quarterback Robert Council, who considers Hill-Eley a mentor and planned to leave if he had been fired. "All that going on at the same time, it felt like the whole thing was going downhill," said Council, who was standing beside Okoro when he was shot

And yet, in many ways, things are looking up these days.

Hill-Eley jumped back on the recruiting trail after his hiatus and assembled his best class ever, according to From the Press Box to Press Row, a Sirius XM radio show that covers sports at historically black colleges and universities. Morgan's 29-player class was fourth best among all historically black schools in the radio program's rankings.

Stymied at home, Hill-Eley drew most of his best recruits from Texas and other southern states.

"We didn't even think we were going to have a class coming in," said Ayers. "But it just shows that the coaches were out there working, even with everything going on.

Hill-Eley got more good news recently when Okoro, who has largely recovered from his injuries, decided against transferring.

"Him coming back really brought me back," said Okoro, a sophomore from Queens, N.Y. "Because in my mind, I was gone."

Okoro spent 11 days in the hospital after being shot once in his side and once in each leg. He hasn't been cleared to resume contact because he's still taking medication to prevent blood clots. But he expects to be ready for football season.

"I just felt like I wasn't safe here, and on top of that, I didn't want to prove myself to a whole other coaching staff," he said of his transfer musings. "But now I'm real comfortable and feeling really hyped. [Hill-Eley] coming back really kept me here."

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."

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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