By Jovie Baclayon
With award-winning coaches and championship teams, Pepperdine’s athletic program is as exciting for its fans as it is for its athletes. While their hard work and training pay off, it’s hard to believe that Pepperdine’s student-athletes find time for studying in between practice, winning games, and being on the road. One person helping students achieve balance academically, athletically, and spiritually is Maurice Hilliard, academic coordinator in Athletics.
“I call Maurice ‘the mayor’ because he helps everyone on campus,” says colleague Kim Rodriguez, assistant director of academic services. “Although he’s in Athletics, the truth is, he’s available and present all over campus. He’s probably helped just as many kids who aren’t athletes because for him it’s about looking at each person as a soul that God has brought to Pepperdine. Anyone troubled with something on his or her mind or heart, is someone Maurice will reach out to.”
With more than 10 years of experience teaching and coaching at the high school level, Hilliard came to Pepperdine five years ago. Having received a master’s of divinity in apologetics from Biola University in 2001, in addition to volunteering with the basketball team, he started tutoring students in religion, eventually joining the Athletics Department study hall program. The study hall provides tutors and assistance to athletes of all sports, and is mandatory for freshmen.
“The study hall program has been really successful for students who want it. This is a great resource but the student has to want to pass classes, be eligible, and graduate. Once they decide that, we can help them, but we can’t force them,” explains Hilliard. He remembers a student-athlete who was almost removed from the team after an academically poor freshman year. “He turned it around, got his act together, graduated, and signed a contract with a professional team, so he’s doing really great.”
Hilliard also tutors the men’s basketball team when they’re on the road and stresses the importance of approaching their education as a business. “If someone is given an athletic scholarship, they’re expected to do everything in their power to remain eligible, pass classes, and make good on the scholarship,” he explains. “Athletes who approach it like that do fine. Those who aren’t mature enough to see it as a business and believe it’s just about the sport, don’t make it.”
Hilliard’s passion is coaching, which he started doing as an undergraduate at the University of La Verne. He aspires to coach full-time with Pepperdine, even joking with a big smile that he will knock his good friend Paul Westphal out of the head coach position. Although the men’s basketball team faced a difficult schedule to start the season, Hilliard is optimistic about 2006.
“Pepperdine has the youngest men’s basketball team in the West Coast Conference. A lot of freshmen players joined the team and they’re working really hard,” explains Hilliard. “In high school, these kids were dominant, but when they get to college, they have to learn how to weigh in at this new level. But they will. We’ve got a good, young team led by two seniors who are doing a really good job.”
But, as Coach Westphal explains, Hilliard’s impact extends beyond sports and academics, and into the lives of almost everyone he meets. “Maurice makes Pepperdine a better place in countless ways. He personifies the University's mission,” he says.
To many, Hilliard has become a confidant, inspiration, and source of strength during difficult times, whether it’s being homesick, feeling lost, or just needing a friend.
Senior Natasha Brick met Hilliard when working in the Weight Center, and says that his warm, friendly personality draws people to him. “Without Maurice this past year, I do not know if I would still be in school,” she says. “He listened to me cry, prayed for me, hooked me up with amazing people of God to pray for me, and was a true friend during a very dark time in my life. Maurice started a prayer group for me, called me every day to make sure I was getting out of bed, prayed for my boyfriend, and encouraged me. He was an angel. I felt God’s love through him.”
For each success story, there is, as Hilliard puts it, “the one that gets away,” and he remembers every one. “When you really have a heart for God, if one person you try to help goes back to their old ways, that’s the person you remember most, not the ones who move forward. That’s the part that’s hard,” he admits quietly. “Everyone I can help and give encouragement to, that’s wonderful. But the ones that got away -- the ones who heard the truth and still walked away from it those are the ones I think about. I pray that everyone here seeking God will find Him and overcome all the things they’re dealing with.”
In helping others, Hilliard learned from his pastor to ‘never try to help people who need your help; only help people who want your help.’
“His quiet and unassuming nature is very welcoming, and students are easily drawn to him. He captures the spirit of our university mission by promoting academic excellence and Christian values,” says Karin Taylor, director of academic services in Athletics. “While most of our student-athletes do not move on to professional sports, the vast majority is here to graduate into other diverse vocations and lead lives of purpose, service and leadership. We are blessed to have Maurice on our team furthering this important charge.”
He encourages students to find answers through prayer, often inviting them to church, and urges those with serious problems to seek help at the counseling center. He also mentors leaders of Bible studies run by student-athletes, including alumnus Joey Parker. Parker crossed paths with Hilliard during his four years on Pepperdine’s baseball team and in study hall.
“Maurice is a born leader, and his demeanor inspires me everyday. I've gone to him in the past with all sorts of issues and he's always told me exactly what I needed to hear -- not necessarily what I wanted to hear, but what I needed to hear,” says Parker who graduated in 2005. “Trying to narrow down one contribution Maurice has made in my life is very difficult, but one that stands out is the inspiration for further service. Maurice has a servant's heart, and that's a very rare thing to have today. He is, without a doubt, a man of God, and his character and desire to do well is reflected in each of his steps.”