Tackling books has become a passion for SIU head coach, players through book club discussions

Southern Illinois head coach Nick Hill said he discovered a passion for books “in the last six to eight years,” which has led to an off-season book club with players and coaches, along with sharing book and podcast recommendations. (Photo by SIUSalukis.com)

By Barry Bottino

Nick Hill is always on the run, even when he’s sitting still.

The Southern Illinois head coach spends hours each week watching film, recruiting and enjoying one of his favorite activities – running.

No matter what he’s doing, the leader of the SIU football program has made reading and listening to books a constant.

“I always try to be reading something, and I do a lot of listening to podcasts,” he told Prairie State Pigskin. “I’ve found over the years that I’ve listened to a lot of books, especially on the road recruiting. I like to run, so I’ll put on an audio book when I’m working out.”

Hill said he discovered a passion for books “in the last six to eight years,” and has made reading a unique part of his team’s activities, which include an off-season book club and sharing lessons from books and podcasts in team meetings.

“I like to have things in our program where we’re meeting as a team and we’re not just talking about football,” he said.

For Hill, those opportunities provide lessons for himself, his coaches and his players and offer windows into each other’s lives.

“It’s preparing them for life,” he said, “for things that are about to happen – being a dad, being a husband, the ups and downs of professional life. … Every time we get in there (for the book club), I find something out about a player that I don’t know about them, their background or struggles they’ve overcome.

“We all do come from different backgrounds, which is a good thing,” Hill said. “One of the coolest things about being on a football team, moreso than any other sport, is there are so many (players) and they come from so many different backgrounds and different experiences that we can all learn from.”

Talking books

Nick Hill and books podcaster Konner Beste met in April at the SIU spring football game. (Photo via Konner Beste)

Konner Beste grew up in Brookings, S.D., and spent most of his college career as a manager for the men’s and women’s basketball teams at SIU’s Missouri Valley Football Conference rival, South Dakota State.

He has worked as an SDSU admissions counselor and also hosts a podcast called “Books with Beste.” During the COVID-19 pandemic, his passion for books led him to host book club meetings on Zoom, which he promoted via his @KonnerBeste and @BooksWithBeste Twitter accounts.

“All of a sudden, I had this guy follow me on Twitter and DM me and say, ‘Hey, I’m interested in doing the book club,’” Beste recalled.

When the group convened to discuss The Arbinger Institute’s “Leadership and Self Deception,” Beste led a group with a varsity assistant football coach at an Iowa high school and Hill.

“I had no idea who he was,” Beste said. “I just knew SIU was in SDSU’s conference. You could tell once we started discussing the book, he would say, ‘This aspect of the book reminded me of this book.’ You have to be pretty well read to do that.

“You could tell his reading was pretty intentional.”

The two got to know each other and Beste visited Carbondale in April for the SIU spring football game.

Beste watched the game, met other coaches on staff, along with SIU men’s basketball coach Bryan Mullins, and attended a team meal and the SIU baseball game. He eventually sent 90 copies of the book “Atomic Habits” by James Clear to Hill for the football team’s most recent book club.

Along with joining Beste on Zoom, Hill has been a guest on author Brian Levenson’s “Intentional Performers” podcast. Levenson is the author of “Shift Your Mind,” a Hill favorite.

When Beste drove the 12 hours back home from Carbondale, he did so in a new SIU windbreaker.

“I feel a bit awkward wearing it in Brookings, but it’s a good jacket,” Beste joked.

Igniting passion in others

SIU junior linebacker Zach Burrola has never considered himself a reader, especially outside of school assignments.

Zach Burrola

The Las Vegas native has become a convert thanks to SIU’s book club and even led a discussion during the 10-week session in the off-season on “Atomic Habits.”

“The reward is the relationships, the vulnerability,” Burrola said. “It was an opportunity to voice my opinion on what we were reading, how it related to my life and hopefully I could connect with one of my teammates in a positive way. Maybe they were going through the same thing.”

Burrola said the book gave him an opportunity to examine his own daily habits and how they can aid or distract from various parts of life.

“It’s a mirror,” Burrola said of the book. “You can put yourself in the shoes of the author and relate it to your life in so many different ways. I have some bad habits. I have some good habits, and I have things that I thought were good habits that weren’t.”

Hill’s friend Kelly Burke, a TV sports broadcaster, spent time early in her career at WSIL-TV in downstate Carterville.

The two regularly share recommendations on books and podcasts with each other.

Kelly Burke

“Reading is such a lost art anymore,” Burke said. “I love that he’s taking the time to gather with his players for a discussion about something other than football. Depending on the type of book they’re reading, so many of the lessons can carry over to being a better player – but more importantly, a better person.

“These meetings really foster a growth mindset and a love of reading,” she said.

Hill does not lead the book clubs – he prefers that players and other coaches do so – but his participation and encouragement in the meetings drives Burrola to be part of the discussions.

“He’s the role model we all look at,” Burrola said. “If he’s asking us to do these things and he’s doing it with us, that makes me want to do it 10 times more.”

Reading recommendations

When Hill picks up a book or tunes in to a podcast, his goals are two-fold. What he learns benefits both his personal and professional development.

SIU football coach Nick HIll regularly shares his current reads via Twitter. (Photo courtesy Nick Hill)

“I feel like those two things go hand in hand,” he said. “You’ve always got to be thinking about ways to grow as a person so you can be better for your players.”

Hill prefers to take lessons he has learned from various books and podcasts and relate them to what players are going through.

So what does he read and listen to? The list is extensive, unique and one he shares frequently with friends, players and coaches. He also appreciates recommendations from others, such as Burke and SIU men’s basketball coach Bryan Mullins, a close friend.

“Nick is multi-dimensional,” Burke said. “I’m typically sharing motivational books or biographies with him. I remember sharing “Can’t Hurt Me” by David Goggins with him. Sometimes we’ll text each other if we’re reading something really good or looking for a new book. He shares motivational, leadership and faith-based books with me. One that I really loved from the pandemic that he recommended was ‘Getting to Neutral ’ by Trevor Moawad.”

Among Hill’s top choices are:

Christianity and faith-based lessons: He reads Christian books and listens to podcasts from various pastors. “My faith is the main part of who I am,” he said.

Pushing the limits: Extraordinary and unique achievements can showcase how much discipline human beings are possible of exhibiting. “There’s so much more in you,” Hill said. His choices include reads about endurance athletes such as Goggins.

Finding gratitude: While players may be impressed with how money can impact their lives, Hill explains that successful and wealthy people are also seeking joy and gratitude in their daily lives. That includes lessons from the book “Living With the Monks” by Jesse Itzler, an entrepreneur and part owner of the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks.

The SIU book club has featured Jon Gordon’s “The Carpenter.” (Photo courtesy Nick Hill)

Lessons from SEALs: Navy SEALs endure intense training and take part in life-changing experiences. Retired SEAL Jocko Willink has a popular podcast and co-wrote the leadership manual “Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win.” One of Willink’s recent podcasts featured fellow former SEAL – and Saluki quarterback – Marcus Capone.

Legendary coaches: Former UCLA men’s basketball coach John Wooden’s books highlight leadership and building blocks for success. Bill Walsh, who coached the San Francisco 49ers to three Super Bowl titles, wrote “The Score Takes Care of Itself” to highlight how leadership qualities are similar in an NFL head coach and other walks of life. “That’s one of my all-time favorite books,” Hill said. “I have it right here on my desk.”

Communication amid crisis: Former FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss’ “Never Split the Difference” details how strategies to become more persuasive can benefit readers’ daily lives.

Focus on football: The Pivot, a podcast featuring former NFL players Ryan Clark, Fred Taylor and Channing Crowder, has exploded in popularity. Hill finds that lessons shared by guests including current NFL and former players and coaches are easy to relate to his players. “I’ve shared the Mike Tomlin episode a couple times,” he said of the Pittsburgh Steelers head coach’s appearance on the show.

“You can read football books,” Hill said. “But it’s really about how different sports, different walks of life can help you and relate to your current job. … A lot of different things pique my interest.”

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