By Paul Augeri
After calling his wife with the news of his hire as the new head coach of the Valley Regional/Old Lyme football program, Hill Gbunblee got on the phone with the man he succeeds and has long admired.
“Tim King has always been so supportive of me,” Gbunblee said. “Every assistant coach dreams of being a head coach one day, of running their own program and implementing what they’ve cultivated and worked on for so long. This is such a huge step for me overall. It was very, very important to me to make sure to let coach King know I got the job. It’s such a great honor to be taking over the reins.”
King retired in June after three decades as a combination football coach/outdoor track coach/physical education teacher. He was head football coach for the last 23 years after following another Valley giant, Steve Woods.
That makes Gbunblee, 36, just the third head coach at Valley since the 1980s and the first African-American to lead the program. A special education teacher at Essex Elementary, he’s volunteered with the Warriors since 2015, with a focus on quarterbacks and safeties. He spent two years before that as the offensive coordinator at Old Saybrook/Westbrook.
The motto at Valley is “Defend The Hill.” King and athletic director Jeff Swan believe Gbunblee and his staff are going to do great things to that end.
“Hill, number one, is just a wonderful person and a wonderful dad and a wonderful coach,” King said. “I’m so happy that they replaced me within our system. He’s had four or five years in our system alone. Not to say that means anything, but he’s been able to get his feet wet in our school district and with our kids and players. And he’s going to bring new ideas to the table.
“He’s got a great young staff with him. Phil Cohen, the offensive coordinator, has been Kevin Woods’ right-hand man calling plays the past couple of years. And he’s got great young coaches with Jake (Bocian) and Brandon (Woodcock) on the defensive side, and Brandon also with the special teams. That’s three young coaches right there that are energetic. The foundation is there and now they can build their own teams out of it. They’ll l do very well. They have a great group of kids coming back. The Future is bright.”
Connecticut teams, who did not play in 2020 because of the pandemic, get on the field for the first time for conditioning on Aug. 12. Practices begin Aug. 21. The Warriors play their first game Sept. 10 at home against North Branford.
Gbunblee, who has an interesting background in football, said he doesn’t necessarily feel pressure following King or being a first-time head coach. His appreciation and respect for how King and his staff ran the program, coached the players and adjusted to opponents, first seen from the opposite sideline while he was on OSW’s staff, are things that helped get him to this moment.
“When you’re following in the footsteps of Tim King and Steve Woods, two legendary guys, fantastic human beings, great teachers, great people overall,” said Gbunblee, “it’s an absolute honor to follow them in a program that I value so deeply. It’s hard to put it into words. They mean so much to me, especially in my growth as a person, as a father and as someone in education because they have done so much for me. It’s very helpful to think about it from that perspective, and I know in any facet that I could call and they’d answer the phone right away.”
Swan believes the transition from King to Gbunblee has been seamless because “the players already know Hill and they’ve bought into his philosophy of football.”
“What I like probably most about Hill is he’s one of most intelligent people I know,” Swan said. “He’s one of those coaches who, when he’s talking, you just listen and take in as much as you can. He’s very humble. He will be the first person to tell you, ‘I wear everything on my sleeve.’ He did tell me ‘I’m going to ask a lot of questions.’ I like that.
“Obviously, Tim is a huge, huge loss for this program, but I’m confident Hill will do the job. He’s not going to be a Tim King. He wants to set his own legacy. We’re looking for some really good things from him. He’s a great guy overall and this program is in good hands. We’re excited to play football in the fall and excited to have Hill command the hill.”
Gbunblee was born in Liberia. He was 4 years old when his family left for America at the end of the 1980s, just as the West African nation plunged into a prolonged and bloody civil war.
The Gbunblees lived for a brief time in Philadelphia before heading south. Hill grew up in Mount Ulla, North Carolina, near Charlotte, and played at West Rowan High School, where he was a two-way threat at quarterback and defensive back. He played through a torn ACL in his junior season.
“I had a pretty successful career there until I tore my ACL at the beginning of my junior year,” he said. “I played the entire year with it and had surgery after the season.”
He had a good enough senior season that he ended up walking on at North Carolina, where he earned a spot on the Tar Heels’ practice squad. He left UNC for Mars Hills University, where he tore the ACL again. Realizing his playing days were over, he transferred to UNC Charlotte, earned degrees in psychology and biology, and got his first taste of coaching as a private instructor for young players.
Gbunblee was working for a leasing company before he chased a leadership opportunity in the insurance industry, which ultimately brought him to Connecticut in 2012. He met his future wife, a Clinton native who laid down the law immediately. “On our first date she said, ‘I’m never moving out of Clinton.’” Instead of Gbunblee following the next job opportunity to San Francisco, he and Carolyn got married and started a family. In Clinton.
With an itch to coach again, Gbunblee pursued an opening with the Old Saybrook/Westbrook co-op and became the Rams’ offensive coordinator. After two seasons, he hooked up with Valley/Old Lyme as a volunteer because he thought highly of King and had great respect for the Warriors’ brand of football.
“When I started coaching at Old Saybrook, we were Valley’s first game at Old Lyme (as the co-op),” Gbunblee said. “I would chat with Coach King after games and got to know him and Coach Woods (that’s Kevin Woods, the team’s offensive coordinator, who will not be coaching this year) and the way they went about leading their program as a small school. And I’ve always been intrigued about their offense.”
Gbunblee said he is a “huge proponent” of running the football.
“I love to run and pass,” he said. “Kevin’s game calling was always so organic and fluid. His ability with game calling and game management is what I was trying to gain from Kevin. We’re going to have fun and we’re going to challenge the kids, give them some autonomy with the game plan. Some of it will be modernized. The footprint is there from what Tim has done, but we’re going to have a style that’s a little bit differently from what they’ve been used to.”
Gbunblee also spoke about his hiring being as much a personal victory for him as it is for representation in the state’s coaching ranks.
“I don’t know how many coaches of color we have in Connecticut, I just know I value this opportunity and this platform to represent for people who look and don’t look like me,” he said. “Seeing the players we have, I think it’s meaningful to all races and heritages to see me on the sidelines. Kids are not going to grow up in a bubble. They will see diversity wherever they go. I hope they see me as a coach who does not look similar but has the same points of view and cares so much and wants to see them succeed.”