By Bob Behre
We all like to believe we are put here on earth for a purpose. No better proof of such can be seen in the life of Fred Hill, Sr., “Moose” to his friends, coaches, players and even some acquaintances.
Coach Hill, 84, won 941 college baseball games during 30 years as Rutgers head coach and another 148 games at Montclair State. Those 1,089 career wins tell a story of success but do little to reveal the man who was admired, respected and relied upon by so many in the New Jersey baseball community.
Coach Hill died on Saturday after suffering a series of health setbacks.
Perhaps Hill’s longest and closest friend in baseball, former longtime Montclair State University coach Norm Schoenig, can provide that valuable insight. Schoenig was Hill’s assistant with the Verona American Legion team in the summer of 1975.
“Coach Hill is the finest individual I’ve had the opportunity to meet,” said Schoenig. “He is the epitome of the true person, therefore becoming a true coach. He was sincere, hard-working, selfless and loving. Those were the qualities he brought to the diamond as well as his daily life.”
Hill and Schoenig coached together at the start and at the very end of Hill’s coaching career. “I’ve been friends with coach Hill for 45 years,” said Schoenig. The two paired up again at Montclair State in 1977-’83. Schoenig followed Hill to Rutgers, where he was his assistant for four years before Schoenig returned to MSU to take the head coaching position.
After each retired from their longtime college posts, they never strayed from the game. Or simply refused to. Hill helped out as an assistant at Caldwell University in 2015-’16 and both landed at Kean University the past two seasons as assistants under Neil Ioviero, one of Hill’s former players.
“I will be forever grateful to coach Ioviero for providing me with the opportunity to work with not only he and his fine staff but with coach Hill again,” said Schoenig.
Having coach Hill providing advice for one more season certainly is something Ioviera will carry with him forever.
“When your are on this earth, you want to know that you are doing something noble and you are making a difference in people’s daily lives,” said Ioviera. Coach Hill made a difference in thousands of lives. He is the epitome of a man. Two words that sum him up are, ‘The Best.”
Current Rutgers coach Joe Litterio coached under Hill before ascending to the head coaching job after Hill’s retirement.
“Where do I start?” asks Litterio. “How do you say goodbye to a man who has meant so much to so many different people? He was a leader by example. He taught us to do things the right way, to win with class. Nothing fancy, just old-fashioned hard work. And that was just the baseball side of him. He taught us much more than the fundamentals of baseball. He taught us the fundamentals of life."
Seton Hall University coach Rob Sheppard went toe-to-toe with coach Hill on the baseball diamond for New Jersey bragging rights, as did his own legendary father, Mike Sheppard, Sr., before him. Hill and Sheppard, Sr., the longtime Pirates coach, combined for more than 2,000 college victories.
“Coach Hill was called old school,” said Rob Sheppard. “Men from that era are genuine, good family men. They tell you how they feel about something.”
Hill and Sheppard, Sr., though fierce competitors, were cut from the same cloth and certainly regarded each other with a high level of respect.
“Freddy was a tough competitor,” said the younger Sheppard. “His relationship with my dad and mom grew the last several years. He was a good man, an elder statesman, and a very knowledgeable coach with a lot of success. There haven’t been many people like Freddy Hill around.”
As Diamond Nation begins the celebration of its 10th Anniversary, it does so with thoughts of coach Hill, front-and-center. “Moose” seemed to be omnipresent at the Flemington facility those 10 summers, scouting future Scarlet Knights and, clearly, enjoying watching the development of young players.
Fred Hill touched so many, often away from the spotlight and not exclusively those who would be part of his Rutgers program.
“When I was in high school,” said Diamond Nation president Keith Dilgard, who was graduated from Bridgewater-Raritan and would attend Mississippi State University, “I was pitching in an American Legion game and I let my emotions spill over at the home plate umpire. Needless to say, coach Hill was in the stands recruiting. He took it upon himself to pull me aside after the game. I can tell you first hand coach Hill wasn’t all about teaching baseball. He was about teaching life lessons.”
Hill still tugs at players hearts nearly 40 years later. Tony Sabato, an infielder who played for Hill at Montclair State in late 1970s and early 80s, simply posted on his Facebook page above a photo of Hill, “My coach, my mentor, my friend.”
We can easily blow up the internet, as the saying goes, with similar Fred Hill stories and an unlimited amount of sentiments provided by the many he has positively affected. Rutgers’ athletic staff, in fact, did an excellent job posting dozens of such comments from Hill’s former players, assistant coaches and fellow coaches around the country.
“I could speak for hours on what coach Hill represented,” said his former player and longtime Rutgers assistant Glen Gardner. “It was more than baseball. As far as I’m concerned, I would never have been a coach if it wasn’t for Moose. If I helped anyone through my 29 years, it was an extension of Moose. He might not be with us on this planet anymore, but he’s still teaching baseball to a lot of players.” Gardner, an Immaculata High School grad, once held the all-time scholastic career hits record in New Jersey.
Coach Hill, inducted into the American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2015, was more than a living New Jersey legend. He was a highly respected coach nationally. His Rutgers teams reached the NCAA regional tournament 11 times, won 12 regular season conference championships and eight conference tournament titles. He coached 72 players who went on to play professionally.
“I've known Fred for a long, long time, competing against him as coach at Georgia Tech and at Miami,” said recently retired Miami coach Jim Morris. “Fred was an outstanding competitor and an even better person. He carried his mentality as a football coach into baseball and was always a tough competitor. I always enjoyed playing against him, because I knew it was going to be a hard-fought game each and every time."
Former Rutgers player Tim Querns gave a little insight into the precision expected during a Fred Hill practice.
"When I first visited Rutgers' locker room, I noticed a sign that said 'perfect practice makes perfect,' said Querns. “I remember thinking, well, that's kind of obvious. But at the time, I did not know what a perfect practice looked like or that the way Moose ran his practices would put me into a family I didn't know existed. That was a family of players who endured a 'Moose' practice. It didn't matter if you were a projected first rounder or a walk-on trying out. Moose expect everyone to practice at the same level, perfect.”
While hard work, dedication, loyalty and family were certainly synonymous with the way Fred Hill led his life, he was also, through-and-through, a New Jersey guy, raised in East Orange, an outstanding athlete in high school and college, at Upsala. He became an amazing coach and mentor of young men. And he certainly had a soft spot for the hard-nosed New Jersey player.
“He took pride in recruiting predominantly student-athletes from New Jersey and we always appreciated that,” said Dilgard. “We lost one of New Jersey’s great baseball men. He will be sorely missed.”
For Schoenig, it runs even deeper.
“Our hearts are broken, eventually to become scarred, but never fully healed.”
Visitation is Tuesday, March 5, 3 p.m. to 7 p.m., at Our Lady of the Lake Church on Lakeside Ave. in Verona. A funeral mass will be offered at the church at 1 p.m. on Wednesday.