FARGO — He coached a couple of unbeaten national football championships at North Dakota State. He endured a tough ending to his Bison days. He rebounded and took an assistant position at Division I FBS Temple University, a job that eventually landed him the head coaching position at Division I FCS Northeastern University (Mass.).
But in 2009, after six years in Boston, the school unexpectedly dropped the program.
Rocky Hager probably thought he had seen it all in all his years of football. Until this week.
Hager is an assistant coach at NCAA Division III The College of New Jersey, which announced it is cancelling its season because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The school’s president, Kathryn A. Foster, issued a statement saying the college will not allow “high human density, high-in-person contact activity.” Other sports to suffer the same fate are field hockey, rugby, wrestling, basketball, soccer and rugby.
As tough as this week is, Hager said it’s not comparable to having to help 96 football players and assistant coaches and staff find other opportunities like he did at Northeastern.
“This is nowhere near as crushing as that was,” he said. “But no season is no season and that’s the part we love doing.”
The 68-year-old Hager is in his eighth year with the TCNJ staff as the co-special teams coordinator, tight ends coach and co-academic coordinator. Not showing any sign of retiring soon, it’s a job where he can still make a difference in the lives of players. His punter last year was a Division III All-American. He was the defensive coordinator at the school for three seasons and spent one year as interim head coach. He’s had both hips replaced, so his mobility is as good as ever.
“I love coaching,” he said. “Gosh, I’d like to live to be 100 and at the same time I hope I’m healthy enough to coach when I’m 99. I have a lot of fun doing it.”
He told the story of the feeling of coaching a young basketball player in Harvey, N.D., named Jeff Shale. Hager was a sophomore in high school in his hometown helping the youth basketball program.
“Way back when, a young man touched my heart, helping a player shoot a layup correctly and when he got it, it made the hair in my back stand up,” Hager said. “That still happens when young players get things you’re trying to teach them. That’s my high.”
Shale ended up playing football at NDSU.
Hager isn’t sure what’s in store in the fall for his Lions. It appears the school will be allowed to practice in some capacity in small groups, but the size of those has not been determined. It will most likely be comparable to the number of students allowed in a classroom at one time.
“I know one thing, it’s hard to put together a football team 25 at a time,” Hager said. “What we’ll more than likely focus on is fundamental drills. If there is contact, we’ll have shields which makes it minimal but there’s no guarantee we’ll be allowed to do that.”
He had just finished a campus-wide zoom meeting on Wednesday where faculty and staff agreed to endure a two-week furlough. Asked if that means he’ll have an opportunity to watch NDSU play, he was more concerned about his New Jersey situation.
In a good world, the answer would be yes. He’s been in Frisco, Texas, for an NDSU FCS title game. He’s a member of the Bison Athletic Hall of Fame.
“I’ve seen a lot,” he said. “Just the same my feelings with the pandemic are God has a plan. My purpose here is to help and guide our program through these kinds of things.”