Top of the Hill
You can ask him about it, but Fred Hill Sr. won't budge.
The Rutgers head baseball coach is the 16th active coach in Division I baseball — 45th overall — to eclipse the 1,000-win mark. But the one they call "Moose," who roams the home dugout at Bainton Field, refused to speak about the accolade all year long.
"No, no that's not something I give any thought to," Hill said in an interview before the season when he was 20 wins away. "I think it's nice. It just means we have had a lot of good players and the coach is old."
And his answer remained the same from the beginning of the season all the way until Saturday, when the Scarlet Knights defeated South Florida 6-1 to improve Hill's record to 1,000-651-9.
The explanation for his nonchalance toward this accomplishment may confuse some, but to those who grew and learned under Moose's tutelage, it comes as no surprise.
"I'm sure he wants absolutely nothing to do with his 1,000th win," said assistant coach Darren Fenster who won two Big East Championships while playing under Hill in 1998 and 2000. "It's always about the players with him. He's always been like that and that's probably just another quality that makes him such an enjoyable person to be around and a person that people want to play for and probably even more guys respect."
From record-setting players such as Fenster to assistants who studied under Moose on the Banks, a multitude of talents have Hill to thank for their success.
"I owe him a lot," said Mark Garlatti, who was an assistant with the Knights and is now a scout with the Colorado Rockies. "A lot of the things he preaches are in professional baseball. He preaches the fundamentals and those who get drafted after playing for him are always prepared for the pros."
This milestone for Hill highlights a man whose journey stayed within the state limits of New Jersey, but whose reach extended all around the country.
Rutgers hired Fred Hill in 1984 after the Knights completed a 13-22 season under former head coach Matt Bolger. At the time, Hill served as both the baseball and the football coach at Montclair State, earning career records of 148-91-2 and 55-13-4, respectively with the Red Hawks.
But it was time for a change of scenery and the relationship between Rutgers and Hill began.
"I don't know why I came to tell you the truth," Hill said. "Yes I do know. Somebody said that they can't win. I had a couple of interviews that didn't work out. Somebody said they can't win here and the next day I was hired."
The Knights hit the ground running under Hill, going 25-15 in just his second year at the helm. As a member of the Atlantic 10 Conference from 1984 to 1995, Moose led his squad to eight-straight conference championships and five A-10 Tournament championships.
Hill brought national relevance back to Northeast baseball.
"He really put baseball in the Northeast on the map," Garlatti said. "Back in those days, players were grabbed by the North Carolina's of the world. When we did that, we did it with only a few players that went on to get drafted."
Fellow assistant coach Tom Baxter attributes the success to Hill's coaching philosophy and his refusal to veer from it.
"College baseball has changed, but his philosophy hasn't changed at all," said Baxter, who was an assistant under Hill from 1989 to 2004. "As an assistant coach, you might not agree with him. But he is the boss and that's how it goes. During my time there, he didn't change. He was successful, so why change?"
The Knights moved to the Big East conference in 1996 and while the opponents changed, the result didn't.
The end of the millennium defined Hill's legacy when the Knights won the Big East regular season and tournament titles in 1998 and 2000. Dynamic players such as outfielder David DeJesus — now the starting right fielder for the Kansas City Royals — and Fenster led the team to Big East supremacy in just the team's second year in the conference.
"When you win a championship like that it's a culmination of a lot of hard work," Fenster said. "[Hill] is all about winning. He's just one of the guys when you win. He'll be dancing on the bus.
"One of the things that really makes him unique is that he'll coach to win the same exact way against Princeton on a Tuesday afternoon as he would against Notre Dame in the finals of the Big East [Tournament]. I think that speaks volumes because as a player it's easy to sink down to the level of the opponent and he is never like that."
North Carolina and Penn State eliminated the Knights in the Regional bracket in 2000 to end the magical season.
"I have a picture of me and [Hill] hugging after winning the Big East in 2000 that still gives me chills when I look at it. It was such a great moment," Fenster said. "Then one week later our season ended at Regionals in Montclair and I'm bawling my eyes out and he was right there just like he had always been."
Rutgers continued rolling in the Big East after Y2K, winning the regular season championship in 2003 and winning both the conference championship and tournament in 2007 thanks to a 42-21 record.
Shortstop Todd Frazier led the Knights on the field, setting single-season records in runs scored (87), doubles (24), home runs (22), walks (62) and total bases (187).
Frazier, now in the Cincinnati Reds' farm system, still holds high praises for his old 'ball coach.
"He's a fundamentals guy and I loved that," Frazier said. "He's a well-known guy with a background that's through the roof. When I talk to him now, our conversations are short and to the point. ‘How are you? Good? Good.' He's just an old-school guy."
It's hard to even imagine Rutgers baseball without No. 24 at the helm. Hill credits others around him for all of his success, but if it weren't for him, some of the best players would never have donned the Scarlet and White.
"I wouldn't have went there if he wasn't there," said Frazier, the player who single-handedly scored more runs (12) in the 2007 Big East Tournament than five teams did. "I would have went somewhere else. He's a well-respected guy. Now when I go different places people always say, ‘Oh you played for Freddie.' They always have stories about him. They are always good stories."
Questions of when he will hang up the jersey and retire seem to creep into conversations year after year, but the 75-year-old keeps chugging along.
"Never," Fenster said about when Hill will retire. "As long as he is healthy and feeling well then he is going to do it as long as he can. He is in great shape and probably in better shape than half of our players. I see him just going and going and going. We'll probably retire before he will."
Hill's ability to connect on a personal level with players draws the top talent from New Jersey and its bordering states.
"He's honest with all of the kids out there," Baxter said. "He puts it up front and tells them what he believes they should be doing. Kids aren't stupid. They can see everything that goes on.
"He's about never giving in and being prepared. The one thing I can tell you [is] that all the kids that have come and bought into that have been better."
And with former players and coaches and family members looking on under a dreary April sky, the 1,000th win for Moose finally came.
The game had enough implications as is — game two against then-Big East leading South Florida. The Knights took game one with late-inning heroics, but the team needed none of that next time around with ace Casey Gaynor on the mound. The senior drew up an eight-inning, one run performance in a 6-1 victory.
"He deserves it. If there is anyone that deserves it, it is him," Gaynor said. "On the verge of 1,000, I didn't want to screw it up."
When closer Tyler Gebler forced USF's Todd Brazeal to groundout in the ninth inning, the entire coaching staff wrapped its arms around Hill and embraced its leader. Always praising his staff and players for his successes, Hill hugged them back.
The celebration began — started by first baseman Jaren Matthews dousing Hill with the water bucket — and the team presented Hill with a plaque, the game ball, an engraved bat and a banner that will hang on the left field wall until the end of the season.
After that, Hill was asked if he wanted to say anything.
Once again, he wouldn't budge.
But behind the love from his friends and family, Moose walked over to an outstretched microphone behind home plate and in front of a record crowd of 1,124, he spoke.
"This really belongs to the players I have had an opportunity to coach and the coaches I have worked with throughout the years," Hill said. "I am blessed to have the support of my family through all these years I have spent on a baseball field. Today was a great moment, which I will cherish forever."
His march to 2,000 began Sunday with a 13-1 win over USF to sweep the series. Rutgers did the only things that Hill cared about far more than any milestone — tried hard and won.
"He is just about winning today and winning tomorrow and the next day. And anything that gets him away from that is a wasted breath in his mind," said Fenster in an interview last week. "It is a big deal and I hope that when it does happen he is able to reflect on it and enjoy it with the rest of the staff and the rest of the team."
Before the ceremony finished, Hill posed for a photograph surrounding the banner with his family, his coaching staff and the team. At that moment a grin swept over Moose — a smile that could only have meant that his team succeeded, the only thing that ever mattered to him in the first place.