Photos Courtesy of The College of New Jersey and NDSU Athletics
Rocky Hager is 65 years old and he just applied for another job.
“Well, not yet,” Hager says over the phone inside his office at The College of New Jersey (TCNJ). “It went up literally five minutes ago.”
Hager has been in positional meetings all day, keeping the staff together and up-to-date on the latest news with the Lions’ football team—a Division III program in Ewing Township, New Jersey, that competes in the New Jersey Athletic Conference. They are also without a permanent head coach.
Wayne Dickens, who hired Hager as the defensive coordinator in 2013, retired from coaching last May, leaving Hager as the interim head coach for the 2016 season. The search for a permanent solution has been a quandary ever since.
“There isn’t a director of athletics,” Hager explains, prepping his résumé for the head coaching position. “They wanted to wait until they hire a director of athletics than that process got sidetracked, and they’ll end up hiring the football coach before they officially hire the AD.”
Although Hager has been assured his old defensive coordinator position back if he isn’t accepted as the head coach, his hunger to teach and embed himself in the abnormal intricacies of being a head coach remains strong.
“One of the things you can’t do is go back and change things. So you might as well be thankful and grateful for the good things that have come along the pathway.” – Rocky Hager
He’ll be applying with one year as the TCNJ interim head coach already under his belt. The Lions were 2-8, but Hager said he’s ready to take on the challenges of bringing a school that is highly competitive academically back to relevancy in football.
TCNJ enrolls nearly 7,400 students and its acceptance rate is less than 50 percent, according to U.S. News & World Report’s website. It was the first normal school in the history of New Jersey and tops U.S. News’ list as the No. 1 public school in the country.
Unique challenges such as zero athletic scholarships at a prestigious Division III school are what keep Hager going, he says, and his unmistakable passion for the players.
“I’ll say it this way—and I’m sure there are plenty of Bison players that will tell you this—I’m not easy on them,” began Hager. “I will see to it that when things are good, I’m excited about it, and if they’re not good, then they’ll know darn well that I’m not appreciative of that as well. They all understand that because we want to do the things necessary to be successful on the scoreboard.”
This mindset of teaching and wanting individuals to grow spawns from coaching youth basketball in his hometown of Harvey, North Dakota, on a Saturday morning with the school’s principal Wesley Kessler. Hager was only a sophomore in high school when he was teaching a youngster by the name of Jeff the fundamentals of the game.
“He did exactly what I tried to teach him and the hair on the back of my neck stood up,” Hager said. “I was excited about it and I’ve never lost the excitement about it—to teach people how to do things on the field.”
The stakes are now higher for Hager’s coaching expertise. It’s far from teaching youth basketball players when you’re trying to turn around a TCNJ football program that has only finished with an above-.500 record twice in the past decade. But the athletes are the ones that keep him fresh and energized to coach, says Hager, not the wins.
For the foreseeable future, Hager will continue to coach out East. His wife, Peggy, is retiring from teaching this summer, and his daughters, Rebecca and Tiffanee, are leading successful professional lives in fashion and hospital management, respectively, in New York City. It’s the grandchildren, he says, that will keep him rooted in New Jersey. He’s also enjoyed watching his son, Josh, from afar lead the defense to a Junior College national championship at Garden City Community College in Kansas.
Hager still has plenty of ties back in North Dakota. He’ll even make the occasional visit back to his home state to go to Lake Sakakawea, where he can fish for walleye and catch up with old friends and colleagues. But for now, the coach with the second-most wins in Bison football history has a job application to finish.