Photos Courtesy of NDSU Athletics
You can read our story about Rocky Hager here. This conversation occurred May 2, the same day Rocky Hager was applying for the head coach position at The College of New Jersey.
Q&A With Former NDSU Football Coach Rocky Hager
Bison Illustrated: You said the teaching aspect drives you to continue coaching. Does it have anything to do with being around young adults and helping the maturation process?
Rocky Hager: “That is a very highly motivating thing. And the other part is that when you’re around younger people, you continue to feel and think in a younger fashion. I have watched people of my own age that act pretty old. That isn’t for me. I enjoy bouncing around on the practice field. I enjoy getting players to push themselves. I enjoy the success when they do things well and the excitement they show when they do things and being able to be excited with them. The challenge is to formulate the necessary pool to improve your team and climb to a higher level the next season.”
I’m sure building your pool—or team—is a little different at TCNJ than at NDSU.
“There’s a significant difference between when I was at North Dakota State and here. We were Division II and had scholarship money. Out here, we’re a Division III school so we don’t have any money, and we’re really focused academically as an institution and it’s competitive to get admitted to the school. So as a coach, basically, you have to make sure that you have identified people that are capable of being in the classroom and competing with students in the classroom and then also, how they compare and compete with the level of Frostburg State and Salisbury, who are upper echelon Division III schools.”
The football program was cut while you were the head coach at Northeastern. How do you deal with that as the leader of the team?
“I try to take the lead that I was, basically, taught by Jim Wacker. In those kinds of situations, you see to it that you take care of the people that are around you and then you go take care of yourself last.
“The toughest thing that was a part of that program being dropped was to watch a 6-foot-7, 305-pound offensive tackle on the ground crying his eyes out—seeing very skilled players walking out and their heads are absolutely below their chest. That was the hardest part.
“Helping people find places and taking pride in the things they accomplished once they did find a new location was very good (to see). We had players who transferred from Northeastern to play in the ACC and start. There were seven players, I believe, who would’ve returned to our team who ended up in NFL Camps. There was a young man who played tight end for us that was on the Patriots team this past Super Bowl (Matt Lengel).
“We had a chance of being pretty good, but the understanding of the business side of things was a stronger emphasis on how things were going to proceed and if you are in that kind of situation, take care of the players first, take care of your staff second and then see to it that you’ve done enough to hang onto the possibility of getting a job yourself.
“Literally, there were jobs that I was called to be a candidate for and knew one of our assistants was a candidate for the same job, and I declined the opportunity.”
What do you see when you look at NDSU now? Do you see it as the place where you were the winningest coach of all time?
“I’ve never been worried about being the winningest coach in program history. All I was ever concerned about was how we did today in our game.
“The part that I see is, after we won the national championship in 1990, it was pretty obvious to me, the continuous shrinking of the scholarship allotments for Division II were going to have an impact on our program.
“There was a task force put together to try and do the research for the potential moving up to Division I-AA, along with the other sports. The process was completed, and there was a thought that it was a good idea, but it was not put forward and taken care of.
“What I’m saying now is that someone had the ability to see that dream and is doing an excellent job seeing to it that the necessary support and resources are there, and the commitment to excellence to doing things correctly are happening on an ongoing basis. Chris (Klieman) is doing a great job with the team, the president is doing a great job with the institution, Craig (Bohl) had done a great job with the team, and the previous administration has done a great job with the institution. Those are all things that are good to see.
“I am an alum of the grad school, and I think that is something that we all should take pride in.”
So, you would’ve liked them to make the move earlier when you were on the task force?
“Read our entire conversation with Rocky Hager in the June edition of Bison Illustrated. Pick your mag up at one of the many Fargo newsstands or subscribe here to get the magazine sent to your door.”
What They Said About “Rock”
“He was a very caring person, and not only was he out for you as a football player, but out for you as an individual to make you the best person you could possibly be. He was a father figure, too.”
NDSU assistant coach
“You can still tell he has NDSU in his heart. I remember the very first trip to Frisco that year—the first or second, I can’t remember—he was down there. He made it a point to get there with his assistant coaches.”
Fargo Forum Sports Editor
“When we were grad assistants, he had two things he talked about often: he either wanted a big horse ranch or be the head coach at North Dakota State. He was an extremely hard worker, very focused and very intense. I knew whatever he decided to do he would be successful.”
NDSU assistant coach
“I remember sitting back there in one of my first practices, couple practices in and Rocky was chewing somebody’s butt. And I’m back there like ‘man, what’s he getting on his case for?’ And Dan (Goettl) just said, ‘It’s not how we do things around here. If he wants a two-inch step, you better give him a two-inch step.’ And he (Hager) kind of set the tone, and that was kind of an eye-opener to me.”
NDSU quarterback, 1989-93
“I think everybody has mentors and teachers that they grow up with and look back and say, boy, that person really helped me grow as a person and as an individual, and I would definitely say that about Rocky.”
NDSU assistant coach