Memories of NA’s beloved coach ‘Fergie’

He spent nearly four decades as the head boys’ basketball coach at North Arlington High School. He was also the chairman of the guidance department at the school for even longer. He was beloved by practically everyone who knew him. The basketball tournament that is played every Christmas bears his name in his honor.

Bill Ferguson passed away a little more than two weeks ago after a battle with lymphoma at the age of 85. But the memories of North Arlington’s beloved “Fergie” will not die any time soon. His former players and assistant coaches that worked with Ferguson will make sure of that.

“It’s just a big loss for North Arlington,” said Dan DiGuglielmo, Ferguson’s assistant coach who eventually replaced the legend as the head man with the Vikings. “Going back to my childhood and my neighborhood, we lived on the same block (Hendel Avenue). He was a friend to everyone in the neighborhood. He would do anything for anyone in the neighborhood, like shoveling snow or taking out garbage. There wasn’t anyone who didn’t love Fergie.”

DiGuglielmo, who was also the baseball coach at the school, said that Ferguson played the role of mentor to him growing up.

“When I decided that I wanted to be a teacher and a coach, he helped me a lot,” DiGuglielmo said. “He got me into coaching football. He gave me guidance all the time. He would tell me the ‘Dos’ and the ‘Don’ts.’ He made sure he took care of the kids with special needs.”

One of those with special needs that Ferguson looked after was neighbor Vinnie Macaluso.

“Fergie brought Vinnie in and treated him like he was a member of the coaching staff,” DiGuglielmo said. “When Fergie became the director of recreation, he brought Vinnie along.”

DiGuglielmo said that Ferguson was the one who initiated picnics during the summer for those with special needs.

There was also the town’s annual three-kilometer run that was held annually on July 4.

“That was all part of Fergie’s ingenuity,” DiGuglielmo said. “He was amazing. He never had a bad day. I have so many great memories.”

DiGuglielmo said that he was amazed with the amount of suits and costumes he owned to wear during holidays, like St. Patrick’s Day and the Fourth of July.

One time, Ferguson wore a costume for a football game to look like legendary Notre Dame head football coach Lou Holtz.

“Well, people started to think he was really Lou Holtz,” DiGuglielmo said. “He was signing autographs. It was pretty funny. Those are the things I’ll remember. He always treated people well.”

Friend and colleague “Skip” McKeown, another one who spent years next to Ferguson as an assistant coach after being among his first players, also remembered the lavishly dressed Ferguson.

“He would have a different costume for every holiday,” said McKeown, who moved to Ocean Grove to live closer to his friend Ferguson. “He had more costumes than anyone.”

McKeown said that he spent many games on the Vikings’ bench with Fergie and fellow assistant coach Joe Tosies.

“He was really into the game and if things didn’t go well, Fergie would kick the bleachers,” McKeown said. “Well, he ultimately destroyed the bleachers. The play.”ers would all tell you that. He was known for kicking the bleachers.”

Dave Walsh, who would eventually become the head coach of the Vikings, was one of the best players in North Arlington history. He followed in Ferguson’s footsteps as a college student, playing for Upsala College like Ferguson and was the head coach at North Arlington like his mentor. Walsh and Ferguson were together as player and coach with the last North Arlington team to win the Bergen County Jamboree in 1982.

Walsh also has special memories of Ferguson.

“He was super energetic,” Walsh said. “He was a bigger than life coach. When the game started, a switch turned on and he was ready to go. He was a good game coach. He knew who to substitute and who to take out. He was a good motivator. He could get you to run through a brick wall. He taught us about life. He said that we had to give him everything we had for two hours, put everything else away and be basketball players for two hours. I really loved him. His kids called me a mini-Fergie.”

Walsh, now an assistant coach at Christian Brothers Academy in Lincroft, had an interesting tale of when he became a varsity player for Ferguson and the Vikings.

“I was a sophomore and he needed someone to make free throws late in a game,” Walsh said. “He said to me that if I wanted my varsity letter, I had to make the two free throws. I made them and true to his word, he gave me my letter. He was the kind of coach you wanted to have. If he told you he needed something and you did it, then you were good in his eyes.  He was a magician with life. I watched him and saw how he acted with kids. I just wanted to be with him.”

Walsh said that he received a major piece of advice from Ferguson.

“He said, ‘Dave, they’re kids. They’re going to make mistakes,’” Walsh said. “He said that as a coach, you had to give them the opportunity to make mistakes.”

Bill Rudowitz was one of the first players Ferguson coached and another who followed in the same exact footsteps, going from North Arlington to play at Upsala. Rudowitz was a member of the North Arlington Class of 1976.

“It was a fabulous time,” Rudowitz said. “He had so much energy and drive. He wanted us to be the best. We were the conference (Bergen County Scholastic League-Olympic Division) champs twice. He was working so hard to make us better than that. He was a great man.”

Rudowitz said that Ferguson went above and beyond the call as a coach, taking over as the head coach of Phoenix Business Systems in the Jersey Shore Basketball League in Asbury Park in the summer after Ron Rothstein, who went on to have a career coaching in the NBA, couldn’t coach the Phoenix team.

“I asked him to do it for a few games and he ended up doing it for five years,” Rudowitz said. “He had such a big influence on me, telling me where to go to school and what to do with my life. He told me to live life to the fullest no matter what you’re doing. That guy definitely knew how to have fun.”

Ferguson’s sons, John and Bill, Jr. both played for their father.

“He was very intense as a coach,” Bill Ferguson, Jr. said. “Every possession was extremely emotional, whether we were up by 10 or down by 40. It didn’t matter. He was very tough on his players, but he treated everyone the same, like everyone was family. I was amazed with how many cards and letters he received. He saved everything. The letters said, ‘You were hard on me, but when I left, I was a better man.”

Bill Ferguson, Jr. said that his father’s roommate in college was the famed concert promoter Don Kirschner, from the popular weekend concert shows on NBC television, long before MTV was even thought about.

John Ferguson was a player on the good North Arlington teams in the early 1980s.

“He told me that my job was not to shoot the ball,” John Ferguson said. “He said that we had enough shooters on the team, that I had to bring the ball up and pass it. He treated me like everyone else on the team. I never felt like I was signaled out.”

John Ferguson decided to pursue a life in education and is now an elementary school principal in North Plainfield.

“I was motivated by his complete devotion to helping people,” John Ferguson said.

No better story then the time that Fergie got a call at home late at night. It was from a student.

“She said that she got into trouble with a bunch of guys and she was so upset that she was going to jump off the George Washington Bridge,” Bill Ferguson, Jr. said. “My Dad went there to go help her in the middle of the night. She then told me years later that my Dad saved her life.”

McKeown will always remember the last time he spent with his friend two weeks ago.

“He knew what the situation was,” McKeown said. “He was in good spirits. He wanted to cheer us up. We still laughed. I don’t know of anyone who disliked him.”

Just minutes before Fergie passed, Bill asked him a question.

“I asked him that it was time to tell us who the better athlete was, me or my brother John,” Bill Ferguson, Jr. said. “He thought for a second, then gave his answer. He said, ‘Your sister, Kristen.’”

Telling jokes right to the end.

Bill Ferguson leaves his wife of 63 years, Ruth An, his three daughter, Kristen, Lea An and Patty and his two sons. He also leaves hundreds of students he taught and coached, kids he treated like his own and treated him like he was their father. There was only one Bill Ferguson, one Fergie, one coach who personified North Arlington athletics. To say he will be missed would be a gross understatement. He truly was one of a kind.

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Jim Hague | Observer Sports Writer

Sports Writer Jim Hague was with The Observer for 20+ years — and his name is one of the most recognizable in all of sports journalism. The St. Peter’s Prep and Marquette alum kicked off his journalism career post Marquette at the Daily Record, where he remained until 1985. Following shorts stints at two other newspapers, in September 1986, he joined the now-closed Hudson Dispatch, where he remained until 1991, when its doors were finally shut.

It was during his tenure at The Dispatch that Hague’s name and reputation as one of country’s hardest-working sports reporters grew. He won several New Jersey Press Association and North Jersey Press Club Awards in that timeframe.

In 1991, he became a columnist for The Hudson Reporter chain of newspapers — and he remains with them to this day.

In addition to his work at The Observer and The Hudson Reporter, Hague is also an Associated Press stringer, where he covers Seton Hall University men’s basketball, New York Red Bulls soccer and occasionally, New Jersey Devils hockey.

He’s also doing work at The Morristown Daily Record, the very newspaper where his journalism career began.

During his career, he also worked for Dorf Feature Services, which provided material for the Star-Ledger. While there, he covered the New York Knicks and the New Jersey Nets.

Hague is also known for his announcing work — and he’s done PA work for Rutgers Newark and NJIT.

Hague is the author of the book “Braddock: The Rise of the Cinderella Man.”