Fred Blumberg may not be able to recall every one of his 501 victories during 25 years of Freeburg baseball, but thanks to the lessons he learned as a young athlete, his former players will never forget him.
Making an impact on people’s lives has become second nature for Blumberg, who retired as coach after the 2010 season. A Collinsville native, Blumberg played baseball and basketball for the Kahoks. One of his earliest influences was legendary Collinsville basketball coach Vergil Fletcher.
“One thing that stands out now that I’m a coach is that (Fletcher) had his way of doing things and he wasn’t concerned what the guy down the road was doing,” said Blumberg, who turned 60 in February. “For his day, that was sort of a bold thing to do. I’m not saying I never paid attention to other coaches, but we basically did the same things every year in terms of drills and philosophy.”
Blumberg went on to the University of Illinois, where he planned to play baseball and major in architecture. Instead, he ended up concentrating on academics and majoring in education, which set him on the path to a career in teaching and coaching.
In 1972, he was hired at New Athens High, where he spent 11 years as the varsity basketball coach. As a baseball assistant under Bob Matzenbacher for his final two years at the school, he helped the Yellow Jackets reach the state tournament in 1982.
Arriving at Freeburg in 1984, he became head baseball coach in 1986. At various times, he was also athletic director, head boys basketball coach, assistant baseball coach and assistant girls basketball coach.
“In my 12 years at New Athens and the rest of my career here, I was lucky to have some really good people to work with,” said Blumberg, who retired as a teacher after 22 years at Freeburg. “We had great teaching staffs, great administrators and great players.
“People think you coach to win, but really you coach for relationships and trying to help people. Certainly Freeburg has a great overall sports tradition and I give (former athletic director) Gary Hearne a lot of credit for what I call the glory years of Freeburg, when a lot of our state championships were won.
“Gary treated this athletic program like there was no such thing as a minor sport. Every sport was important and he was very true to his word on that.”
In terms of wins and losses, the pinnacle of Blumberg’s coaching career came in 1989, when Freeburg was 34-3 and won the Class A state championship.
“It was a team that really didn’t have a weakness,” said Blumberg, who had a second-place team at state in 2002 and a quarterfinalist in 2001. “They were really good defensively and we had dominant pitching.
“I really thought we had a shot the year before (when the Midgets were 25-8 and won a regional title). We had some other teams that I thought should have gotten there and could have won it, but that state title is really an elusive thing. One error, one walk or one bad inning can cost you.”
Blumberg’s 2010 team had a 14-24 record, by far the most losses of his career. But Freeburg caught fire at the end of the season, beating Columbia to claim a regional title and defeating Pinckneyville in the sectional semifinal before losing to Greenville in the sectional championship game. The win over Columbia was the 500th of his career.
“The 500 thing became very much a distraction,” said Blumberg, who has an overall record of 501-296. “What made the last part of the season pretty good was the fact that we started playing very well.
“We were 5-16 at one point, but we just kept practicing hard and kept after it about doing things right. We kept telling the kids they were better than they were playing and they finally got it together.”
In recent years, some of Blumberg’s former players have come back to help him coach. His top assistant, Drew Gericke, played for the Midgets and the volunteer staff of Jake Bayers, Rob Blumberg (Fred’s son) and Adam Hill all played for him.
“The young people look up to them and it’s been really fun having those guys with us,” Blumberg said. “At this school, we’ve focused on building people as well as building players and we want to treat them the right way. At the same time, we’ve had a lot of success on the field.”
In those 25 years, the Midgets won 26 championships: 12 regionals, eight (Cahokia) conference titles, five sectionals and one state championship.
An assistant girls basketball coach under Charlie Fox the past two seasons, Blumberg will be the head coach for the 2010-11 season.
“I had no intention of being the head coach, but Charlie called and said his job status had changed and he couldn’t get the hours off anymore,” Blumberg said. “The main reason that I decided to apply for it was that I had coached every one of these girls at the JV level and enjoyed it.”
Outside of coaching, Blumberg has no problem staying busy. For nearly five years (along with Hearne), he has been a tour guide at Busch Stadium.
“It’s a fun job where you meet a lot of people from all over the world,” Blumberg said. “Off and on, I’ve taught some geography classes at SWIC (Southwestern Illinois College). I like to work on the house and play some golf and I fish a little bit, so I don’t sit around very much.”
Blumberg might not challenge the longevity of Lebanon softball coach Hank Feldt, who recently marked his 50th year of coaching in the Lebanon School District. But for now, he’s still happy to be working with young athletes.
“I like the idea of team building, and I’m not just talking about X’s and O’s,” he said. “Nothing is more satisfying for me than to see a team grow and to see people grow.”