MONMOUTH, ILL. Record-setting Monmouth College baseball coach Roger Sander, who was also an M Club Hall of Fame basketball player for the Fighting Scots, died Oct. 7. He was 65.
Sander, a 1978 Monmouth graduate who coached the Scots to 373 baseball victories from 1994-2015, was the fourth longest-serving coach in the history of Fighting Scots athletics. Only Roger Haynes, Terry Glasgow and Bobby Woll have had longer tenures in Monmouth athletics.
A familiar face on campus for nearly 50 years, Sander was in the Huff Athletic Center on Oct. 1 to watch the Hall of Fame induction ceremony for one of his standout baseball players, Taylor Thiel '02. In his acceptance remarks, Thiel shared the story of the impact Sander had on his baseball career, and on his life.
"I remember during the 2000 season, I challenged Coach's authority on a mound visit," said Thiel, who was in the first of three seasons as an all-conference catcher for Sander's Scots after transferring from Iowa State University. "I didn't finish that game," which was the first game of a doubleheader.
"Between games, he lit into me," said Thiel. "He let me know I could go back to Iowa State at any point. Finally, he said to me, 'Do you still want to play this game?' I said that I did, and he said, 'Good, you're starting the next game.'"
About 30 minutes later, in his first at-bat in the nightcap, Thiel belted the first of what would be a school-record 18 home runs.
"Words cannot express my gratitude for you giving me a second chance," said an emotional Thiel to Sander. "I had to earn your trust and respect back. You helped me fall more in love with baseball than I thought I could. I hope I made you proud."
Champions on the diamond
Two years after that between-game exchange, with Thiel and several other talented seniors leading the way on the field, Sander coached the Scots within one victory of a berth in the College World Series. The team established a new high-water mark for victories with 26 as the Scots won the Midwest Conference title.
Under Sander, the Scots had 12 MWC South Division championships and reached the postseason in 15 of his first 16 seasons as head coach. He was named the MWC South Division Coach of the Year nine times, including 1996, when Michael Blaesing '96 received the league's Position Player of the Year honor.
"Coach Sander was the epitome of a player's coach," said Blaesing, who today serves as a development officer for his alma mater. "He demanded your best on the field, but he also supported you 100% off the field. He was everything to everyone -- a coach, a mentor, a role model and a friend. I'm a better person today because of Coach Sander's influence on me."
Sander was no stranger to playoff baseball in the spring, as he also served as assistant coach to Glasgow from 1984-93, during which time the Scots qualified for the MWC tournament eight times, winning seven championships.
The origin story
It was Glasgow who helped convince Sander to come to Monmouth in fall 1974 from Conant High School in Hoffman Estates, Illinois. But the sport he was recruited for was basketball, not baseball, and he was one of the best to ever suit up for the Scots on the hardwood.
Glasgow described the initial encounter of the pair, who'd ultimately coach approximately 800 games together.
"I remember it vividly," said Glasgow, who heard about Sander through Dick Redlinger, Conant's coach. Redlinger, who had western Illinois roots and knew Glasgow, believed Sander would be a good college basketball player, especially after watching him score 20 points against future NBA player Dave Corzine.
"He told me Roger was 6-foot-6, and he didn't tell me what he weighed," said Glasgow. "They sent Roger down on the train, and I went to meet him at the depot. This is back when the train stopped at Monmouth. He stepped off the train, and I looked at him, and he looked at me. Neither one of us was very impressed. He was 6-5, not 6-6, he weighed about 280 pounds, and he had long curly hair down to his shoulder."
But positive impressions became the norm after Sander paid his dues as a non-varsity freshman, which was the NCAA rule at the time. Blessed with what Glasgow called "the quickest first step and the finest hands of any big man I've had the privilege of coaching," Sander hauled down a record 939 career rebounds, a Monmouth mark that still stands 44 years after his last game. No other player in school history is within 150 rebounds of that mark.
Sander could put the ball in the basket, too, as evidenced by his career average of 17.4 points per game. He was named an All-American in 1977 and 1978. After a hiatus of a few years, he returned to the basketball program as assistant coach for Glasgow from 1984-2007.
Loyal to his alma mater
In 1994, Sander was inducted into the M Club Hall of Fame for his Fighting Scots basketball career. It can be argued that he could've been inducted three more times -- for the accomplishments of his 21-year career as head baseball coach, for his longtime role as an assistant coach on championship teams, and for the 34 years he served as Monmouth's gruff but lovable equipment manager.
"He was a mentor to many students whether they were his workers or not," said Morgan Martindale '17 on the occasion of Sander's retirement in 2018. "We worked for him, but he also wanted us to concentrate on our studies, and he made sure we did our homework. Coach Sander was very positive and always had an encouraging word if we were struggling with classes, sports or anything."
Haynes, who today serves as Monmouth's director of athletics, commented on the special bond Sander had with his players.
"Coach Sander was a mainstay in Monmouth athletics since his days here as a player," said Haynes. "His dedication and passion to support the student-athletes at Monmouth College was remarkable. His high expectations of himself and unwavering loyalty to those around him are invaluable qualities he tried to instill in his players."
Glasgow said that "unwavering loyalty" is one of Sander's most memorable traits.
"What I loved about him was that he was extremely loyal to me and extremely loyal to Monmouth College," said Glasgow. "'Loyalty' is not a popular word in the world today, but it is to me and it was to Roger."
Of Sander's commitment to his alma mater, Glasgow said: "If you didn't know or like Roger Sander, then you weren't Monmouth College. Everybody liked Roger, even the non-athletes, and he liked them."
Glasgow remained close to Sander after their days together on the sideline, so he knew his friend's health was deteriorating.
"It's not surprising today, but it's still hurtful," said Glasgow. "It hurts Monmouth, because he was one of the most loyal people to Monmouth that I know of."
Of the many tributes to Sander rolling in on social media throughout Friday, Patrick Lynch '02 summarized the legacy of "The Sandman" in just four words: "Great coach, better person."
Sander his survived by his wife, Elaine '98; by a daughter, Katie; son-in-law, Adam; and grandchildren: Dylan, Ashley and Blake.