Phil Schroeder still remembers when Bill Fessler urged him to quit playing basketball.
Basketball was — and still is — a passion for Schroeder, so the coach-to-player talk quickly caught his attention. But that was Fessler's style. He was a coach who could get the most out of his players and would also dispense life lessons.
Fessler, a long-time Rochester coach in several different sports, died this past week at age 89. Fessler excelled in football at track at the University of Missouri before moving to Rochester in the 1960s.
He coached girls golf at Mayo and was also a B-squad basketball coach and an assistant football coach for the Spartans. He then was the head men’s basketball coach at Rochester Community College for more than a decade.
EMBEDED: William “Bill” Fessler
He was an avid golfer and his son, Steve, is the golf professional at Medina Golf and Country Club in the Twin Cities.
“He was a tremendous coach,” said Schroeder, the current girls basketball coach at John Marshall. “Just a good guy and a kind of down-to-earth person to lay things out for you exactly as they are.”
Schroeder had Fessler as a coach on three different levels, as B-squad basketball coach at Mayo, the head men’s basketball coach at Rochester Community College and also as an assistant football coach at Mayo.
“He was really, really good to me and we had a lot of good conversations through the years,” Schroeder said. “Most of it wasn’t about the sport, it was just about life.
“He was always extremely honest with you and I always appreciated that.”
Schroeder played both football and basketball at Rochester Community College. As a sophomore, he dislocated his shoulder in football in the fall of 1982 and he was playing tentatively at the start of the basketball season.
That's when Schroeder had a serious conversation with Fessler: “After about three or four games he brings me into the office and says ‘Hey, I think you should hang it up, I think you should retire.’ I said ‘What do you mean?’ He said ‘I can tell your shoulder is really bothering you and I know you’re not playing the way you can play.’
“I looked at him and thought ‘Are you crazy? Are you serious?’”
Fessler was being serious, but he was also using the talk as motivation.
“I was a team captain. ... I told him ‘There’s no way I’m quitting,’” Schroeder recalled. “He said ‘Then you need to start playing like I know you can and stop worrying about your shoulder.’ He said ‘If it pops out, it pops out.’ And from that point on, I didn’t worry about it. Because of the injury, he was giving me a chance to step down.”
Led by Elgin-Millville standout Joe Grobe, Schroeder and several other Mayo grads, RCC went on to win the junior college state basketball title in the spring of 1983.
Fessler coached at RCC for more than a decade until retiring in 1994.
“I think he had a good pulse on what the player needed and what the team needed,” Schroeder said. “He was very honest. And when you're in high school or even in college, sometimes you don’t always look at it that way.”
Current RCTC men’s basketball coach Brian LaPlante grew up in Chatfield and recalls attending Fessler’s summer camps as a youth. LaPlante took over the RCTC program in January of 1996, shortly after Fessler stepped down.
“I didn’t really know him, but I heard he was a heck of a card,” LaPlante said. “He was quite the character.”
Schroeder knew that side of Fessler and has a lot of fond memories, some of which are not suited for print.
“After a tough loss he would come into the locker room and say ‘Hey boys, don’t hang your head. Tomorrow the sun’s going to come up and you mom still loves you.’ He would always put things in perspective that way,” Schroeder said. “And yet he could get the most out of you. He had a competitive nature to say the least.”