SCHERERVILLE | Fred Mooney did one of his finest coaching jobs ever in January of 2009. Unfortunately, many missed it.
It is a story of a Hall of Fame-like leader who understood the game of basketball at the highest level. His perception of the human heart was even beyond that.
The boys basketball coach at Hammond Baptist High School faced an extreme challenge. A student at the Schererville school, Amanda Vignere, was tragically killed in a skiing accident in Michigan. A large group gathered for the Cedar Lake girl's funeral.
That night, Mooney's Swordsmen traveled to play Quentin Road Christian in Lake Zurich. All that Mooney is about went into that emotional evening.
And not that it mattered. Well, in the big picture, anyway. Hammond Baptist won 42-33.
Later Mooney said, "She went off that hill and straight into eternity. This has been tough, but our faith has kept us strong. We know that she's in heaven, and that gives us peace."
Mooney resigned after 35 years as a coach at Hammond Baptist recently. He had been the school's athletic director for all 35 years, too. In coaching four different sports, Mooney won 640 games.
But for the Hammond native, that isn't what mattered.
It's the hundreds of lives he's touched with the Gospel message that means the most to him.
"There's more to life than how many games you've won," Mooney said. "It's what you take with you after you hang up your sneakers that matters the most. If you commit to basketball and doing the right things, then you will be committed to your job, to your marriage and in being a good father to your children. It's connected. It goes on and on and on.
"That's what we need more of in America."
In the beginning
Mooney grew up in Hammond, and he attended Tech through his sophomore year. He played football and baseball for some of the Tigers' top coaches. His family attended Hammond First Baptist while Fred grew up.
But the faith thing was distant. The connection was frayed.
He enrolled at HBHS as a junior. At a chapel service Mooney's world was turned upside down. Or downside up in his case.
"I was in bondage with my own sin," Mooney said. "But when I met Jesus Christ, and he forgave my sin, the weight of the world was lifted off of my shoulders. From that point of my life and onward, I was a free man.
"I am a free man."
This absolute conversion changed everything. He played soccer and basketball for the Swordsmen before graduating in 1974. His love of athletics did not disappear, but things were put in a proper order.
Mooney attended Hyles-Anderson College. Dr. Jack Hyles offered him a job at the high school he founded to help build the football program. Mooney spent the next 35 years proudly sporting the blue of his alma mater.
He became the head basketball coach in 1996. As an assistant and top coach, Mooney directed the program to 410 wins. And since '96, Hammond Baptist won its National Invitational Tournament eight times.
While Christ is the most important thing in Mooney's life, playing good defense, working hard and having success was always key, too.
"Defense is everything to coach," senior J.J. Aspiras said.
"He could care less about offense," laughed senior Gerardo Pineda.
The two Swordsmen smiled when they talked about Mooney's "sayings." Every day. Every practice. They would work their way into the conversation.
"A blind squirrel will find a nut every once in awhile."
"Not a snowball's chance in Hades."
Win or lose, road trips always had the bus stop at McDonald's. That was another Mooney thing.
Hammond Baptist principal James Woosley played three sports in seven different seasons with Mooney as his coach. The 1990 grad, whose son also played for Mooney, knows what the school is losing.
"Coach is very passionate," Woosley said. "He was always very intense about what we were doing. Every practice was important. Every game was important. Every turnover was devastating, and every 3-pointer was big.
"But his biggest emphasis was representing our school, our parents and our faith with the highest regard. It was not token verbiage. It really is his philosophy."
As Mooney steps down to further his business interests, he says he isn't done coaching. He is in conversation with several public school coaches about potential opportunities. With the IHSAA boys basketball sectional semifinals being tonight, Mooney had an interest in Hammond Baptist joining the state association, like many other Christian schools have done in the past decade.
"As a competitor you always would like to see how you could do against other people," Mooney said.
Last year the Swordsmen beat Covenant Christian. Then, the first-year IHSAA program won a sectional game.
"It would've been nice to see what we could do there," Mooney said, but that was never in the plans for the school.
Still, as he departs, Mooney has several great basketball moments and memories, beyond the win at Lake Zurich.
In 2001 right after Hyles passed away, Hammond Baptist lost its second game in its national invitational that began in 1973. No team had ever lost on the first day and come back to cut down the nets. However, in dramatic fashion, Mooney's team did just that, winning seven straight.
Down a point with 1.8 seconds left, the Swordsmen had to go the length of the floor in a standing-room-only gym. The pass went up, got lost in an iron beam and hit the floor and bounced up. David Peach broke for the ball and tipped it in over his head.
"That was Hoosier Hysteria," Mooney said. "That was our miracle game."
In 2000, the program faced undefeated Homewood Christian, which had three Division I players, including Rick Cornett, who played at Notre Dame. The coach of the small Christian school that few outside the campus know about walked out and saw coaches from UCLA, Michigan State, Michigan, Iowa and Notre Dame at the game at Highland High School.
"That was pretty exciting," Mooney said. "That was our David vs. Goliath game."
Hammond shot 87 percent from the foul line, 76 percent from the field, played good defense and won 50-39.
Still, the battle of the heart rises above the combat on the court. And Mooney's winning percentage in life is higher when the Nikes aren't being worn.
"My son (Todd) came home from college and said to me, 'Dad, you're the most honorable man that I know,'" Mooney recalled. "I'll take that any day. That is what is most important.
"I've taken this program as far as I can take it. I am very grateful for the opportunity that Hammond Baptist has given me. They've been great to me, and it has been great. I know that God will be with me for the next chapter in my life."