Fernandez ends stellar coaching career

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, July 8, 1998

Michael Kiral / L’Observateur / July 8, 1998

RESERVE – Every baseball season brings with it a number of changes. Newplayers, new rules and often new competition.

For over a decade, there has been one constant for the Riverside Rebels – the man in the dugout. But when the Rebels take the field in 1998, theywill do so under new leadership.

Head baseball coach Tommy Fernandez, who has coached the Rebels since the early 1980s, announced his retirement this past season, ending a career that spanned over three decades and included Louisiana High School Athletic Association state baseball championships in 1963 and 1995 as well as a number of football and baseball championships in the now defunct Louisiana Independent Schools Association.

But Fernandez’s association with sports dates back beyond that. Hestarted as a youngster playing playground ball. Back then few families hadtelevisions or automobiles, and feet were the best transportation. Therewere a lot of empty lots to play ball in, and living near the Shell Oil plant in Norco, Fernandez had access to a gym.

Fernandez and his friends would play vacant lot football in the fall, pick- up basketball games when the weather got colder and school ball and vacant lot baseball in the spring and summer. Shell had an open-doorpolicy for its summer program, allowing the youngsters to play a variety of sports, including swimming, tennis and golf.

“We had country club living without the fees,” Fernandez said.

Fernandez and his friends would play sports from sun up to sun down, getting up to swim then playing ball until it was time to eat lunch. Thenmore ball until it was time to eat again, and finally a couple more games before bedtime.

Back in those days at a small high school, athletes played every sport.

Fernandez played football, basketball, baseball and ran track, first at St.

Charles Borromeo and later at Destrehan High School.

After graduating, Fernandez walked on the football team at the University of Southwestern Louisiana for one season. He lettered four years inbaseball, being selected all-conference as a catcher his senior year. As helikes to tell his players, he batted .405 with a wooden bat, a feat they areoften are not overly impressed with until they try it.

Upon leaving USL, Fernandez became a teacher and a coach at Destrehan High School, leading the Wildcats to the 1963 state championship in baseball. The following year, despite losing seven seniors to graduation,he led them back to the state championship game, finishing as the state runners-up.

Fernandez left in 1968 to become a graduate assistant at Nicholls State University. While he was there, the Colonels became the first Louisianateam to advance to the College World Series in 1970, losing twice to San Fernando Valley for the championship. On those teams were Frank Monica,who would later coach at Lutcher and Riverside and is currently the head baseball coach at St. Charles Catholic, and Gene Duhe, who is serving asFernandez’s pitching coach during American Legion ball this summer.

A year later, Fernandez came back to the River Parishes to coach at Riverside. His first year he coached the Rebels to the state baseballchampionship and was on the staff of the football team that also captured the state title. He would win two more state titles in baseball beforeleaving in 1976 to work at Dupont and Shell.

Fernandez returned to Riverside in 1979 as the head football coach and led the Rebels to the state championship in 1980. He would add titles in 1983as an assistant to Monica and in 1984-86 back at the helm. His 1995baseball squad would also roll to the state title in LHSAA.

The Rebels finished this past season with a 17-8 record, losing to eventual state champion Pope John Paul II in the regional playoffs, 7-2.

Fernandez felt it was the best time to step aside, saying he always had two goals for when he retired.

“I wanted the program to be better than when I got it and that the cupboard would be full,” Fernandez said.

New Riverside coach Marshall Crooks will indeed come in with a full cupboard as six all-district players return for the 1999 season. Thatshould help as the Rebels play in one of the toughest districts in the state with four teams making the playoffs this past season, including state runners-up St. Charles Catholic.Fernandez will stay on as counselor at the school, saying that when he was growing up, work was considered a noble thing and that he still feels that way.

“I get a lot of enjoyment in what I do, especially when I help a student that feels they need help,” Fernandez said.

Fernandez has seen a number of changes in athletics in his years as coach.

He said players today are bigger, faster and stronger than they used to be and are more knowledgeable about the game because they can watch literally hundreds of games a year on television. He also said coaching isbetter today and that players are better trained, with more knowledge about diet and rehabilitation therapy. He said one of the best tools forlearning today is videotape, allowing players not only to receive instruction but also to see themselves practicing.

“If a picture is worth a 1,000 words then a video tape, with being able to see frame by frame, is worth a million words,” Fernandez said.

Fernandez is a believer in hard work, being named the second hardest worker on the team each of his four years at USL. Being number two neverdeterred him from working harder, saying that working hard was driven into him and his friends growing up.

Asked to pick his most memorable moment, Fernandez said he wouldn’t even try to guess at one, saying there were too many. Besides coachingstate champions and watching his children play in them, Fernandez was a semi-pro player of the year in the New Orleans area and helped lead his team to back-to-back state championships.

“The thing about winning a district or state championship is that it makes you strive harder to win the next one,” Fernandez said.

Fernandez said he will now enjoy semi-retirement, getting to spend more time with his wife Mary Ann, who also works at Riverside.

“As long as I was coaching, I felt I had to borrow time to have quality time with her,” Fernandez said. “Now I don’t have to do that.”Family has always been important to Fernandez, saying that whatever he got, he got from his parents. He and Mary Ann have four children, TommyJr., Kristen, Glenn and Don, all of whom have been involved withFernandez’s work at Riverside.

“They are our greatest treasures,” Fernandez said.

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