Gov. Livingston coach Chris Roof made quick work of 400 career wins, mask or no mask.
Gov. Livingston bounced back from a 3-2 loss to Cranford on Friday to defeat Plainfield, 13-3, in the first round of the Union County Tournament and, in the process, deliver career victory No. 400 to its coach, Chris Roof.
Roof, in his 21st year at Gov. Livingston, improves to 400-165-1 and becomes the 61st coach in New Jersey to win at least 400 games. Roof’s career .708 winning percentage also puts him in another elite company. He is the 32nd member of the 400-plus club with a .700 or better winning percentage.
“I was thinking about it walking up here to the field today,” said Roof. “I thought about all the players I’ve coached and the coaches I’ve coached with. That there are only 61 coaches to win 400 games makes me feel like I’m doing something good.”
Roof, notoriously humble and one quick to deflect credit, would have a hard time minimizing this achievement, one that is more than two decades in the making. His first victory came in early April 2000 in his first of three seasons at Millburn when his Millers knocked off Madison.
Roof left Millburn after three successful seasons that included a sectional championship. He returned to his alma mater, Gov. Livingston, to succeed the retiring Bill Howard, who had coached Roof in high school.
“I was happy in Millburn,” said Roof. “I wouldn’t have left for any other job but GL. How special that was for me to get a chance to coach on the same field I played and wore my high school uniform.”
Howard is believed to have won 400 or so games, too, at Gov. Livingston but those hard numbers have remained elusive, mostly because Howard never really cared for numbers. Howard lives now in Leland, N.C. and is likely more concerned with the numbers on his golf card.
“Bill Howard has been my inspiration,” said Roof. “He’s the reason I went into coaching. He encouraged me to. Bill taught me how to do things the right way, how to treat the game and how to treat the kids. Hey, 800 wins for two guys from the same program over 40 years is pretty cool.”
Roof’s reputation is of a coach who is demanding, detail oriented and one who loves his players. The return on that approach is seen in his players’ and teams’ success on the field. Roof’s teams have won two NJSIAA Group 2 championships (2011 and ’15), five sectional crowns, two Union County Tournament titles and four conference championships. Roof was also an assistant under Howard in 1999 when the Highlanders won the school’s first Group championship in baseball. Roof’s two UCT titles were the first in school history.
“The county titles were huge for us because that was something Bill always wanted,” said Roof. Gov. Livingston is a Group 2 school so must overcome the Group 4s and 3s in the county and conference if it hopes to win championships. Westfield, Union, Elizabeth and Scotch Plains, not to mention Group 3 Cranford, represent the local gauntlet Roof’s charges must navigate each season. Westfield, Union, Elizabeth and Cranford have each built reputations as statewide powers over the years as well.
When the old Mountain Valley Conference was absorbed by the new Union County Conference in 2008, Gov. Livingston had a choice to make, go up to the bigger school division or reside in the smaller school middle division. Typical of GL and Roof, they chose to compete against the top teams in the conference day-in and day-out.
“We waned to be in the upper division,” said Roof. “We only have 1,000 kids and we are the smallest school in the division, be we compete. Come state tournament time we’ve been battle-tested.”
Roof has, indeed, forced Gov. Livingston, 10-4 this spring, onto the statewide stage, as it showed once again on Friday when it went toe-to-toe with No. 3 Cranford in a 3-2 loss.
“Our guys play hard,” said Roof, ”That’s all any coach can ask for.”
Roof was a beast of a player at Montclair State, earning NJAC Rookie of the Year honors as a freshman center fielder in 1993 when the Red Hawks won the Division 3 National Championship. Montclair returned to the Division 3 College World Series in 1994 before losing. The 1995 and ’96 team reached the regional final and lost both times to conference rival William Paterson. Roof’s experience in all those big games would pay dividends in his next endeavor.
Longtime West Essex coach Scott Illiano, whose also had stints at Caldwell and Wayne Hills, ran into Roof head-to-head in the 2011 Group 4 final at Toms River North. Roof’s Highlanders nipped Illiano’s West Essex Knights in a wildly entertaining game.
“When his team beat our team in the final that year, I gained a valuable friendship that stemmed from my admiration in watching how he went about his business and how he ran his program,” said Illiano. Chris’ incredible record stands for itself, but his influence goes far beyond that. He’s a great husband, father, role model, and person who has positively impacted so many people. This milestone places him in elite company and he should be so proud of himself for having reached it at such a young age.”
That is a great point by Illiano, who has coached with Roof often during the Senior All-Star Games. Roof is just 47, making such milestones as 500, 600 and maybe even 700 realistic for a coach winning at his current pace. Illiano, by the way, has had his own impressive career, boasting a 365-206-1 record.
Fresh out of college, Roof took a teaching job at Millburn High School, in a town where his father, Fred, had been a longtime police officer before retiring in 1994. Roof took the varsity boys basketball job at Millburn and hooked on as an assistant baseball coach back home under Howard.
Being in-house at Millburn paid off for Roof in 2000 when he was asked to join much-beloved Phil Krug’s baseball staff in 2000 with the understanding that Krug would retire and turn the job over to him in 2001.
Roof took the Millburn reins in 2001 and quickly built on Krug’s success through 2003 before he got that much-desired call to come home.
“My M.O. has been the same since I started as a head coach in 2001,” said Roof. “You have to be disciplined. You have to treat 15 year-old kids like men. It’s your responsibility to teach them what hard work is all about. I tell them you are going to have to learn to compete against people your whole life, like when you are going for a big job. Everyone was put on earth for a reason. This is why I was put on earth. We are the ones who have to teach these kids to become men.”
Roof has had a steady and reliable group of assistant coaches to reinforce that approach. College teammate Ralph Yezza had been a varsity assistant with Roof for 17 years and is handling the GL freshman team this year. Pitching coach Matt Rago, hitting coach Chris Flynn and assistants Bryan Young, Sam Politan and Ernie Schmidt round out Roof’s dynamic staff.
“I love the memories,” says Roof, “the ups and downs and everyone I’ve worked with through the years. But most of all I love the grind, the competition.”
In the end, embracing the grind and loving the competition is what it’s all about.
Thank you to John Haddad for providing the great photos in this story.