Northern Door has lost a legend.
Rod “Chief” Billerbeck died March 19. The legendary coach, known primarily for his 41 years as Gibraltar’s baseball coach, had battled Parkinson’s for several years.
Billerbeck won 377 games (a state record when he retired) and led the Vikings to their lone state championship in 1979. His teams dominated Door County baseball throughout the 1960s and 1970s, and Billerbeck’s personality dominated the school.
“He was a great coach and a great leader, a really inspirational guy,” said current Gibraltar baseball coach Jay Kita, who played for Billerbeck’s final conference championship team in 1988. Kita was saddened by the loss of the man he considered a coaching mentor. This is the week each year when Kita would go visit with his old coach at Hearthside Cordial Care in Sister Bay to get fired up for the coming season. Though Billerbeck’s body was failing him for many years, his mind remained sharp.
”He could remember any game, and player off the top of his head,” Kita said. “I’m going to miss him.”
Known for his gruff but lovable demeanor, Billerbeck spent lunch hours playing ping-pong with students, and evenings dishing out tough love on the baseball field and basketball court.
Billerbeck was inducted into the Wisconsin Baseball Coaches Hall of Fame in 1979. Last year Gibraltar rededicated its baseball field in Billerbeck’s name, and the old coach threw out the first pitch in his final appearance at a Vikings game.
Though loved by his players, Billerbeck was a hard driver.
Kita recalled an incident late in the 1988 season, when the Vikings lost a game to Sturgeon Bay that Billerbeck thought they should have won.
“He had us running the next day at practice, and when the sun went down, he had us hitting in the gym till about 10 at night,” Kita said. “But we needed that.”
Delmar Olson, class of 1963, was one of Billerbeck’s earliest pupils. He said being successful under Billerbeck was simple.
“He worked you very hard and you did what you were told,” Olson recalled in 2004. “If you screwed up, you were a dink. If you did it again, you were a super dink; if you just didn’t get it, you were a terminal dink.”
His philosophy was bare bones. Asked how he got players’ respect, he said, “The first time we met I told ‘em, ‘You’re gonna respect me, period.’”
“He broke baseball down to three things – hit the dang ball, throw the dang ball, and catch the dang ball,” Kita recalled.
His name and spirit still echoes through the halls of Gibraltar and the memories of his students, and trickles into the philosophy of current coaches.
Rod Billerbeck has died, but Chief’s legend lives on.