Ian Progin didn’t need to preach the virtues of focus, poise and selflessness to his Hillsborough High School boys basketball players. As a stage four brain cancer survivor, he lived them each day.
After 12 seasons of escalating success, including last year’s Somerset County Tournament title and last month’s stunning NJSIAA Central Group IV championship, Progin recorded the final triumph of his resilient tenure last week.
He resigned on his own terms.
“I have no health issues, no issues with anyone,” the 37-year-old father of two said Tuesday night. “It’s the right time in my life. I want to spend more time with my kids, to see them and coach them. I know a lot of coaches say that and then they go for a different job. That’s not the case for me. I feel like it’s time to step away and see what life is like without being a head coach.”
A Hillsborough alum who played basketball at Rutgers University as a walk-on, Progin took over a nondescript program and turned it into a perennially tough out. He did so without ever having a Division I basketball player.
“To do what he did at a public school speaks volumes about what he got out of his players,” North Hunterdon coach Kyle Rehrig said. “He never had star players who got a lot of accolades. He always had kids who bought into playing team basketball and leaving your ego at the door. That’s a testament to him.”
Those closest to Progin believe his battle against a particularly aggressive brand of brain tumor, glioblastoma, influenced the way his players performed.
“A lot of that had to do with his guys looking at him and saying, ‘If this guy can battle and fight, then regardless of the circumstances and the score, we can battle and fight too,'” Montgomery coach and good friend Kris Grundy said.
“He was always calm and collected, and his team took on his personality,” Watchung Hills coach Justin Salton said. “They were able to execute during critical times.”
One such time came in the 2014 Somerset County Tournament final, when the Raiders edged Gill St. Bernard’s and national-class guard Tyus Battle 53-52 in overtime.
“When we got to the county final the five starters talked, and we said if coach can fight through what he’s been through, there’s no reason we can’t go out and win this for him,” said Matt Hornich, a senior forward on that squad and now a freshman pitcher for University of Delaware baseball. “It showed us the odds don’t matter. If you want something, you can do it. He instilled that into us.”
In May of 2011 Progin was diagnosed with glioblastoma, which has a five-year survival rate of under 5 percent. He underwent surgery and chemotherapy and returned to his job as a guidance counselor in September.
“Since Ian was diagnosed he might have missed four practices total, right up until this day,” longtime assistant coach Chris Fox said. “You want to talk about fighting a disease head on? He never wavered.”
Fox and Hornich lauded Progin’s game-planning and preparation, which really shined through as the 13th-seeded Raiders captured the program’s first sectional crown in March. They won four road games to do it, cementing Progin’s reputation as one of Central Jersey’s top coaches.
“He always wanted to build this up the right way,” Fox said. “He turned Hillsborough into a high-profile job. It’s a great loss for the (Skyland) conference, but he’s healthy and that’s the biggest thing.”
Progin said he gets an MRI every six months to make sure he’s cancer-free. So far, so good. He intends to enjoy spending more time with his 8-year-old daughter Payton, 5-year-old son Jeffery and his wife Courtney, who he calls his “rock.”
He also wants to issue a heartfelt “thank you” to family, friends, colleagues and strangers who rallied behind him through his darkest hours.
With a little goading from a reporter, Progin acknowledged that there were many people who called him seeking advice or counsel, or just to thank him for being an inspiration.
“There were periods where I would get random phone calls,” he said. “I’m always willing to help anyone any way I can. I realize this is not just about me; it’s about anyone who has been stricken with cancer, especially this type of tumor.”
Those calls, he said, “are the highest compliment you can get. You hold them close to your heart. That’s what life is all about—relationships.”
Staff writer Jerry Carino: email@example.com.