At Penn, there is a tradition more venerable than Hemo’s, Spring Fling or the Econ Scream.
His name is Bill Wagner.
In the midst of his 43rd season as head coach of the Penn sprint football team, Wagner has his squad performing as strong as ever.
It’s just business as usual for Wagner, who took over a moribund program and transformed it into a four-time Collegiate Sprint Football League champion.
Along the way, he’s compiled enough stories to fill a book.
Though it might seem hard for a current observer to believe, Bill Wagner didn’t come to Penn to coach football.
He was a baseball man.
“I came to Penn in 1970 because Bob Seddon became the baseball coach … and he made me an offer to become the freshman baseball coach and the [sprint] football coach,” Wagner said. “I would come to Penn every day as a part-time coach coaching two sports.”
Wagner quickly moved up the baseball coaching ranks, eventually becoming the varsity team’s pitching coach.
Together with Seddon — who also played double duty as the men’s soccer and baseball coach for 15 years during his 37-year stint until he retired in 2005 — Wagner coached the baseball team to over 600 victories, and three of his pitchers were drafted by Major League franchises before his 34-year tenure ended when current coach John Cole took over.
Despite leaving baseball behind, Wagner still holds a soft spot for the game.
“I really enjoyed my baseball days here at Penn,” he said. “I’m still a baseball fanatic.”
The baseball team’s loss was the sprint football team’s gain.
Under Wagner, the sprint football team has captured CSFL championships in 1996, 1998, 2000 and 2010.
Perhaps Wagner’s greatest team was the 2000 squad, which became the only Red and Blue sprint football team to post an undefeated record since 1931.
Wagner has become so synonymous with consistent winning in the sprint football world that the CSFL has created a trophy bearing his name, awarding the William R. Wagner Trophy to the highest-finishing Ivy League school in the CSFL each year.
Ask any player — current or former — about coach Wagner though, and he’ll talk about an influence that extends far beyond the field of play.
“There would be no sprint football without coach Wagner,” said receivers coach Tim Murphy, who also played under Wagner. “He’s instrumental in getting the donations, pulling the alumni together and just fostering a sense of pride not only in being a football player, but a Penn sprint football player and what that means.
“You can see it in the guys that come back to this day to play in multiple alumni games.”
Wagner’s influence as a teacher has proved invaluable to generations of Penn sprint football players, helping mold his men into student-athletes in the purest sense of the word.
“The great thing about coach Wags is that he’s kind of like the father figure for all of us that you really need going into a new environment at Penn,” senior defensive end Anthony DiBella said.
“Throughout the four years here, whenever you had a problem or an issue that you had to deal with outside of football, he was always the first person that was willing to help you, point you in the direction to help you out … and I think the program that he runs is very much based on developing a student-athlete as opposed to just a sprint football player.”
For an entire roster composed of students playing for the love of the game, there is no greater good that Wagner can do.