Fifty years ago, Bill Wagner was introduced to sprint football, known at the time as lightweight football. Now, he’s the embodiment of the sport.
Wagner — or Wags, as he is more commonly known — has managed to keep alive a program that nearly became extinct just two years into his tenure as head coach. Then-Penn president Martin Meyerson proposed to drop lightweight football in 1971 for financial reasons. Wagner led the charge to keep it, and garnered support from players, parents, and just about everyone involved with Penn lightweight football.
“We stressed that our budget was so small that it wouldn’t matter, and we explained that lightweight football gives a chance for the little guy — the unrecruited athlete — to play,” said Bill Goldman at the time, who was the team’s co-captain.
Seeing the unwavering passion that Wagner had for the program, Meyerson had no choice but to go back on his word and let "the little guy" keep playing. Ever since, Wagner and Penn have remained a constant in a sport that is perpetually changing. Several Ivies have had to drop their sprint programs, most recently Princeton after the 2015 season. And currently, Penn and Cornell remain the only two Ivy League schools in the Collegiate Sprint Football League.
The reason that the program has been a mainstay is actually quite simple: The alumni will never let it die. Perhaps Wagner’s greatest strength is his ability to forge lifelong relationships, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the way that his former players give back to Penn.
“You always learn from your players if you have a good relationship,” Wagner said. “And if the relationship [lasts] like this one has, they give back, and this group of guys and this program have given back. We’ve endowed the sport; we’ve endowed the head coaching job. Even though we’re all part-time, the [coaches'] salaries are now as good as anybody’s in the league.”
Through alumni donations, Wagner and his team now have a coaches’ office with televisions and showers, a locker room, a weight room with a full-time strength coach, and a strong alumni mentoring program. With this strong financial support comes an emotional support from Wagner’s former players that initially surprised the coach.
“The hardest thing is trying to grasp how your former players will come and say things to you that is almost like a father-son relationship,” Wagner said. “And that started happening.”
Some of these players come back to see Wagner and thank him for the lessons he has taught them that they’ve applied to their own lives, whether it involves their family, their job, or their lifestyle in general. One example is John Winter, who played for Wagner from the 1974 to 1977 season.
Winter is still heavily involved with the program and currently serves on the Sprint Football Alumni Board. For Winter, the first thing that came to mind about Wags was his energy during practices.
“Wags was very active. He would always be the scout team quarterback, and he was very predictable in terms of passing. So he would always roll to the right, and there would be some type of hitch pattern that he’d have two people run, and he’d always throw the ball as far down the field as he could. And he would do that consistently. But you could tell he loved it, and we loved it.”
These were the kind of stories that made players connect with Wagner so much, as he seemed to be one of them. Additionally, his role as a coach has gone way beyond simply teaching student-athletes how to play football.
“Everything that all of us [learned] who are still involved with the program — and there are a lot of us — [we learned] by osmosis; he taught us a lot of very important values. And you can see that he has spent his professional life helping literally thousands of athletes, both at Penn and [in] South Jersey, and he just fundamentally cares about all of us," Winter said. "And he’s a very good role model for everyone who has been in contact with the program.”
Wagner’s stories and lessons will surely live on as long as Penn sprint football is around. But now, the program will have to confront something quite unfamiliar: life without Wags.
With the legendary coach set to retire at the end of the 2019 season, it’s not weird to wonder what exactly the program is going to look like with someone else leading the way. In Wagner’s estimation, everything will be just fine.
“I’m trying to make sure that the guys who want to take over the program will be able to have it the way they want to run it, so that we can take this program — which started down here," Wagner said, gesturing to the floor, “— to the next level."
“If you get these [assistant coaches] in that role and I feed my [information] to them, they’ll be able to make that happen. It’s all up right now; it’s up and away. We have good people; we’ve got good coaches.”
The program may be able to continue running smoothly in his absence, but Wagner’s competitive spirit and ability to create a lively environment are irreplaceable. He leaves Penn with countless accolades — including five sprint football championships — and enough stories to write a biography.
These stories are really what last in the players’ minds after they go through the program. They might remember the scores of the games, but the first things that come to mind are often the timeless memories of Wags doing something that only Wags could do.
Henrik Ager, a former foreign exchange student who played for Penn in 1992, recalled a moment during practice in which Wagner reminded everyone just how long he had been around. Ager was playing defense while Wagner was lining up the offense, and when Ager noticed that the offense was in an illegal formation, he called out to Wagner and one of the assistant coaches.
Wagner was apparently unconvinced that the formation was illegal. So when the assistant coach joked, “He read the rulebook, Coach,” the only way Wagner could respond was to say, “Read it? I flippin’ wrote it!”
When it came to gameday, Wagner’s competitiveness was especially evident whenever the Quakers played their archrival Princeton.
“My first year playing, one of the first games was the first time we went to play Princeton, and I didn’t realize just how much he disliked Princeton,” said Dave Lopez, who played three seasons of sprint football and graduated from Penn in 2007. “And he came in the locker room, and he was getting everybody hyped up before the game, and he pulled out a miniature pumpkin and smashed it on the ground and yelled, ‘Let’s go beat those pumpkin-heads!’ And that was definitely something I had never seen before, and it was about as inspiring as it gets before a game.”
Of course, what was new to Lopez was already common practice for Wagner, who had made this pumpkin-smashing routine a tradition.
“It all started when I had a gym bag and I snuck a pumpkin in there. And [Princeton’s] got these orange helmets, and they look like pumpkins on their head. And we had to motivate the kids, right? So the first year I did it, I got up and brought it out, and I smashed the thing down and stuff went all over the place, and they went out and scored 70 points or whatever it was. ... And we just kept doing it and doing it.”
Along with his success in building the Penn sprint football program, Wagner was also an invaluable asset for the Quakers’ baseball program. After coaching football, basketball, and baseball at Woodrow Wilson High School and Cherry Hill East High School — both in New Jersey — Wagner accepted Penn’s offer to be the freshman baseball coach in the same year he took over as head coach of lightweight football.
Though the fact is sometimes overshadowed by his legendary sprint football coaching career, Wagner coached Penn baseball for 34 years. He was the varsity pitching coach under his friend Bob Seddon, who recruited him to come to Penn. After retiring from coaching baseball in 2005, Wagner was inducted into the Penn Baseball Hall of Fame in October 2018.
And as if one hall of fame wasn’t enough, Wagner is also in the hall of fame for the Hot Stovers Baseball Club of South Jersey, which is an organization that honors the best of South Jersey baseball on all levels. Wagner was the president of the club for 15 years and remains very involved today. He even continued to play the game competitively until very recently, and he was certainly never afraid of any competition.
“This will be the [fourth] summer that I stopped playing,” Wagner smiled. “I was playing in a wood bat, 45-and-older league when I was 65 and 70. And I could still hold my own. I couldn’t do all the things that I wanted to do, but I could still hold my own.”
Penn sprint football offensive coordinator Jerry McConnell has been coaching the Quakers with Wagner for 14 seasons, and the two have developed a great friendship. And when it comes to the baseball diamond, McConnell can attest to the fact that Wagner has always held his own.
“Eight years ago maybe — he lives on a lake — and we were fishing at his house, and he came home in a baseball uniform covered in dirt,” McConnell chuckled. “I said, ‘You’re 70 years old and slid head first into second! What are you, nuts?’”
This is what has made Wagner so popular throughout his whole life: his unbounded enthusiasm for sports, his genuine passion for all that he does, his unwavering commitment to others. In the end, it’s no wonder that everyone speaks so glowingly of him.
“The reason the program’s so successful is the relationships he’s built with all these people,” McConnell said. “To me, it’s amazing.”
The way McConnell came to Penn illustrates that principle as much as anything.
“Brian Adair was a coach here, and I was done [as head coach] at Holy Cross [High School], and I was just gonna watch my kids play. And [Brian] called me and said, ‘Hey Coach, we need a quarterbacks coach at Penn for sprint. Can you come down and help us out?’ And I said, ‘B, I’m done, I’m done.’ And he called me almost every day, and he finally said, ‘Do this for me: Come down and meet Wags. If you meet Wags, and you don’t want to do it, then it’s alright.’ So I met Wags and I’ve been here every day since.”
Even though McConnell didn’t go to Penn, his experience is similar to many of the other assistant coaches in that once they met Wags, they couldn’t stay away from the program. Nearly all of the assistant coaches on Wagner’s staff used to play for the Red and Blue, including defensive coordinator Chuck Hitschler, defensive line and linebackers coach Sam Biddle, receivers coach Dave Hubsher, and running backs and special teams coach Mike Beamish.
The eagerness of so many alumni to return to a coaching position is what makes Wagner confident that his well-oiled program will continue running smoothly.
Perhaps what is weighing more on his mind is what he will do after this season ends. Appropriately enough, Wags will stay involved by being on the Penn Sprint Football Board with the title of Head Coach Emeritus. Wagner’s main responsibility will be maintaining the traditions that he has helped create, particularly the postseason player awards that sit in the team’s locker room.
However, the next time Wagner runs onto Franklin Field after the 2019 season, he may be wearing pads and a helmet.
“I’m going to take some snaps,” Wagner said of next year’s alumni game.
And which position will he play?
“Quarterback. Where else? Somebody’s got to tell them to shut the hell up in the huddle. I would hit them with a quick short slant. I could hit him, no doubt about it. … I can still sling it.”
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