Wagner still a coaching dynamo at 76
You needn't drive deep into the mid-state mountains to find an old football coach on a golf cart; you can come across an awfully good one right here in Springdale, and the guy's age isn't an issue.
Chuck Wagner will be 77 in November, and, when he leads his beloved Dynamos onto the lawn against North Catholic Friday night, his 50th autumn as a coach will have begun, and he is not the oldest coach on his own staff.
"Al Kennedy's 84, goin' on 85," Chuck was telling me Tuesday as practice was starting.
"What's Al's job?" I said.
"He, uh, when we're doing something that's kind of sophisticated, he sort of watches to make sure we're doing it right, you know?"
"Quality control," I said.
"Yeah," Chuck said. "Something like that."
Quality's not much of an issue around here, either. Springdale's looking for a 10th consecutive playoff berth in 2011, its once well-earned reputation as a football wasteland long since discarded by the arrival of Wagner and his fluctuating staff of young coaches, real young coaches, old coaches and real old coaches.
"I never wore a facemask, never lifted a weight," Chuck recalled from his playing days at Oakmont High, Kiski Prep and Bucknell.
Yep, that would make you pretty old, as would coaching tenures at Bucknell, Oakmont, Riverview, Fox Chapel, and now, for 19 years, at Springdale. But for longevity's full perspective, Wagner probably can't top this:
"When I was at Oakmont in 1961, Joe Paterno came in to recruit a player," Chuck said. "He was an assistant at Penn State."
These 50 coaching autumns, he is quick to point out, have included what he calls "some interruptions."
There was the interruption when his father died in '82, forcing him to run the family beer distributor business. There was the interruption when cancer struck his second wife in 1990, eventually taking her in 1995. Being on the wrong side of Friday night scoreboards can be dismal, but Chuck Wagner had long carried what you might call a deeper perspective. His first wife died during child birth at 23. His own childhood had hardly begun when it was interrupted by the death of his mother. He was 4.
"I really missed it, being away from football," he said about the interruptions. "Hard to believe, but when I was growing up, I didn't even like football. My father played at Oakmont High, 1929, and he wanted me to play badly. That's probably why I didn't want to. I wasn't too interested. I was more interested in track. I still have the Kiski Prep record for the 100 -- 9.85."
He'd probably admit to being a step or two slower now, at 76, but there's little doubt he's kept pace with the changes to the game, to the kids, to the culture at large.
"I've had great kids just about everywhere I've coached, but today's players are so much more intelligent about the game," he said. "There are so many more things for them to do that the ones who play it are really committed to it, and these kids are just about as committed as any group I've had, especially the seniors. But they have challenges. There are lot more broken homes today, financial difficulties sometimes. But I've really been lucky since coming here."
Wagner might be known as much for what he did here in that first season, 1993, as for everything he has done since.
"Our goal that first season? Win a game."
And they did, snapping a 35-game losing streak at the verge of tying the all-time WPIAL record for dreadfulness. Springdale beat Leechburg, 12-6, and here we are 103 victories later (of Wagner's career 262), including a 30-13 unnerving of Sto-Rox in the Class A title game at Heinz Field Nov. 22, 2003
There are pictures of that day on the wall in Wagner's office, pictures of former players, former coaches, former teams, but no picture correctly conveys the constructive humility of the office itself, a 10-foot by 12-foot cinderblock bunker with a desk, three chairs and a safe. On top of the safe there is an old bowling trophy and a cardboard box with footballs in it. On the side of the safe, Chuck has affixed a post-it note with the combination to the safe.
No, you can't fake 76.
If you thought maybe after 50 years in coaching, you could get a window, you would be wrong. But Chuck loves his office.
"I just kind of took it from the athletic director when they were remodeling."
On a wall outside his door, there's a small two-word sign identifying the office, which you know because the second word is "office." Over the first word, Chuck has stretched a piece of beige masking tape, on which he has written "Football."
"What was under here," I asked him, pointing to it.
"Under football?" he says. "What did I tape over? Uh, I don't remember."
Chuck said he is not sure what the Dynamos will do this fall, and, in fact, across 50 seasons, he never has known what to expect.
"Some teams have been awfully big surprises," he said. "Others, you'll have high hopes for and then there'll be an injury here or there, and they won't do as well. But I'll tell you this, every club I've had, they've hung in there no matter what and given their all, and that pleases me very much."
You don't have to wonder where they got that example.
Some days, Chuck talks to his third wife about some days when they'll have nothing to do, some days that don't seem that far away.
"I'd like to have some years really where I don't have to worry about anything," he said. "We've talked, my wife and I; she's a nurse at Shadyside Hospital, and we want to make sure we get some years we can just spend with the family and not have the pressure of coaching."
By then, of course, you'll probably have to drive a lot farther to see an old coach on a golf cart.
First Published August 31, 2011 12:00 am