Legendary high school football coach Chuck Wagner dies
One true mark of a great coach is how devoted players are once their careers are over.
That's the case with Chuck Wagner, a legendary high school football coach who won two WPIAL titles 38 years apart and who died Monday morning in Oakmont. He was 82.
Wagner piloted the Oakmont Oaks to the 1965 WPIAL Class B title and the Springdale Dynamos to the 2003 WPIAL Class A crown. He finished his career with 270 coaching victories, currently fifth on the all-time WPIAL list.
But to former players like Rob Erdeljac, quarterback of the '65 team, Wagner was more than coach.
“He just continued to be important to his players long after playing careers ended,” Erdeljac said. “He never lost enthusiasm for life and his players and coaches. Coach was as excited about the birth of my children as any football win.”
John Miceli, a key player on Wagner's first Oakmont team in 1961, put it best the night he was inducted into the Alle-Kiski Valley Sports Hall of Fame.
“If there's a better man out there than Chuck Wagner, I've never met him,” said Miceli, an Oakmont insurance company owner for many years. “After your senior year, he worked to get you into college. Chuck thought everybody should go to school.
“I came home from North Carolina State, but I still wanted to play for a smaller school. One week later, I was up at Slippery Rock, thanks to Chuck.”
During his time at Oakmont, the Oaks played rival Verona to start the season, opposite of what many football schools do.
Devoted fans from each town would spy on the other team's practices and report back to Wagner and Verona coach Joe Zelek.
“Joe and I would always laugh about that,” Wagner said in a 2001 Valley News Dispatch interview. “We both knew what plays we were going to run, but the fans wanted to get involved.”
His best friend since junior high days was Don “Pappy” Boulton, whom he coached against while Wagner was at Oakmont and Boulton was at East Deer-Frazer High School.
“We were from the Third Avenue area in Oakmont,” Boulton said. “We were very competitive — even against each other. The week of the game, we wouldn't talk to each other, but we got back to the love and fellowship afterwards.”
Boulton said they always dreamed about coaching together. It finally happened for the last 19 seasons at Springdale — more than 40 years after they met.
“But we loved every minute,” Boulton said. “It was like fulfilling a dream.”
Wagner was born Nov. 28, 1934, and took over the Oakmont program in 1961. He became Riverview High School's first coach in 1971 when Oakmont and Verona consolidated to form the Riverview School District.
Wagner was instrumental in getting the rivals to merge and at least keep some identity.
“The word was that we (Oakmont) were going in with Plum, and Verona would be taken over by Penn Hills,” Miceli recalled.
Wagner stepped down from Riverview in 1985, only to return to coaching at Fox Chapel Area from 1988-90.
In 1993, he again was persuaded out of retirement, this time to take over a Springdale program that had endured 18 consecutive losing seasons.
A year after his arrival, the Dynamos posted a winning record.
“We started talking about high school football and what it takes to have a healthy program,” said Tim Basilone, at the time an Allegheny Valley School District board member. “We talked about some of the large Springdale families who had great athletes. He had a ready-made (assistant coaching) staff who were devoted, and he got some of the kids out for football who weren't coming out at the time.”
After his Springdale team won the 2003 title, he continued coaching until 2011, making the WPIAL playoffs each season.
He then returned to Riverview for the 2013 — as an assistant coach.
Off the field, the Bucknell University graduate served as Oakmont and Riverview's athletic director, operated his family's Oakmont beer distributorship for a number of years and served a term on Oakmont Council.
He was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in 2012. His signature phrase “hang in there tough” was put to the test, as it had been a number of times in his life. His mother, Genevieve, died when he was 5.
Wagner's first wife, Winifred, died during childbirth. His second wife, Nancy, died of breast cancer. His third wife, Dee, also had health problems but was able to enjoy his many Springdale triumphs and numerous halls of fame inductions with him.
“We miss him already; he was a good father,” said son Thomas. “He tried to stay positive up to the end. When I would spend a lot of hours at the beer distributorship, he told me to just hang in there tough.”
Arrangements are being handled by the Burket-Truby Funeral Home and Crematorium & Alternative Services, 421 Allegheny Ave., Oakmont. Friends will be received Wednesday and Thursday from 2 to 4 and 6 to 8 p.m.
Funeral services will be held Friday, 10 a.m., at the Riverside Community Church, 401 Allegheny Ave., Oakmont. Internment will follow at Plum Creek Cemetery.
George Guido is a freelance writer.