George Guido: Coaching legend Chuck Wagner left indelible mark
When you've covered a public figure such as coach Chuck Wagner for more than 40 years, a number of things are seared into your mind.
One in particular came in February 2004.
WPIAL executive director Tim O'Malley had called a meeting for football coaches and athletic directors from around the league to the Fox Chapel High School auditorium.
The question was whether to keep the WPIAL's format of four teams from each conference going to the playoffs, which meant starting the season a week earlier.
The auditorium was divided into little factions and agendas, with a buzz accompanying each area. But when Wagner strode to the microphone, the place went completely silent.
That's what you call real respect.
Wagner made his argument for keeping four teams in an expanded playoff field and how much it meant to his Springdale program he had rebuilt.
Wagner, the winningest coach in the 119-year history of Alle-Kiski Valley high school football and fifth overall in the WPIAL with 270 wins, died Monday at his Oakmont home.
He was 82.
The respect he earned among players, peers and colleagues is unrivaled.
O'Malley is one.
“I thought he was a good person and the consummate gentleman,” O'Malley said. “His admiration for football was unmatched.”
O'Malley particularly recalled a time in the early 1980s when his Avonworth team was in the same conference with Riverview.
“His teams were very well-prepared, and they played at the highest level,” O'Malley said. “He was the type that, when his team led late in the game, instead of wanting to shove another (touchdown) in, he had his quarterback take a knee. He was a sportsman who valued the game.”
Rob Erdeljac, the quarterback on Wagner's WPIAL championship Oakmont team, wrote a lengthy tribute on Facebook to his former coach late last week when it appeared the end was near.
“No one was alienated by this gentle and courageous soul,” Erdeljac wrote. “He molded many. He molded me. He was the kind of man you worked hard for to please and to be like.”
Erdeljac wrote a book chronicling Oakmont's rise to the '65 WPIAL championship in his book “Up Periscope.” It started on the first day of practice in August to the title game in New Kensington, where the Oaks defeated Apollo.
Much of the book deals with the daily interaction with Wagner, his staff and Erdeljac's teammates.
That was followed several months later by Tom Yerace's book “Hang in There Tough,” titled after one of Wagner's catch phrases.
Yerace's book highlights Wagner's life from the problems faced during his youth, such as his mother's death at an early age and his being raised by a nun to his many football triumphs.
His first head coaching job was at Oakmont in 1961. It's hard to believe some community members were wary of having a Catholic coach in the Protestant-heavy Oakmont of that era.
Four of Wagner's teams reached WPIAL title games.
Besides the '65 team, Oakmont lost the '68 title game to Chartiers-Houston. The '03 Springdale Dynamos upset heavily favored Sto-Rox at Heinz Field. Four years later, Springdale lost to Serra Catholic, 10-6, holding down an Eagles team that averaged 42 points and remains one of the highest-scoring teams in WPIAL history.
Wagner also was instrumental in putting together the Riverview School District.
After state Act 561 of 1961 mandated small community school districts find a consolidation partner, the original plan was to have Oakmont students be part of the Plum Borough School District and for Verona to be absorbed by Penn Hills.
Wagner and others stepped in and had the idea of putting Verona and Oakmont together, a marriage that has worked for 47 years, even though the two schools were once bitter rivals.
George Guido is a Valley News Dispatch scholastic sports correspondent. His column appears Wednesdays.