Penn sprint football coach Bill Wagner, a 50-year fixture at Franklin Field, faces the final whistle
“You guys don’t need any pep talk. I can feel it in the room right now,’’ said the man known simply as Wags to five decades of players before his last home game on Saturday.
Let’s go, bring it up, Bill Wagner called out to his locker room. How many times had this man said those exact words?
“Take a knee and relax a little,’’ Wagner told his Penn sprint team, about to play their last Franklin Field game …
... his last Franklin Field game. After 50 years as head coach, this was, in fact, it.
“You guys don’t need any pep talk. I can feel it in the room right now,’’ the man known simply as Wags to five decades of players said late Saturday morning. “I don’t want you to explode right now. I want you to explode on the field.”
“It’s tough for me to keep it all in,’’ Wags then said to the room, which maybe wasn’t used to his voice cracking a bit.
“I’m not a crybaby,’’ Wags quickly said as he regathered.
“I want to thank all of you -- it’s not my last thank you,’’ the 80-year-old told the room. “I will get excited during this game, believe me. If I could take a snap, I would take a snap.”
Applause immediately filled the room.
Wags realized there was a video camera taping him, but he decided he had to be a football coach.
“Let’s go out and kick the ---- out of them,’’ Wags said.
Even this last time around, you saw attention to detail. When his special teamers had gathered before the pregame, the first thing Wags had said was to his kicker, to make sure he practiced in both directions, to test the wind.
Sprint football, which used to be called lightweight football, might sound like an anachronism, but not at Franklin Field. This man made it relevant, and kept it relevant, and raised the funds to make sure it will live past his retirement. A group of guys who have to weigh in every Wednesday before games to make sure they’re under 178 pounds, who call that other Penn football team “the fat boys.”
A sticker on their own locker room door was designed for the back of a car, but some inspired soul realized it fit outside this room.
A gem of a Wags story in the Penn Gazette noted how this team was all funded by donations, how the team wouldn’t stay over at, say, Cornell, busing up and back, how before Princeton dropped its team, Wagner would bring a pumpkin up there for games, mocking the Tigers colors, smashing the pumpkin pregame. There were great old tales, including the time Wagner benched seven players for violating curfew the night before a 1978 game.
In addition to these duties, Wags had been the pitching coach for Penn’s baseball team for 34 years. As his players warmed up Saturday, he made his way to a room overlooking the stadium, a pregame reception that this time included so many of his former players making it back for this one. Wags quickly worked the room. He could field two teams today, he told one of his old players, who questioned whether the 178 pounds would be an issue.
Time for a little speech: Wags blew the whistle around his neck two quick times.
“The bar is closed, so move up front,’’ Wags quipped to his old guys, then he explained to the room how this was “an emotional, bittersweet time for everybody,’’ how the seniors out there would be feeling it.
Wags closed with a little inside info.
“If we win the toss, we’re going to defer,’’ Wags told the room.
The Quakers won the toss. They deferred.
“Now, it’s time to hit somebody,’’ Wags told his guys just before the kickoff. “It’s better to hit somebody than wait for them to hit you.”
After the kickoff, the first defensive play could have been scripted. The quarterback from Alderson Broaddus, a West Virginia school, overthrew his receiver, right to Penn junior Joshua Trybus. Only a penalty prevented his return from being a touchdown.
Next play, Penn quarterback Eddie Jenkins ran 16 yards.
Other than the size differentials, everything about this felt like a football game, as assistant coaches yelled out for outside leverage -- outside! -- and Jenkins showed he could find his receivers as well as run the ball when needed.
The only time Wags seemed frustrated was when a couple of punts pinned the Quakers back inside the 5-yard line. He wanted the ball caught on fair catches.
But how much could you quibble with a game that finished 49-7?
They all took a knee again and Wags congratulated them for a clean, strong game. A player whispered they should start a chant, but apparently thought better of it.
“You do have another game,’’ Wags told his assembled players.
This was the last one at Franklin Field, but the season finishes next week in New Jersey, at Caldwell.
Let’s assume Wags will be into it next week. Go back to halftime. Wags saw a Penn jacket under a bench. His Penn jacket. He picked it up. To put it on? Nope, to pick it up. He gave it a couple of hard pats, carefully folded it, put it over the bench seat, turned around to coach the second half.
“Wags on 3!’’ one of his guys called out afterward.
“One … two … three … Wags!”