Monday, August 17, 1998

R A I N B O W _ F O O T B A L L

Wagner Turns
a Negative
into Positive

The former UH head coach finds
football paradise in Arizona, but isn't
looking forward to his trip to Hawaii

By Greg Hansen
Arizona Daily Star


CAMP COCHISE, Ariz -- The man from Hawaii took the Western Athletic Conference championship ring off his hand before morning practice. He put on a University of Arizona cap and an Arizona shirt and a pair of sunglasses and was as incognito as any linebacker coach.

Quote He spent his first full workout as a Wildcat coach on the bottomland that is the Sulfur Springs Valley, about as far from Hawaii as you can get. And do you know what he said?

"This is paradise. I mean it, this is a football paradise."

Bob Wagner has been to hell and back in the last 18 months, so it figures that his definition of paradise is no longer blue water and palm trees.

"This whole setup is just great," he said, motioning to the gymnasium and dormitories of Cochise College. "You couldn't ask for any better."

In less than three weeks, Bob Wagner will accompany his nine fellow coaches and 60 UA players on a three-day trip to Honolulu. It will be the season opener, telecast nationally by ESPN, a game that the coaches and players await like kids before Christmas. All eyes will be on him.

Wagner would rather it be 18 years away.

"I'm not excited about going back there, but this is my job," he said. "I'm not a big revenge guy."

Wagner lived in Hawaii for 19 years, from his hand-to-mouth days as a struggling young coach, to the joy of 1992 when he led the Rainbows to their only WAC football championship. This is a strange scenario for revenge.

But the Rainbow hierarchy panicked after a 4-8 record in 1995 and jettisoned Wagner, blaming him for an attendance shortfall and ushering him to the door with about $200,000 -- "that money allowed them to have a clear conscience," he says now -- to cover for the two years remaining on his contract.

At 50, a young man on the coaching tree, he found himself shaken by the sudden change that came virtually without warning. I mean, who fires the most successful football coach in school history three years removed from its greatest season?

"I was fired before I had a chance to discuss the situation with our (new) president," Wagner said. "It was a blow. As much as you tell yourself -- and others tell you -- what a good job you had done, what you had accomplished, it shakes you."

Wagner had, with justification, come to view himself as the living identity of Rainbow football, not unlike other WAC football institutions LaVell Edwards of BYU and Air Force's Fisher DeBerry. Nineteen years.

What hadn't he endured at Hawaii? He coached at Hawaii in the days when the Rainbows didn't have a weight room, but rented out space in a local fitness shop. He was the man, not Dick Tomey, who chopped down the beanstalk and finally slew hated BYU.

"It wasn't just a job," Wagner said. "I met my wife there. I succeeded Dick (Tomey). We were successful. Our life was there."

In the first year of his forced exile from the game, Wagner moved to San Diego -- "I had to get out of Hawaii," he said -- and did what has become known as the Larry Smith Tour. In his first fall away from football in almost 30 years, Wagner, much like Smith when he was fired at Southern Cal in 1992, took a deep breath and enjoyed the scent.

He watched the leaves change colors. He traveled. To keep his mind fresh, he visited a score of college campuses and a half-dozen NFL camps, establishing contacts and renewing others. It was his way of keeping his head in the game, without risk.

"I talked to Larry about his sabbatical and was encouraged by how he found a way to enjoy his (two years) out of football," Wagner said. "I was a little strung out."

When the Rainbows opened their 1996 season, Wagner was tempted to watch from afar, via satellite, but couldn't. His wife, Gloria, got a job as a dental hygienist in San Diego, and they home-schooled their daughter, Christy. His biggest challenge, his game-day buzz, came from playing the stock market.

While he healed, he knew he wanted to coach again. It wasn't his idea to take a leave.

He almost accepted a job coaching in Japan. Texas A&M coach R.C Slocum had serious discussions about Wagner being the Aggies' defensive coordinator, but then changed course. He was a finalist for a similar position at Fresno State and turned down two offers in the WAC -- "I needed to get out of that league. After 19 years, it wouldn't have been healthy to get back in it," he said -- and probably could've been the new head coach at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo had he gone guns-out for it.

By the '97 season he was, he confesses, irritable.

He was on Arizona's sideline during a loss to UCLA at the Rose Bowl. He joined some cronies from Oregon State on the sidelines in another game. It drove him batty.

"I couldn't stand it," he said. "I wanted to be calling plays or making an adjustment. I decided that if I couldn't be involved, I wouldn't watch."

One morning last winter Wagner agreed to be the defensive coordinator on the new staff at TCU. It was a Monday morning and he had just received flight information to Dallas from the Horned Frogs office. Five minutes later, Dick Tomey phoned.

Would he like to write Chapter 2 with his old boss at Hawaii?

"When my wife went to work that morning," Wagner said, "she told the people at the office we were going to Texas. When she came home I told her we were going to Tucson."

And so here he is, coaching Marcus Bell and Antonio Pierce and Scooter Sprotte at inside linebacker. Taking direction from defensive coordinator Rich Ellerson, a man who used to serve under him at Hawaii. Making plans with secondary coach Duane Akina, the UA's assistant head coach, a man who used to call Wagner his boss at Hawaii.

It's a nice reunion, a good story, and for Arizona, a good situation. For Wagner, it probably won't be that way until the Sept. 3 game in Honolulu is history.

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