If It's Navy Sports, Wags Has Got it Covered

In this day when newspapers are going out of business and uneducated humans who can type (also known as bloggers) dominate the internet, it is refreshing for Navy fans to know that the number one source for Navy sports news is a professional journalist who knows not only how to write well, but more importantly knows how to deliver a story. When it comes to Navy sports, Bill Wagner has it covered.

Navy fans are spoiled in so many ways, it is hard to keep track. From having winning teams in almost every sport in the past decade to an athletic department that always puts the interests of the fans first, times are good for those who follow the Midshipmen. However what would winning sports teams be in the age of information without the compelling stories that go along with them?


It's great that Navy junior quarterback Ricky Dobbs is about to set a new NCAA record for touchdowns by a quarterback, but what makes the story interesting is getting to know Dobbs. The responsibility to tell Dobbs' story and the stories of dozens of other Midshipmen athletes each season is in good hands. And while there are currently three beat writers covering Navy sports, and football in particular, the undisputed number one source for news about Navy athletics is the Annapolis Capital's Bill Wagner.


Prior to taking over the Navy beat for The Capital, Wagner or ‘Wags' as he is called by many, began his journalism career while a senior at St. Mary's High School in Annapolis. Current sports editor at The Capital, Gerry Jackson recalls some of Wagner's first days in the office when he was responsible for answering phones and taking down the information about the area's high school football games. It was busy work and a normal assignment for someone so young. However, Jackson recalls that Wagner wasn't shy around the office.


"The main thing I remember from those days is how talkative Bill was, and he still is today. But at one point, Al Hopkins, the former sports editor, had to say to Bill, ‘Look son, will you just shut up,' joked Jackson. "Bill has always been an enthusiastic and eager guy. And I don't think that enthusiasm has waned any over the last 20 years. He is still eager to learn and be a part of journalism as he was back in those days."


However, back in those days, jobs in sports journalism were hard to come by right out of the gate. In order to work on his craft, Wagner attended Towson University where he did everything he could to cover sports. In his junior year, Jackson recommended that he check out the sports information department at the school which was and still is run by Pete Schlehr.


"Bill had an enormous amount of energy, and you could tell right away that he was going to make it as a sports journalist," said Schlehr.


While Wagner was a student at Towson, Schlehr got a call from a colleague who worked with the Baltimore Orioles. The major league team was looking for an intern to help them out in their public relations department, and Schlehr recommended Wagner for the opportunity. It would be the first of many stops for ‘Wags' in which he seemed to bring the wrong kind of karma to a team. In this initial case, the year was 1988 and with Wagner onboard to provide random facts and stats for the scoreboard operator during Orioles games, the team promptly went out and started the season 0-21.


"It was a fun job, but starting off losing their first 21 games was a bit depressing," said Wagner.


After graduating from Towson that same year, Wagner went back to the contacts he made at The Capital in the hope of landing a job.


"Although I was looking to find something in the sports department, I honestly just wanted to get my foot in the door. I was just happy to be employed," said Wagner.


Even though there were no openings in sports, Jackson convinced the editor of a small weekly paper owned by The Capital (then known as the Capital Gazette Newspaper) to hire Wagner. The job at the Brooklyn News (named for the Brooklyn Park section of Baltimore) required someone to be a one-man staff, responsible for not only reporting, but editing, layout, and photography as well.


"It was a great place for a self-starter," said Jackson. "However, the editor was skeptical about having a sports guy do the job, but I let him know that Bill went to journalism school…and there was (at the time) no such thing as sports journalism school."


"While there, most of the stories that he worked on were news stories and it was a great way for him to cut his teeth in the business," said Jackson.


Wagner agrees it was a great way to start his career.


"I had to cover the whole gamut of issues from crime to the environment. It was a lot of pressure though because it was just me. If I missed something, it wasn't like I could look around and blame anybody else. It was a tough job, but I learned a lot," said Wagner.


His experience with the Brooklyn News came in handy when Wagner started writing for the Maryland Gazette as he was about to take on what he still considers the biggest story he has ever covered in his career.


The day was March 29, 1990 when Wagner's editor told him that a state trooper had been killed in Jessup, Maryland and that he wanted him to cover the story. The officer was Corporal Ted Wolf and as Wagner recalls it was the most gut wrenching experience of his life.


"Corporal Wolf was a young guy who was married and had three kids. Interviewing his wife, covering the funeral, and then the trial – it was as tough as it gets in this business. But it was a big story and a great opportunity for me to take the next step from a professional standpoint. But it took a toll on me. It was such a sad and unfortunate story."

It turns out that 1990 would be the last year for Wagner to cover so-called ‘hard' news. However he believes the time he put in was well worth it.


"There is no doubt in my mind that I am a better reporter today because I started my career outside of sports. Ironically, today, there are so many elements to sports that are exposed to crime and trials and so forth…it just gives you a greater understanding if those aspects come together in a story."


"In sports you really have to be a journalist first, and then be knowledgeable about sports," concurred, Jackson.


For the next five years, Wagner covered mainly high school sports for The Capital before getting his first assignment reporting on college athletics. In 1995, Wagner started covering Maryland football and once again karma was not with him or with the team he was writing about. For the six years that Wagner was on the Maryland football beat, the team only had one winning season.


"I was there with (Coach) Duffner and (Coach) Vanderlinden. Not exactly the best days of Maryland football. Of course pretty much the day I left, they hired Ralph (Friedgen) and they were successful almost overnight," remembers Wagner.


Wagner wasn't going far though, either geographically or with regards to the subject matter. The Capital was looking to increase its coverage of Navy football and the decision was made to bring Wagner over to replace Joe Gross on the beat.


End of Part One




In Part Two, which will be for subscribers only, I had a chance to speak with Athletic Director Chet Gladchuk, linebacker Ross Pospisil, SID Scott Strasemeier, and the Washington Post's Camille Powell about Bill Wagner and his impact on Navy sports.

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