Part II: Wagner Delivers for Navy Fans

This past Saturday in Hawaii, something happened for only the second time in the history of Navy football. While covering the Midshipmen beat, Annapolis Capital reporter Bill Wagner missed a game. Indeed it's a rare occasion when he can not be found in the press box at a Navy football game; however, it's even rarer to find someone who knows more about Navy sports than Wagner.

In 2001, the Annapolis Capital was looking bolster its Navy sports coverage with what the current sports editor, Gerry Jackson, called a "real quality reporter." At the time, longtime Capital journalist Joe Gross had been covering the Navy beat for nearly 30 years and allowing him to do more commentary and professional sports coverage opened the door for Wagner.


According to Jackson, Wagner's new assignment is one of the most important at the company.


"We are the paper record for Annapolis. And what's bigger in Annapolis than the Naval Academy? A good part of our readership has ties to the Naval Academy."


Of course the opportunity to cover Navy sports, and the football team in particular came at what Wagner thought was the worst possible time.


"The (Navy) football team was horrible. I had just come from covering Maryland, and I thought, here we go again," said Wagner.


However his timing could not have been more perfect. From a college football beat writer's perspective there aren't too many stories to cover more important than the hiring of a new athletic director, the firing of the head coach, and the hiring of a new head coach.


Wagner got to write about all three in his first three months on the job.


"It was an interesting indoctrination for me. Three of the biggest stories that could happen for a college football program happened in my first few months."


The first of the three came when the Naval Academy hired Chet Gladchuk on Sept. 4, 2001.


"I broke that story after tracking (Gladchuk) down at a Houston football game. It was real obvious to me that one of his first priorities was to take a hard look at the football program. I didn't think he would fire (Navy head coach Charlie) Weatherbie during the season. I didn't think that would happen at Navy, but sure enough it did."


Weatherbie was fired on Oct. 28, 2001, a day after Navy dropped its 17th game in its last 18 contests. And while Gladchuk's hiring was much more of a positive story to focus on, this one would be a bit tougher for Wagner. He had only been on the job a few weeks. He had only just begun to work on the extremely important relationship with the head football coach, and now he had to call him to talk about being fired.


"I called (Weatherbie) all night and didn't get an answer which didn't surprise me. However, my editor said that I really needed to get a comment from him…even though I called him ten times with no success," said Wagner. "So I called him the next morning at 7:30, and he answered his cell phone. I said, ‘Charlie, it's Bill Wagner.' All I heard after that was a click. That was it. It was an interesting beginning to my new assignment."


Weatherbie's departure meant a search for a new coach was on at Navy. And as the newest beat writer covering sports at the Academy, Wagner knew he had to be on top of the story…and he was.


"At one point it looked like (Gladchuk) was going to hire Tim Murphy from Harvard, but it turned out to be a smoke screen away from the real target," said Wagner. "I thought (Paul) Johnson made a lot of sense all along, but (I thought) maybe he didn't want to come to Navy. Maybe he thought he could do better."


Wagner was the first to break the story of Johnson's hiring after the Georgia Southern Sports Information Director told him that Gladchuk was attending a Georgia Southern football game.


So with three of the biggest stories already in the rearview mirror, Wagner just dug in and started to work on building relationships throughout the Academy. In addition to football, the Capital wanted him to cover men's basketball and lacrosse – the three major sports at Navy. It has been a heavy workload for Wagner, but according to Jackson he has been equal to the task.


"The guy is one of the hardest workers you will ever meet. If it is required, he will work 72 straight days without a break," said Jackson.


Wagner's dedication and work ethic has not gone unnoticed by the Naval Academy's athletic director, who has had to deal with his share of reporters during his 30 plus years in college athletics.


"So many writers want you to tell them what they want to hear. And (in the process) they are trying to make a name for themselves (in order to become) something bigger than maybe they should be, but nevertheless, they are ego-maniacs," said Gladchuk, who then paused and stated firmly, "And Bill is not that way. There is a big difference between people you can trust and people you can't – and Bill Wagner is a person you can trust."


"He needs to be aggressive and to probe, but he does it in an incredibly respectful way. Those are the type of (journalists) you want to work with. Bill is not somebody you want to avoid," continued Gladchuk.


And for Navy SID Scott Strasemeier, there is no avoiding Wagner because he is always around.


"Sometimes we have talked twenty times a day," admits Strasemeier. "Bill and I have the type of relationship where if I think he is wrong, I can call him up and say, ‘Wags you are wrong' and vice versa. We can go back and forth about something, but we still respect each other and the jobs we have to do."


Since Wagner has been on the Navy beat, the sports teams he has covered have been very successful, especially lacrosse and football. However there have been times when he has had to cover some not-so-enjoyable topics like the dismissal of lacrosse standout Ian Dingman and football nose guard Nate Frazier.


And one of the more memorable exchanges in Wagner's tenure came on Sept. 18, 2007 when he asked then Navy head coach Paul Johnson whether or not credit for wins and blame for loses are equally shared amongst players and coaches. If you are a Navy fan, you can recite the back and forth, available here, by heart. And if you were a Navy fan at the time, chances are you knew that this was just ‘Wags' and ‘PJ' doing their normal shtick.


However, when ESPN picked up the story, according to Strasemeier it "got completely blown out of context."


"Pretty much everyday there was give and take (between Johnson and Wagner). Johnson enjoyed giving Wags a hard time, and vice versa," said Strasemeier.


"If you understood the relationship between Paul and me, it would have been perceived completely different," said Wagner. "(Johnson) pulled no punches and answered every question honestly. I never had a problem writing a story."


One of Wagner's favorite stories to tell is about former Navy defensive lineman Babatunde Akingbemi, whom he takes "personal responsibility for transforming him into an outstanding player."


"Somebody told me that he ‘looked like Tarzan and played like Jane,' so I used it in an article to hint that the characterization applied to the junior nose guard," said Wagner. "And (after reading it) Akingbemi went totally ballistic. I heard that he tore up the locker room and ended up having to do sprints for it. So not only was he pissed off at me for writing that, but now he had to run on top of it for how he reacted."


"After that article, though, he played like a completely different man. He finished strong that year and during his senior year – he was great," recalled Wagner.


Although Akingbemi, who graduated in 2005, may disagree, most Navy players think of Wagner like a teammate. In fact, a few years ago Paul Johnson even dared him to try out for the 12th Mid contest which allowed a member of the Brigade of Midshipmen to cover a kick-off for the team.


Such an idea got a warm reception from current Navy linebacker and co-captain Ross Pospisil.


"That would be awesome. I think everyone would want to take a shot at him because anytime you get a new guy (on the team), it is fun to joke around with them," said Pospisil. "I'm sure Wags has got some wiggle in him. I'm not even sure I'd be able to tackle him. I'd probably fall on my face or something."


Another person who wouldn't mind seeing Wagner on the football field is colleague Camille Powell of the Washington Post.


"I would like to see him play quarterback because a lot of times in the press box you can hear him say, ‘Oh, that wasn't the right read.' And I think it would be interesting if he had to (make a split-second decision) with Jabaree (Tuani) bearing down on him," joked Powell.


On a serious note though, Pospisil, who does not read articles during the season about Navy football, knows that his parents back in Texas really enjoy Wagner's work.


"We see him out here everyday at practice. He is definitely like part of the team. If it wasn't for reporters like Bill, a lot of people wouldn't have a chance to hear about Navy football. My parents even email Bill to tell him how thankful they are for what he does," said Pospisil.


"I admire the depth of knowledge that he has," added Powell. "I think people look to him for the details. He will come out to practice and notice that third or fourth string slot back is looking good."


Not only does Wagner write for the print-edition of the Capital, he posts invaluable information about Navy sports on his blog, and when time allows he also talks Midshipmen sports in an on-line video segment called the Navy Sports Chat.


For Wagner, the additional duties have definitely added to his workload; however the demand for information and a global fan base make them necessary.


"With the blog, you can break news immediately, and about 85 percent of our Navy readers, read online. Most of them don't live in the area. So if that is where the fans are, that is where we should be putting our efforts."


Sports editor Gerry Jackson, who calls Wagner "the preeminent authority of Navy sports", said that even with cutbacks in these challenging times for the newspaper industry, the Capital has "not limited the coverage" of Navy athletics, calling it the paper's "bread and butter."


Navy AD Chet Gladchuk agrees with Jackson…and then some. Although Gladchuk understands the challenges that face the newspaper industry, he thinks the key to their success is keeping things close to home.


"The Annapolis Capital needs to remain a local publication that understands the heartbeat of the local community. The moment it turns itself into a regurgitation of what is on the wire, it loses its character. The day they lose the character that a Bill Wagner brings, is the day the paper will go out of business," said Gladchuk.



End of Part II




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