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Sunday Conversation: MSU-Northern volleyball coach Jerry Wagner brings career full circle

Started Havre High program in 1980s
Posted: 4:00 PM, Aug 25, 2019
Updated: 2019-08-26 13:37:32-04
Jerry Wagner

BUTTE -- Montana State University-Northern volleyball coach Jerry Wagner is arguably Montana's most-experienced coach in the sport. His career spans nearly four decades, beginning at Havre High, where he helped start the volleyball program in the 1980s.

His coaching career has included stops at both the University of Montana and Montana State, with stints at Gonzaga, Oregon State and UTEP, as well.

Wagner sat down with MTN Sports Friday at the Big Sky Volleyball Challenge in Butte, discussing his team's win over Evergreen State College, the stops and relationships during his 30-plus years as a volleyball coach, as well as the Wagner family's athletic tradition and more.

MTN Sports: What’s it like being back? How much fun is it to not only be back, but seeing action now this fall?

Jerry Wagner: “It’s not only fun to be back, winning never gets old. That was really special (Friday) to get a win and that was fun. The kids were unbelievable. I didn’t know when this (first win) would come, there’s a lot of year left to play, but it’s good to be back.”

MTN Sports: What was it like, the decision-making process, when the job came open? Take us through the entire process of you deciding, ‘Let’s go for it. Let’s come home.’

Wagner: “I’ve been really fortunate to be able to coach, not only at MSU-Northern, Northern Montana College, but I’ve had a 30-year run in Division I and when I came home I really thought I was going to be done, but it just happened that the job opened up and I went, ‘You know what? There’s some future in this for me. I want to see this place back to where it was numerous other times.’ That’s a challenge. You’re always looking for a challenge in coaching.”

MTN Sports: Take me back to that very first job at Havre High, young you getting into the ranks, what was it like then compared to what it’s like now? The game, coaching, everything that goes on behind the scenes?

Wagner: “Starting the program at Havre High was very hard. It was very hard. I didn’t know that much about the Xs and Os. I played as much as I could and was kind of an all-sport athlete, and I wanted to be a coach. I found there were a lot of good football coaches, basketball coaches, so I said, ‘I can be a coach and fulfill that dream.’ I was fortunate enough to start the team at Havre High and was doing some things up at Northern, some manager stuff, student-assistant, and I just fell in love with the game.”

MTN Sports: What’s been the biggest challenge to being a coach over all these years? Do you have to adapt to the game as it changes or is it still bare bones the same?

Wagner: “It’s evolved. The scoring has evolved, and I’ve been through all that. I think the kids are going, ‘What? You’re talking about regular scoring games and stuff like that?’ I have some old stories, but you still bring some of those things back in your training, as far as how to score games, how to put pressure on your team to get them better. It’s evolved a lot, the scoring for the fans is basically what it is. The old school in me likes the regular scoring where you could only score with serves and defense, that’s the only way you get a point.”

MTN Sports: What’s it like for a young guy, who helped start a program in high school, to pretty quickly start getting NCAA opportunities?

Wagner: “We’ve been blessed here in Montana. Dick Scott, who I had the opportunity to work with at the University of Montana, worked with one of the gurus of volleyball at UCLA in Al Scates. We have those kind of people in Montana. Bill Neville, the U.S. National Team coach, the Canadian National Team coach, gold medalist, he was coaching at MSU Bozeman. I grew up with those guys. They were coaching when I came up. Dave Gantt, grew up in the same system and now we’re both back in the same ranks. It’s been really special. But that upbringing has paved a lot of ways for me, and I was fortunate enough to take advantage.”

MTN Sports: There are a handful of people in coaching that have been on both sides of this Cat-Griz, I better also call it Griz-Cat, rivalry. You’ve been on both sides, did you take grief for that when it was first happening? What was it like to be at one and then the other?

Wagner: “As long as there’s one year in-between, you’re all right. I had the one year over at Gonzaga in-between Montana State and the University (of Montana). I started at the University, so that was kind of full circle, after Northern was the University of Montana. Bobby Hauck and (Kraig) Paulson, all those guys were grad assistants, so that’s how old I am. Those guys are great at what they do and it’s been special, but it was a good run. You can do it. I’m not bragging about me, but I’ve been involved in that series quite a bit and I think I’ve only been on the losing end three times in my history of that rivalry. I’m pretty proud of that.”

MTN Sports: So many different stops besides those, you mentioned Gonzaga, Oregon State, UTEP recently, what did you pick up at all these stops along the way with different coaches, different levels and different conferences? You’ve been able to absorb a lot of knowledge in a lot of different places.

Wagner: “Again, I don’t think I could have landed in a better spot than Havre, Montana with the coaches I had the opportunity to work with and for. It’s always been with. They’ve included me, and any time I could do something that lived up to their level, they let me do something else. They developed me to rise to this occasion. That’s Dick Scott, Dave Gantt, Jeff Mozzochi, Dave Gantt again. All these folks have been able to give me duties and let me do what needed to be done to develop.”

MTN Sports: You’ve mentioned Dave’s name a couple times, I was going to ask you specifically about him. It is fun because you’ve come full circle and you see these familiar faces, but now with the role he’s in (as Vice President for athletics at the University of Providence) have you had a chance to chat with him? I’m sure you will when there’s a Northern-Providence match scheduled on the floor.

Wagner: “He was there in the spring when I went there, but we go way back. He was at Belgrade High School when I was starting Havre High and we made a relationship then. When I went to the University of Montana, he came to Northern, so we tracked each other there. When he went to Oregon State, I went out to Oregon State, that’s how I got there. At MSU Bozeman, that’s how I got there. We really respect each other and we’ve done a lot of things together. He wishes me well, I wish him well. He’s got things going there at the University of Providence, it’s a very nice program, as all the Frontier Conference schools are.”

MTN Sports: Havre was excited at the announcement you were coming back to the program there, but when we think of Wagners in Havre, athletics is at the front of all that. What’s it like family-wise with all the athletes that have come through the family with some becoming coaches themselves, too?

Wagner: “That’s been fun. I’m the only Wagner that’s been outside the state, but I come back. You ask me about my hobby, my hobby is following those guys around whenever I can. (Former Havre High and Carroll College football players) Gary and Bill, (Carroll women’s basketball player) Dani, now, and Julie and Lisa, they’ve all been athletes, they’ve been special to their universities. I get pretty emotional about that. That’s huge.”

MTN Sports: Who’s your favorite? Who’s the best?

Wagner: “I don’t know, and don’t ask them either because they’re all going to say, ‘I am.’ They are the best. I get a lot of enjoyment because they conduct themselves well, they’re well-respected and at the top of their game.”

MTN Sports: To be fair, I have asked three of them and they all did say they were: Gary, Billy and now Dani. I’m putting my money on Dani over Gary and Billy at least, right?

Wagner: “She’s got all the right to that now because nobody remembers us has-beens.”

MTN Sports: What about your playing days back in the day, people probably aren’t familiar with some of those stories and some of the fun you had back then.

Wagner: “My playing days? I got cut from the basketball team, but I still knew how to wrestle. I had Fritz Campbell, who went on to Harvard and so on, show up to Havre High with his dad and brother Matt. Fritz just happened to be in my weight class, so I was on the varsity until Fritz showed up and took my spot. But I wrestled, played tennis. Back in the day, Gary and those guys, they were crafty, but I got third in state tennis doubles, me and my partner. Little tennis, little wrestling, I just gravitated to all sports, and I think that’s why I gravitated toward volleyball. Not only was it an opportunity to be a head coach, it was something I loved to do, but it encompasses a lot of athleticism and so forth, and I’ve carried that into my recruiting. I’ve recruited a lot of all-sport athletes from Montana.”

MTN Sports: One of the cool things I noticed, not just the athletes, but the academics. I know when you were at UM there were so many different academic all-conference selections and AVCA recognitions and stuff. How important is it to make sure they’re excelling in (the classroom) as well as (on the volleyball court)?

Wagner: “Really important. Now I get to look after it firsthand. I mentioned to you before that we had people, professionals in every area, so I only had to coach. That’s the biggest difference. Now I’m the academic guy, the coach, the counselor, eligibility person, putting all those hats back on has been a lot of work, I’m not going to lie, but we’re into the season now and I’m able to focus on coaching.”

MTN Sports: What were some of those checklist goals that you and the team had as you come into 2019?

Wagner: “The one goal I reiterated (Friday) morning, I just want to be a team. Period. Stop. That’s No. 1. There are a couple steps we’re working through on our way to being a special team. But I want to be a team on and off the court as often as possible. Do things the right way. No. 1, stop there. I don’t need a bunch of rules and this. If you’re doing things the right way then you’re going to be in, and if you’re not, at this point, we can go another direction because you’ve chosen not to do that. We’re going to be a team, we’re going to be positive and we’re going to be directed.”

MTN Sports: You’ve had an entire adult life based around this sport, what’s your favorite part of it?

Wagner: “Getting to the gym and seeing if what you’re doing is paying dividends. The bottom line is, I want the kids to graduate. I want them to look back and give back to the school, I’m just as proud of them getting that degree, but I want them to have a good career, academically and athletically. I painstakingly spend a lot of time trying to make sure those things are done at a high level so they have a good experience.”

MTN Sports: Finally, back in those 80s starting Havre High, I see you being a guy getting air in practice and stuff. Can you still get up there and slam it down in practice?

Wagner: “I should have had my other meniscus done in the other knee, but I still hit some balls at them and have a good time getting around. Coach Paty (Figueiredo), who just joined me, back to the UTEP ties, I didn’t know the coach at UTEP. I joined there, Paty and I were able to be assistant coaches together there, and when she called up about a month ago now and said, ‘You were right. I don’t like to sit behind a desk, even if it’s in Florida. Is there any jobs up there?’ She has a job on campus and I now have a top-flight assistant coach so it’s all coming together, little by little. We’re doing some small things and we’re doing them well.”