Before They Were WCU Coaches: Dennis Wagner

(Editor’s Note: The following is the second of a series of articles where Western Carolinian writers profile the lives and careers of coaches before they arrived at WCU.)

Dennis Wagner is entering his fourth season at the helm of the Catamount Football program. A native of Waverly, IA, Wagner has been a football coach for 25 years at St. Cloud State, Wayne State, Fresno State, Nebraska, and here at Western Carolina University.

He played football at Drake University, followed by Ellsworth Community College, and finished his career at the University of Utah. He got his bachelor’s degree in Psychology, and went to work after college for an oil company. His job was to convince gas station owners that it was ok to make the transition from a service station to a convenience store style establishment. While he was employed with the oil company, he worked part time at a local Division III football team and found that he enjoyed coaching. At this point, Coach Wagner’s journey across the map of NCAA football began.

Wagner looks like he could still strap some pads on and hit somebody. He is a built like the offensive lineman he was during his career playing college football. He was the captain and starting Guard for a Utah Utes team that beat All-American quarterback Jim McMahon and his nationally ranked Brigham Young Cougars in Salt Lake City to tie for the Mountain West Conference title. His experience as a star offensive lineman has led to his expertise in coaching fellow offensive lineman, a coaching position he has held at every school he has been at.

Coach Wagner’s first full time job was at Ellsworth Community College in Iowa Falls, Iowa. His career took off from that point, leading to a coaching position at St. Cloud State, the head coaching position at Wayne State for seven years, the assistant head coaching position at Fresno State for eight years and at Nebraska for five years.  He has coached a bevy of incredible talents over his coaching career, and recruited Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Bernard Berrian while at Fresno State and Detroit Lions Pro Bowler and Rookie of the Year defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh while at Nebraska. He said that the best players he had ever actively coached, meaning offensive lineman, were Logan Mankins at Fresno State and Carl Nicks at Nebraska. Logan Mankins is a two time All-Pro and three time Pro Bowl offensive guard for the New England Patriots, while Carl Nicks is a Super Bowl champion and Pro Bowl offensive guard for the New Orleans Saints.

Coach Wagner has also had some vivid memories over the course of his coaching career. He has fond memories of Nebraska’s 2007 game in the Cotton Bowl against perennial SEC powerhouse Auburn. He mentioned how his Fresno State Bulldogs played in a bowl game every season but one during his tenure with the program. He was also proud of his 1993 Wayne State Warriors led the country in a multitude of offensive categories.  

Coach Wagner is optimistic about the progress he has made at Western Carolina, and feels like we have a good foundation laid down that will lead to success soon.

He said that he is “really fortunate to have good coaches and players here”, and that he is trying to establish a “winning tradition here at Western.”

Given Coach Dennis Wagner’s pedigree of success at nationally prominent programs all across the country, wins soon should be piling up at the Western Carolina football program.