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Oregon State legend Berny Wagner did so much for his sport -- and for his athletes

Former Beavers praise the longtime track and field coach, who died Monday at age 88


by: COURTESY OF OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY - Berny Wagner (left), Oregon State track and field coach, and the Beavers' Dick Fosbury note the latter's personal best in the high jump.He was a lot of things during his 88 years -- husband, father, coach, administrator, mentor, colleague, friend.

The biggest thing you need to know about Berny Wagner, however, is that he made a difference in a lot of people's lives.

The former Oregon State track and field coach, who died in Corvallis Monday night from respiratory failure, loved his sport almost as much as he did helping those around him succeed.

"Start with the three C's -- caring, concerned and compassionate," says Marcel Hetu, who ran for Wagner at College of San Mateo in 1964 and '65. " 'Berny' was coach, mentor, father figure -- all those things for so many of us trying to find ourselves academically, athletically and personally."

"Berny changed my life," says John Radetich, among the fleet of 7-foot high jumpers Wagner had at Oregon State. "I met my wife at Corvallis. I competed for the greatest high jump school of all- time. I got my degree. He was responsible for all of that. I'm forever indebted."

"To say Berny had an everlasting effect on thousands upon thousands would be an understatement," says Kelly Sullivan, head coach of OSU's current women's program. "He truly was an exceptional individual, one who comes around once in a lifetime."

Wagner arrived at Oregon State from San Mateo in 1966 on the heels of Sam Bell, who departed to take the head coaching job at Indiana. Bell had turned a moribund OSU program into a success, winning the NCAA cross country championship in 1961 and forming a nationally competitive track and field program in Corvallis.

Berny took a good thing and made it better during his 10-year run from 1966-75, coaching 10 NCAA champions and 25 All-Americans. Four of his OSU teams finished in the top 10 at the NCAA championships, including a tie for third in 1969.

Oregon was a national track and field power, as it is today, and won 17 straight dual meets with Oregon State from 1949-63. But Bell and Wagner took on the Ducks with relish. From 1964-69, at the end of Bell's run and the start of Wagner's, the Beavers won seven of 11 duals with their intrastate rival.

Wagner worked near-miracles with a small budget, recruiting unsung high school athletes and developing them into champions.

"We recruited a lot of second-level kids who looked like they had potential, because we often couldn't get the top ones," says Chuck McNeil, Wagner's assistant during his entire time at OSU and later the Beavers' head coach from 1983-88.

Wagner's champions covered nearly every event, from the sprints (Willie Turner, Ernie Smith, Steve Pancoast) to the hurdles (Jeff Oveson, Don Parish) to the distances (Jim Barkley, Hailu Ebba, Pat Collins, Terry Thompson) to the throws (Steve DeAutremont, Tim Vollmer, Jim Judd) to the jumps (Robert Reader, Ed Lipscomb, Dennis Phillips).

The coach's calling card, though, came in an event that wasn't his specialty -- the high jump.

Wagner coached seven athletes who cleared the 7-foot barrier at Oregon State, including the great Dick Fosbury, whose innovative "flop" style carried him to the 1968 Olympic gold medal and made him one of the most important figures in track and field history.

During the Wagner era, Oregon State had seven 7-foot jumpers -- Fosbury, Radetich, Mike Fleer, Tom Woods, Steve Kelly, Mark Wilson and Scott Wilbrecht -- as Corvallis became known as the "High Jump Capital of the U.S."

Wagner enjoyed a special relationship with Fosbury, who came to OSU after using the scissors method at Medford High.

"Berny was a smart, savvy Hall of Fame coach and family man who loved the sport and gave everything he could to build a great tradition with high jumpers at Oregon State." Fosbury said via email from Brussels, Belgium. " He was a fierce competitor and never retired from coaching young people to do their best. We shall miss him dearly."

Beyond the male fleet, there was Joni Huntley, the female sensation who had become the nation's first 6-foot jumper as a senior at little Sheridan High. Huntley came to Oregon State because Wagner put together a $500 scholarship out of the men's budget and allowed her to train with his male jumpers.

As a senior, Huntley would travel to Corvallis on Sundays and work with Glen Stone, another top OSU jumper with a best of 6-11. McNeil was the jumpers' technique coach; Wagner organized their workouts.

"Berny brought out the best in all the jumpers," said Huntley, who became a four-time national champion and two-time Olympian and earned a bronze medal at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles with a PR of 6-5 1/2. "He had high expectations that we needed to work hard and improve. He made it possible for us to do that, but his expectations were high. It was not fun and games. It was work."

Radetich used the straddle technique through college, jumping as high as 7-1. He continued working with Wagner after college, converted to the flop, set a world indoor record of 7-4 3/4 in the International Track Association circuit and improved to a PR 7-6 on the same day Dwight Stones set a world standard of 7-6 1/4.

Wagner was a student of the sport and what made his athletes tick.

"He knew every event and every scientific approach to that event," says Hetu, who was California community college mile champion in 1965. "From a psychological standpoint, he understood how to prepare his athlete for a race, even after the race. He worked the psychological, technical and physical sides of preparing you. He was a holistic coach. He understood all the facets.

"Academics were just as important as athletics to Berny. One year I did not run a meet after I missed a class. How many coaches at any level would do that? You were going to be a student first and an athlete second. I had tremendous respect for that."

Wagner was a facilitator, a man always equipped with a plan.

"He was quite an administrator," McNeil says. "He did a terrific job overseeing our program. And he was a really good recruiter as well. We never had a full complement of scholarships."

"Berny was the most organized guy I've ever been around," says Brian Glanville, a distance runner at OSU from 1969-73. "We'd go on a road trip and we'd land and he'd say, 'There will be five cars waiting for you,' and he'd tell you the make, model and color of each."

"He was meticulous about everything he did, all the time," says Doug Crooks, who ran for Wagner from 1969-71. "He was always about hard work. You may have thought you had the summer off after the track season ended before cross country began, but you'd better show up in shape. You'd pay for it the first week of training if you didn't."

Crooks was the nation's No. 2 miler as a senior at North Eugene High in 1969 with a best of 4:07. He was also the Midwestern League's No. 2 miler behind a guy named Steve Prefontaine. Crooks fielded scholarship offers from 57 schools throughout the country, including every member of the Pac-8.

Escaping Prefontaine's shadow "may have been part of it," says Crooks, whose college career was shortened by continuing bouts with mononucleosis. "But, really, I chose Oregon State because I would have thought they'd be national champions.

"One of Berny's selling points was that they were one distance runner away from stepping up for a chance to win an NCAA championship. He said, 'You have a chance to come here and be that person.' That person turned out to be Hailu Ebba. But Berny knew what he was doing. He knew how to put together a team that could win dual and regional meets and be a national contender."

Wagner could be difficult. He was irascible at times.

"He could be real easy to get along, and extremely hard to get along with," McNeil says. "I remember one time Terry Thompson just about went over the desk at him. But we got along fine all those years."

"Berny could be unreasonable," Crooks says. "He decided one day we would run 220 intervals for an hour in the rain on the cinder track. He decided we were going to do it, and by God, we did it. We were all griping and grumbling and ready to quit. He was there looking at his watch, standing out there in the rain, making sure we got it done."

There was a genius to Wagner. A prime example came in 1969 in the wake of racial protests and a black walkout at Oregon State. That spring, hurdler Parish decided he wanted to wear knee-high black socks as a statement at a dual meet. Some coaches -- Dee Andros comes to mind -- wouldn't have allowed it. Wagner got an idea. All of his athletes, black and white, would wear the black socks. They did, and the moment passed without incident.

"Berny was a master at figuring out a way to keep everybody together," Glanville says.

Most of Wagner's work at OSU was done on old Bell Field's cinder track. But he designed the state-of-the-art Patrick Wayne Valley Field that served as the Beavers' home track from 1974-88.

Wagner's passing "brings back all those wonderful memories of Oregon State and that brand-new, beautiful track and how we all trained together," Huntley says. "Berny allowed me to travel with the men's team to a lot of the extra meets that were not college (duals). He was always there for me, so supporting in every way. I felt bad when he left."

Wagner left Oregon State in 1976 for a job developing a national program in Saudi Arabia. For more than a decade beginning in 1978, he worked as a chief executive with the U.S. national associations and kept highly active in his sport into the '90s. He served as a volunteer jumps coach at Western Oregon for several years after his retirement.

"As the years progressed, we moved from an athlete-coach relationship to a more personal relationship," Radetich says. "He was a nice gentleman, always interested in what was going on in my life or the lives of his other athletes."

Radetich's son, Scott, became a 7-2 high jumper at Linfield.

"Berny was helping out at Western Oregon at the time, and he followed my son's career closely," Radetich says. "He was just as proud of him as I was."

When Oregon State dropped track and field for budgetary reasons in 1988, Wagner was quick to organize a fund-raising campaign to bring back the sport. The campaign raised about $300,000, which eventually was funneled into a fund that helped build the school's new track last year.

Wagner, who was felled by a stroke four years ago and bound to a wheelchair since, was on hand for the ground-breaking ceremonies.

"Berny and Coach Kelly were the two happiest guys on the track," Radetich says.

"He was so emotional, he was almost in tears," says Crooks, a member of the track restoration committee along with Glanville. "He had said, 'Get this thing done before I die, will ya?' It was great to see.

"Every alum I've talked to is happy we pulled it off before Berny passed. He was disappointed we haven't yet pulled off bringing the men's program back. Still have some work to do."

Many of Wagner's former athletes had reached out to him in the waning months of his life. Hetu gathered a pair of former San Mateo teammates and drove to Corvallis for a visit.

"My mother died when I was 18," Hetu says. "During my time at San Mateo, Berny helped me get through my mother's death and a lot of depression. He was my father first and my coach second. I loved the man."

"The emails and letters and tributes have been pouring in from so many people about how he changed their lives," says Wagner's daughter, Erica Woodcock. "Many said he was a major difference in their life. It's been wonderful for the family to hear."

I knew Wagner during my years at Oregon State in the early '70s, covering his teams for a couple of seasons for the school newspaper, the Barometer. We got along fine, in part because he knew I had a special love for his sport. Anybody who liked track and field was OK with Berny.

Some day, when Oregon State re-institutes its men's program, there'll be a happy man in heaven because of it.

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