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Past comes alive

• New UA assistant coach Bob Wagner thought he had bid aloah to Hawaii.


Bring on Stanford, San Diego State, even Washington. Bob Wagner would just as soon play any road opponent besides the University of Hawaii in the Arizona Wildcats’ season opener.

Too much emotional baggage.

Tomorrow afternoon, Wagner will hop onto an airplane, a jet that will bank west and race the setting sun to Honolulu. Wagner, who coached for 19 years at UH, will have visions of the past.

”The fans were great, and that’s really my home,” said Wagner, who joined Dick Tomey’s staff at Arizona as linebackers coach this year after being fired by Hawaii two years ago.

”I met my wife there, our daughter was born there. It’s not the kind of circumstances I really want to go back under.

”I wouldn’t mind going back on vacation and seeing old friends, but to go play a game is tough,” he said.

Wagner and his staff were jettisoned after a 4-8 season in 1995, three years after they led the Rainbow Warriors to their greatest season.

Wagner won a Western Athletic Conference championship in 1992 and became the first Hawaii coach to beat WAC powerhouse Brigham Young during his nine-year stint as head coach.

A new president and athletic director came on board during Wagner’s glory days. When attendance fell, they looked for a scapegoat. Never mind that UH school officials had made admission standards tougher until they were second behind Air Force in the WAC.

Along with consecutive seasons of 6-6, 3-8-1 and 4-8 came walking papers.

So Wagner and his family moved to San Diego and toured the country, visiting national parks, checking in on coaching friends and watching practices at a dozen colleges and a handful of NFL camps.

As he stood on the sidelines and watched Arizona trounce UCLA in the fall of 1996, it was clear to Wagner that the coaching bug was still alive in him.

He stoked his competitive fires playing the stock market, until the phone started ringing.

”I had been a business major and wondered ‘What if?’ and tried something else,” Wagner said. ”But I found that I really missed coaching.”

He was a finalist for head coaching jobs at Fresno State and Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo before barely losing out on the defensive coordinator’s position at Texas A&M.

He was considering other coaching positions when Tomey called last spring, offering his former assistant a role as linebackers coach.

”This was what I wanted to do: stay in the West, be in the Pac-10 and be with guys I’d worked with,” Wagner said.

It’s like family again; Honolulu East you might call it.

There’s Tomey, under whom Wagner coached for 10 years before Tomey took the UA job.

There’s defensive coordinator Rich Ellerson and secondary coach Duane Akina, who were also assistants under Tomey at Hawaii.

And there’s offensive coordinator Dino Babers, who played under Tomey and Wagner at UH. All five were together from 1981-83.

”It’s important that those guys have worked together,” Tomey said. ”’Wags’ understands our defense, and he’ll fit in and do a nice job of it. To have somebody that’s been around the evolution of the defense is important.”

Wagner has received plenty of mail this summer, letters from old friends back on the island who are eagerly awaiting Thursday night’s game.

”I’ve got letters from people that say, ‘I’ve never rooted against the Rainbows before, but I’ll be rooting for Arizona,’ ” Wagner said. ”But the revenge deal is not a big deal to me. It’s a big game, obviously, for both teams. The opening game kinda sets the tone for the season.

”But it’s a heck of a way to break back into the profession.”

Bob Wagner bio

• Age: 50

• Education: Bachelors degree, Wittenberg (Ohio) University; master’s degree, Ohio University.

• Coaches: Inside linebackers and special teams.

• Years as a coach: 29.

• Years at Arizona: 1.

• Experience: Head coach, River View (Ohio) HS, one year; def. coordinator, Muskingum (Ohio) College, two years; assistant, College of Wooster (Ohio), one year; graduate assistant, Washington, one year; assistant, defensive coodinator, Hawaii, 10 years.

Career Highlights at Hawaii:

• WAC Coach of the Year, 1989 and 1992

• WAC Champions, 1992

• First sanctioned bowl game in school history, Aloha Bowl, 1989

• First bowl win in school history, Holiday Bowl, 1992

• Best record in school history, 11-2 in 1992

Meet the Wildcats event tonight at UA

• 7-8:30 p.m. at Arizona Stadium: Players and coaches will sign autographs and conduct interactive drills with children, junior high age and younger. Free team posters and autograph cards will be available. There is no admission charged for the event.


Coach Bob Wagner gives pointers to freshman linebacker John Denny (42) and another Wildcat.

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