To many he was known as "Pop," and by his players he was called “Coach,” and when the community mourned the passing of William Wagoner Saturday morning, he was known both for his dedication to athletics and for his decency as a man.
Wagoner, enshrined in the state’s high school hall of fame for his stellar coaching career at Apalachicola High School, passed away at age 91 in Ocala on March 19, 2013.
The pews at First Baptist Church of Apalachicola were lined with former players and those throughout the community who had come to appreciate the impact that Wagoner had on the blossoming of AHS athletics, and the nurturing of so many young people into successful adulthoods.
Brother Charles Scott led the service, with several former players stepping forward to recount the impact that Wagoner had dating back to 1948, when he came looking for a teaching position on the advice of a friend.
Abe Johnson, an African-Americans star of Wagoner’s 1968 undefeated state championship football team that still holds records for defensive game performance, stepped forward to voice the feelings of so many of Wagoner’s players, both white and black.
Johnson rose slowly, joking that “I might have been the fastest then, but not now.”
He then spoke in serious terms about how the Alabama-born Wagoner had made sure that his players were shielded from any racism that may have lingered in the tumultuous 1960s.
“A lot of us remember him as a coach but I remember him as a man, and probably a genius in his own time,” said Johnson. “Not only was he a decent man, but with a lot of the crazy stuff that was going on culturally, he kept that from his players.
“I didn’t have to experience that,” said Johnson. “He was a many of integrity, he gave me an awareness of people (who I didn’t know)
“I thought to myself, ‘If he is this decent and honest, then perhaps this is a standard of what others feel. I don’t know them, but I know him’,” he said. “That made a difference to me. I want you to know he was a decent human being and I appreciated the impact that he made on my life.”
Later, Johnny Browne, who played for Wagoner in the 1970s, rose to speak and told a story of how, in 1966, when he 9, Wagoner had showed up early on a Saturday morning, with a paper sack full of a baseball uniform, shoes and gloves, pushed it into Browne’s stomach and told the boy “C’mon you can change in the car.”
Browne said Wagoner stood by his side and encouraged him to get into the game. “Son, go out there and show them what you can do,” he told Browne. “Don’t worry; I’m going to be here.”
Years later, Browne would be a part of overpowering football teams that won the Apalachicola Valley Conference, and play in hundreds of baseball games for Wagoner, but that what he remembered most “is a man standing in that living room, talking to a 9-year-old boy.”
Scott recounted the early life of a boy who played in the cotton fields where his mother worked around Clanton, Ala., where he was born March 11, 1922.
Wagoner used to say that the family was so poor he could stand on a dime with his shoes on and tell you whether it was heads or tails. He never knew his father, and his mom died when he was 12, so Wagoner went to live with his older sister in Birmingham, who was overprotective of her little brother.
He did play for Phillips High School, and the first time he got in, playing in Legion Field in Birmingham, the coach called “76 to the wing man,” and Wagoner did as instructed, cutting through the line, out into the flat, and scored a 70-yard touchdown,
“That’s a pretty good start right? That’s a pretty good indicator of how successful he was going to be, in the schools and in football,“ said Pat Floyd, a former player of Wagoner’s who went on to a spot on the University of Florida football team, and who the coach had asked to share facts about Wagoner’s life and career when the time came to be eulogized.
Wagoner went over the items, and then called Floyd back a week later and asked to go over them again “so that you get it right. It made me remember how much time in his life that he spent making plans, for his teams for the players, for class. How he prepared us to make sure that we never failed those tasks and do the best we could to succeed and carry them out.”
In 1942, Scott said in his remarks, Wagoner went off to World War II, training with the Coast Guard in California before eventually becoming senior leader of a team of 110 men that shipped off to the South Pacific from San Francisco.
Wagoner came home with a Bronze Star and plenty of tales of his adventures, including a boat ride with Admiral William “Bull” Halsey. He had told Floyd practically to the minute that he had spent “three years, six months, 18 days and he got discharged at 11 a.m.”
Wagoner then enrolled through the GI Bill in Livingston State Teachers College in Alabama, where he became the school’s first three-time letter winner, in football, basketball and baseball, where he played catcher, second base and outfield. Because he was older than his teammates, having gone off to war at age 20, he became known as “Pop” and the nickname stuck.
It was also there that he met his wife, the former Blanche Henderson, and in 1948 they moved to Apalachicola to teach and coach. For more than 32 years he taught and coached at both Chapman High School and Apalachicola High School.
Floyd shared a list of memorable players and memorable seasons that Wagoner had gone over with his former player, now a successful local attorney.
“He really enjoyed seeing his players be successful off the field,” said Floyd. “Boy weren’t we blessed with that.
“He had a plan and he prepared us for it and we won with it,” he said. “When you look back at what he did and you see he was extraordinary man, and he generated some pretty good successes.”
Wagoner had impressive success as a coach, with a final football record of 188 wins, 111 losses, and 9 ties. His career included being honored as Florida High School Coach of the Year, for all high schools in the state, and a nomination for National High School Coach of the Year, which took him to events in San Francisco.
He was inducted into the Florida High School Athletic Association Hall of Fame in 1990, and is in the University of West Alabama Athletic Hall of Fame. The football fields at the former Apalachicola High School were named in his honor.
He is survived by his son, Wally Wagoner and his daughter-in-law Julie of Ocala, and their children Phillip and Abbey.
He was preceded in death by his wife Blanche and his sister Paula Binion.
The service was followed by a graveside service at Magnolia Cemetery. All services are under the direction of the Comforter Funeral Home.
Those who wish may make donations to Hospice in his memory.