SIOUX CITY | Changing the fortunes of a Briar Cliff football program is a process Dennis Wagner hopes that happens sooner than later.
Wagner has the full support of the university’s administration. For him though, it’s not good enough. He says he’s impatient.
It’s why his assistant coaches began recruiting when the Chargers had a bye week late last month. Wagner began his personal recruiting trail midway through last week just days after an 0-11 season.
Yesterday was Thanksgiving and Wagner and his family hosted 27 BCU gridders who didn’t return home for the holiday. For at least a day, the conversation wasn’t about the future from a coach who’s turned collegiate football programs around before.
“They are part of our family,” said Wagner. “I enjoy that part of it. It’s one of the things that makes it unique to be at a place like this.”
What does it take to turn a football program around? Briar Cliff, which has never had a winning season in a sport that began on campus in 2004, enters the 2018 season riding a 21-game losing streak.
Wagner encountered a worse situation when he came to Wayne State in 1989. The program had dropped 33 consecutive games. He won three games that first year and departed in 1995 with a 44-37-1 record in seven seasons.
Faith and family, Wagner said with an almost-cracking voice, carried him. He told his players following the 58-37 season-ending loss to Dordt that he loved and appreciated them.
He had never encountered situations like last fall in his nearly 40 years of coaching. Now, the rebuilding process begins.
“First, it’s the administration, the people who say yes or no to the things you need, you want or you can have,” said Wagner. “You better have an (athletic director) and you better have a president and a board of trustees that believes in football. That is important to this school.
“It comes down to building relationships with high school coaches, where you recruit and having them know if their players come here, they will be treated well, fairly and that you are doing things with the best interest of their guys.”
Recruiting really hasn’t stopped since Wagner first came on campus in mid-February of this year. Introduced as the Chargers’ third football coach two weeks after the signing date, he rolled his sleeves and went to work.
Wagner said the recruiting groundwork began when he started to look for players when fellow GPAC programs were done. BCU's football coaches made themselves available at high school clinics where they began to build relationships with coaches.
“We have to continue to do that,” said Wagner. “I think that is something you have to do no matter where you are at in the conference standings. You better be out in the public and people better know who you are.”
Sixteen transfers from collegiate programs or junior colleges were part of the squad. Three of them, all offensive linemen, paved the way for record-setting running back Noah Ylagan (1,334 yards rushing, 8 TDs) and each of them earned GPAC honorable mention citation – left guard Nelson Brockwell, center Michael McGuire and right guard Kenny Trezvant.
Each of them will return. Wagner, who has goals of 50 players for spring football, will continue to look for transfers with plans of getting a better idea of what the 2018 season will become.
With hopes of a 90-man roster when preseason drills begin in August, Wagner will hit Iowa and Northeast Nebraska hard. He knows full well the Chargers are battling for players with GPAC rivals Morningside, Northwestern and Dordt are also recruiting.
What is he looking for? Everything. The goal is to create depth which will provide competition on the field for an offense which prefers to run, but will need to establish the pass.
Depth is also needed for a defense which utilizes four linemen, two linebackers and five defensive backs. After all, the GPAC has several established passing teams such as Morningside, Northwestern, Dakota Wesleyan and Dordt.
“It’s our objective to make Briar Cliff an option for kids in Iowa and Northeast Nebraska that I don’t think has been as well done as it should be,” said Wagner. “We want Iowa kids and we want Northeast Nebraska kids because that draws interest in your program right now. There are other teams that are doing their things and I know our staff and I know our players will continue to work hard.
"It’s one of those things I know will happen and I believe will happen, but I just can’t say when it will happen. I want it sooner than later.”
Wagner wants improved numbers, not only more wins. The defense allowed 52.4 points and 597.8 total yards. Opposing defenses forced 23 turnovers (14 interceptions, 9 fumbles).
This is another part of the turnaround process. Though he said he’s “not a numbers guy,” he wants statistics to improve, especially the defense.
In all areas, he wants strength and speed. Better conditioning will cut down injuries.
“Maybe it changes one, two, three, four how many games, I don’t know,” said Wagner. “I know we will have the same demand that we have on our players now and we will be consistent with it. The bottom line, right now we don’t have the shells in our gun. We will try to fix that the best we can.
“I think the measuring stick will be time. I would love to say it’s going to happen next year when we are challenging for the conference championship. In my mind, that’s what I want to do obviously and I want to hope that’s what our players want to do and not be satisfied with just winning.”