Van Wagner was an immediate hit
HOUGHTON — Michigan Tech football coaches didn’t have to wait long to see if Jim Van Wagner could do the job at running back. Ted Kearly, who was involved in coaching football and served as MTU athletic director for several years, said the late Van Wagner was a “real workhorse.”
“Jim was big and strong, and he could really run,” Kearly said in an interview a few years ago. “He was the prototype-workhorse runner.”
Jim Kapp, who coached Van Wagner his entire career, said the Huskies didn’t know what they had in the Novi High product.
“We didn’t realize he (Van Wagner) was that good,” Kapp said. “He was very durable and he developed into a quality running back for us.”
Between 1972 and 1976, the 6-foot-1, 195-pounder smashed just about every grid record at Tech.
His career total of 4,788 yards still stands as a record for the Huskies. His name is found in just about every offensive category in the books.
Jim came to Houghton on the heels of older brother Tom, who was an outstanding offensive lineman.
He had a solid season in his first year, rushing for 600 yards and scoring three touchdowns.
Those figures shot up to 1,431 yards rushing and 17 touchdowns when the Huskies posted a 9-0 record and won the Northern Intercollegiate Conference title.
“I think winning the NIC championship was the biggest thrill for me,” Van Wagner said in a 1979 interview. “It was just a great season.”
He also recalled a game against Hillsdale that season.
“It was raining cats and dogs that afternoon, really coming down,” he said, recalling the contest. “But we won the game, 14-0, to finish undefeated.”
By the time he finished his junior year with 1,364 yards rushing and 19 scores, Van Wagner was attracting national attention.
A story on his exploits appeared in Sports Illustrated and his name appeared on several preseason Little All-American lists.
“I know the NFL scouts were noticing (Van Wagner) after that …. because I got some calls,” Kapp said. “They were aware of him.”
The Tech star had another big year as a senior (1,353 yards and 15 TDs). He said his last game as a Husky was a memorable one.
“We were playing UMD and it was the coldest day I remember playing in. The field was like concrete,” Van Wagner said.
Soon after, the San Francisco 49ers drafted him and he surprised everyone by making the team.
He was traded to the New Orleans Saints and played two years before a knee injury ended his playing days.
Van Wagner’s records were threatened by Jeremy Monroe in the mid-1990s and later by Lee Marana in the early 2000s.
His career yardage and most attempts (958 carries) still stand.
After becoming an arthroscopic surgeon, he resided in Traverse City until his death in 2014.
A son, Mike, played hockey at Tech, and married Angela Guisfredi, a graduate of Lake Linden-Hubbell, who starred in basketball for the Huskies’ women’s basketball team.