Twenty-eight years after he coached his final football game at Gardiner Area High School, John Wolfgram’s influence is still prevalent around the Tigers. Each Gardiner head coach since 1985, Wolfgram’s final season at the school — Rob Munzing, Matt Brown, Jim Palmer and Matt Burgess — either coached with or played high school football under Wolfgram.
“They’re his legacy, right there,” Munzing said.
With 10 state championships at Madison, Gardiner, South Portland and Cheverus, Wolfgram is the most successful high school football coach in state history. He’ll be inducted in the Maine Sports Hall of Fame today in a ceremony at the Augusta Civic Center.
“After my father, he was the first person I sat down and talked about coaching high school football with after I got the Gardiner job,” Burgess said.
A graduate of the University of Maine, Wolfgram began his coaching career at Madison, where in 1974, he led the Bulldogs to a share of the Class C state championship. In 1975, Wolfgram arrived in Gardiner at a time when the Tigers entire sports program needed a shot in the arm.
Wolfgram was part of a wave of young coaches at the time in Gardiner, Munzing said. John Coughlin came in to coach basketball and baseball. Norm Gagne was building the hockey program.
“John, obviously, was one of the big pieces,” Munzing, at the time an assistant coach, said. “We really had to start right from scratch. We were all in our 20s, right out of the gate, we set a very disciplined program. Kids were more accountable for their actions.”
It didn’t take long for Wolfrgram and the coaching staff to realize the doctrine of accountability and hard work was getting through. Munzing remembered a practice in which the coaching staff arrived at practice to find a number of key players missing. It’s OK, the players in attendance said. They’re all volunteer firefighters, and they were called to a fire.
Wolfgram’s first game at Gardiner was a loss to Morse. Gardiner fans congratulated Wolfgram for a job well done. Munzing said that rubbed Wolfgram the wrong way.
“He was mad. He hadn’t shown up to lose,” Munzing said.
Wolfgram didn’t lose often at Gardiner, but one loss, in the 1978 state championship game. The Tigers fell to Skowhegan, 9-6, in overtime.
“He said, ‘This is never happening again. We’re never getting this far again and losing.'”
The Tigers won their first state title under Wolfgram the next season, in 1979, beating Winslow, 14-6. Gardiner beat Winslow again, 12-7, for the 1981 state title. In 1985, Wolfgram won one more state championship with the Tigers, beating Lawrence, 17-14.
Wolfgram went on to win four state titles at South Portland (1992, 1995, 1996 and 1999) and most recently, back-to-back gold balls at Cheverus in 2010 and 2011, where he led led the Stags to a state-record 34 consecutive wins, breaking the record he set at South Portland.
Wolfgram’s success comes from his total focus and ability to judge talent, Munzing said.
“John’s just a remarkable man. He’s able to establish his ideals. He did it in 1975, and next season, he’ll be doing it the same way,” Munzing said. “He never varies from what his building blocks are. He’s a great judge of talent. He sees how a kid will fit in his system.”
At Gardiner, some of the things set up by Wolfgram in the 1970s are still in place. Champions Club T-shirts, for instance.
“That’s been a part of the program for as long as I can remember,” said Burgess, a 1987 graduate of Gardiner whose father John was a coach on Wolfgram’s staff. “The intensity, the way (Wolfgram) did things at Gardiner. That’s how we try to do things.”
The best advice Wolfgram gave Burgess when he became Gardiner’s head coach a few years ago?
“Keep it simple,” Burgess said. “We’re trying to do that.”
Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242