Steelers Now’s Ron Lippock spoke with legendary Steelers safety Mike Wagner. Wagner was the Steelers’ 11th-round pick in the 1971 NFL Draft out of Western Illinois, but went on to a 10-year NFL career, winning four Super Bowls and was selected to play in two Pro Bowls. After football, he got his MBA from Pitt and worked in the financial industry in Pittsburgh.
First, can you let us know what you’ve been doing with yourself since your NFL days?
Well, I retired from my day-to-day job recently. I don’t go to work any more. When I left football I went into the business world in Pittsburgh but the decline of the steel industry hurt. I then went into the finance and investment and private equity business and real estate as well. When I look back and see my history, I worked for about six or seven companies and it was quite an experience. I was able to pay the bills and retire, so I’m very happy with it.
How hard was the post-NFL adjustment for you?
It was quite a challenge. I liked playing football and worked hard at it. I set a goal after I retired that after ten years I would catch up to the people I graduated with to where they were in their careers. I wanted to be able to do that. The real world is no easier than the NFL though. With family and business, it’s not easier than sports.
The great thing about football was that if I was frustrated or stressed I could go and just knock people down. It’s harder to get rid of your frustrations in the business world.
Yes, they do frown on that in the business world!
Ha yes! I’m sixty-eight years old now. Life is a challenge. It’s extremely difficult for athletes who retire. Often times their futures are not thought out or planned out. But I survived it, for sure.
You also had a coaching stint as well at Pine-Richland High School. Tell me about your coaching approach?
Yeah I really more just helped out. When I was working real estate I could set my own time so I thought about helping kids learn the fundamentals and techniques taught to me by my high school coaches. My high school coaches taught me things my NFL coaches never could or thought I needed to learn. How to read whether pulling guards and tackles run deep or shallow and what that means for a defensive back, route progressions …
So, I asked the local coach if he’d like some help and tried to stay out of his way from actual coaching. It was rewarding helping fourteen- and fifteen-year-old kids. They are growing physically, mentally, emotionally. To be able to watch it happen. I got rewards from that.
I’m debating going back to it. To do it full time. I don’t know if I want to make that commitment … I may want to go golfing one day but couldn’t with a commitment. … Plus the local high school just were state champions. I don’t think they need my help!
Stepping back some here. Tell me about being drafted by the Steelers. Were you surprised?
So, I went to school at Western Illinois University, which was in the cornfields of Western Illinois. Nothing but cornfields there then this giant modern campus near this little town. It was hard for scouts to get there. I didn’t have a scholarship when I got there. They didn’t have cell phones then. If you lived in a dorm or fraternity, you may have had a phone in the hall.
So, I didn’t find out I was drafted for a couple of days. They called my coach who tracked me down and told me to call the Steelers. So I did and Ralph Berlin called me back and said congratulations, and told me they were going to negotiate a contract with me. I told him that was great and asked him to contact my agent. There was this pause. And then he said “Agent? You’re an eleventh round pick. You have an agent!?” I just told him that, with all respect sir, yes, to please call him and he’ll take care of it!
How did high school and college prepare you for the NFL?
I didn’t make my high school football team until my junior year. I went to a Catholic school (Carmel High School in Mundelein, Illinois) — like Central Catholic in Pittsburgh. Over two-hundred kids went to the school and 110 tried out for the team. When I finally made the team I played defensive back and played well my junior year. My dad was a factory worker and I didn’t get a scholarship, so I went to state school.
As a freshman, once I got my grades in order, I got bored and decided to try out for football. I knocked on the coach’s door and asked if he needed an extra body, and he said sure. The program wasn’t very good at the time and I ended up starting at defensive end and played pretty well. I made the all-freshmen team.
The coach said see you next spring training once the season ended and told me he wanted me to play linebacker. I asked him for a scholarship and he said they couldn’t give me one so I told him I either play defensive back or no spring training. I told him I needed a job to play for my tuition. So I played well as a sophomore defensive back, and the next year they got a new coach.
I asked the new coach for a scholarship and he told me that I was already there. If he gave me one he’d have to give everyone else one. I told him that wasn’t my problem and that I would look to transfer, so he gave me a scholarship. It worked out well for them!
My senior year though I got clipped in practice and limped around most of the year. I was beat up. I knew I just needed a chance to prove myself in the NFL. I thought I was big and fast enough.
Pittsburgh wasn’t a great franchise when I got there. They had three rookie safeties that year make the team. Me, Glen Edwards, and (Ralph) Anderson. The three of us ended up playing the two safety positions on a regular basis.
Tell me a bit about communication. As a safety, that was a big part of your role there and something you hear this current Steelers team struggles with.
Football is about execution. It’s based on tendencies. We broke down the offense with a chart that listed what plays each team ran from what formations. That changes week to week and even in games, so that takes communication. You all need to be on the same page.
In my era, I communicated the formations to my teammates. Glen Edwards played running back in college, he never played safety, so I had to be sure to help him understand what he needed to do. But first, I needed to know what I needed to do.
I remember in the papers there was a picture of me making a V with my fingers, The caption read that I was celebrating a win with my team. That’s not what I was doing. I was telling the team to run a cover 2.
There are eleven guys on both sides of the ball trying to confuse the other side. It’s what they call the perfect game. It’s about mental performance and execution and physical performance. You see many formations and more motion now. Linebackers and defensive backs rotating and defensive linemen moving round. The offense is trying to snap the ball before the defense can make the adjustment.
I remember in one of the Super Bowl games versus the Cowboys, they scored a touchdown on a play we saw on film and talked about how to defend. But I didn’t get the coverage called in time before the snap. That was my fault.
You have fans and players yelling, everyone moving around and limited time … it can be pretty hard to do.
As a rookie, who or what helped you most to adjust to the NFL? Any mentors?
(Terry) Bradshaw early on, and (Jack) Ham once the preseason started. But hmmm. Mentors? Not sure. My goal was to make an impression on the coaching staff. My dad told me when they aren’t yelling at you I should worry. It’s when they are yelling at you that you know they are interested.
So I decided from rookie camp that I was just going to start hitting everyone I could until they told me to stop, and not make any mental mistakes. I wrote all of the defensive calls on tape on my forearm and hit people until they told me to stop and tried to make no mental mistakes. It worked I guess.
So give me a few good stories of your time there!
In the old locker room we didn’t have a phone. The only phone was in the equipment room on the wall there next to the locker room. The equipment manager then was Tony Parisi. He was a great guy. If you needed anything he’d get it for you. He was also very interested in how people made their money. Always looking for opportunities.
When we’d have phone conversations, he’d often listen in. Whether we were talking to our families, doing business. … So one year I pretended to have a business. I got on the phone for five or ten minutes before or after practice every day…this was when they had the tax shelter programs so you could form limited partnerships and strike it rich in the oil and gas industry.
So every day I’d get on the phone and pretend to have a conversation. “Really? How many barrels? How much was that check for?” I’d continue it on for a couple of weeks and draw Parisi in.
So one day, I’m sitting on my stool in the locker room and look up and see Ernie Holmes striding towards me. He pulls up a stool and asked me what was going on. Then he says, “Hey Mike, I want a job at that oil company you have.”
Ernie was from Texas, and he thought I had an oil well there! I told him it was just a joke I was playing on Tony, but he wouldn’t believe me. It took me two weeks to finally convince Ernie that I didn’t really own an oil well!
Let’s talk a bit about playoff preparation. How did you prepare for all of those playoff games?
There was no rah rah or jumping up and down. It was just business to be done. It was real calm. Chuck (Noll) didn’t want us to get those emotional highs because he didn’t want the downs that came with them. Not that it wasn’t intense, but we rarely jumped up and down to celebrate plays.
That’s just the way Chuck wanted it. His biggest thing he’d tell us before a game was “It’s fun day. Let’s go.” Real calm like that. No pregame speech. So most of my career it was that way for me. I was a laid-back player. I remember the one time, in my second season, I was in the tunnel in Miami ready to go out and play and I got this sudden surge of adrenaline. I didn’t like it. It took a while for it to go away, like caffeine. But once it goes away, you hit that low like caffeine too. You crash.
I used to accuse (Jack) Lambert of being responsible for all of the changes with players celebrating on the field. Stomping his feet, throwing his arms. He’d say “What? What?” and grumble at me. Fans love it though. I remember Glen Edwards, too. If the defensive line wasn’t doing it’s job, which was rare, he’d yell at them — pick the biggest guys to yell at. Me and Ham, we just would shake our heads. …
Another good story about Lambert. In the playoffs, we lost our running backs to injury in Baltimore in 1976. We were looking for the three-peat that season. Well, there were thirty seconds left versus Oakland and we had no chance to win and the defense was on the field. We’re in the huddle and the referee puts his head into the huddle and starts telling us how much he hated seeing us lose and how we were the greatest defense he saw. … Well Lambert just lashes into him: “Get the bleep out of here — we’re trying to win a game!”
The ref ran out of the huddle, he was so taken aback!
Any thoughts on the way the game is played today?
I don’t want to be critical, and certain things are ok to celebrate like a tremendous catch. … But when I see players celebrating for making a tackle they should make, I don’t know. I don’t like it. But I will say once I was in the stands and turned around and looked at the fans instead of the player celebrating, They loved it. I saw that the fans really want to celebrate with the player, especially the young crowd. I get it now.
In reality, the NFL is like a circus. With players instead of animals. The fans are being entertained. Now, there’s a winner and loser so there’s more pride. But it’s just entertainment. That’s all it is.
I got a call this morning from a friend in the Midwest. He asked me what it was like to be an old Steeler. I told him fans treat us like treasures. Their eyes light up. I wasn’t one of the more famous guys. I don’t think its so much about me or the player. I think when they see us they remember the good times we had or so many years. It’s really great to watch their eyes light up like that.