I don't worry about free tuition, laundry money or hotel rooms with a sauna," says Michigan Tech Tailback Jim Van-Wagner. "Playing football is supposed to be fun and to me it still is." Such a refreshing philosophy might not wash well with most of today's college stars, but coming from VanWagner it is certainly understandable. Essential, in fact, because Michigan Tech in Houghton, Mich. is an NCAA hockey power whose football team is a member of Division II and operates on a budget Coach Jim Kapp describes as "a bit this side of seat-of-the-pants."
VanWagner is no seat-of-the-pants running back, however. As a soph in 1974 he led Division II in rushing with 1,453 yards. Archie Griffin and Anthony Davis made national headlines, but that November VanWagner had perhaps the most productive month a running back ever had. He gained 231 yards in just 16 carries against Bemidji, rushed a conference record 48 times for 217 yards in a win over Minnesota-Morris that clinched the Northern Intercollegiate Conference title and then rambled through Southwest State for 286 yards and six touchdowns in 30 carries.
VanWagner, a 6-foot 200-pounder, finished the season with 17 touchdowns and helped Michigan Tech run up such lopsided scores that Kapp often felt obliged to create ways of stopping his own offense. Beating Bemidji 63-6, Kapp sent in two players to replace one, drawing a penalty that killed a drive. Up 76-28 over Southwest State, the Huskies' defensive linemen ignored a Mustang fumble though the ball lay at their feet. Once after Tech got an insurmountable lead, Kapp suggested to the opposing coach that the clock not stop for platoon changes or incomplete passes.
"In 1974 nobody knew Van Wagner from Van Gogh," says Kapp, who had a 9-0 record that year, his second as a head coach. "But last season just about every team we met assigned a linebacker or cornerback or both to cover him man-to-man." Still, VanWagner topped Division II in rushing. Playing behind a line that averaged only 5'11", 192 pounds, he carried the ball 289 times for 1,331 yards and scored 19 touchdowns, two of them on kickoff returns of 92 and 97 yards.
October 10, 1976
Now a senior, VanWagner has a chance to become the first player in collegiate history to win three consecutive national rushing titles. With a career total of 3,950 yards rushing, he is also within reach of the alltime small-college record of 4,839 set by Jerry Linton at Panhandle State (Okla.) in 1959-62. Linton may not be a recognizable name, but Billy (White Shoes) Johnson and Mike Thomas are. Before VanWagner began playing for Michigan Tech, they were Division II rushing champions.
It is no wonder then that NFL scouts have been phoning Kapp for directions to Houghton. A few visited the campus last spring. Surely some of them expected to find a mediocre back who was churning out yardage against woeful opposition. "After watching him outrun safeties and break loose from a couple of 300-pound tacklers, they went home impressed," Kapp says. "A scout for the Cowboys got so excited he pointed out something I hadn't noticed. VanWagner can shift direction at the line of scrimmage without losing any speed."
VanWagner is 21, soft-spoken, fair-skinned, with a 32-inch waist and a 46-inch chest. Carrying the ball, he kicks his knees high, like Jim Bertelsen and, like Bertelsen, may bowl over a tackier rather than give him a fake. VanWagner can bench-press 360 pounds, do a full split and touch his head to his knees while standing, an exercise not unique among top athletes but noteworthy because VanWagner can do it the moment he wakes up. He averages 32 carries a game and seldom gets hurt. Tech Trainer Randy Owsley attributes VanWagner's durability to a perfect blend of strength and flexibility.
Los Angeles Ram Scout John Trump calls Van Wagner a solid player. Like any good scout, Trump isn't about to pump up a prospect his boss might have to sign. "He dominates in that competition," Trump says cautiously. "He's not just a three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust tailback grinding it out. He's a little of both—power and elusiveness—that's what makes him interesting."
VanWagner is Michigan Tech's first legitimate pro prospect and it is easy to understand why. The campus lies among abandoned copper mines deep in the state's Upper Peninsula. It is 600 miles northwest of Detroit and a four-hour bus ride to Tech's nearest football opponent. The Southwest State trip takes 12 hours. The Michigan Tech practice field has one goalpost anchored in cement and a playing surface as hard as concrete. More Huskies have suffered injuries in practice than in games. There is no athletic dorm. There are barely enough pads and shields for the team. The budget provides for 11 scholarships but Kapp divvies them up among 39 players. No one gets a full ride. VanWagner wears a face mask that doesn't fully protect his nose and, it turns out, pays his own room and board.
All of which makes you wonder why he went to Tech in the first place. For one thing, Kapp promised he would be his No. 1 tailback. For another, VanWagner's brother Tom played on the offensive line and offered nothing but praise for the university and the coach.
As a senior halfback at rural Novi High VanWagner averaged 95 yards a game in only 10 carries. But Novi is a Class C school. Major colleges recruit A and B. Michigan State called once, asking VanWagner if he wanted to try out for the Spartans as a walk-on linebacker. He won an appointment to West Point, considered enrolling, but turned the opportunity down when he heard of a plebe who was so hungry he often ate his toothpaste. "I don't think I really believed the story," VanWagner says, "but I'm happy I decided not to go there. I've had four years to play tailback here. At Army I might have spent four years holding a tackling dummy."
One reservation the pros may have about VanWagner is that he is a tweener: fast (4.6 in the 40) but small for the ideal fullback and big but a step slow for the picture halfback. But San Francisco 49er Scout Dick Daniels has advised VanWagner not to worry, just to go out and have a big year, which he is doing.
The Huskies opened the season at Northwood Institute, nine hours down-state in Midland. Forty Huskies boarded the bus. Two had no seat so they rode in the luggage rack. The bus arrived half an hour late, stopping en route because Tech's wide receiver was carsick. The Gateway Motel ran out of rollaways. At dinner, it ran out of glasses.
The next afternoon Tech whipped the Northmen 31-7. VanWagner rushed 32 times for 140 yards and four touchdowns. The following week he had 155 yards in 31 attempts as the Huskies, playing without a healthy placekicker, lost to Grand Valley State 10-8. After sitting out an easy win over Winona State-with a bruised shoulder, VanWagner returned last Saturday and ran for 176 yards and two touchdowns in 35 carries as Tech crushed Bemidji 48-7.
Before the Northwood game VanWagner said, "I've got scrapbooks. No matter what else happens, I can say I contributed." That tells you a lot about the small-college game, but more about Jim VanWagner.