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In Good Company - Walt Hameline
12/13/2013 - By Teja Anderson
Photo: Linda Rowe (lindarowephotography)
Touching down with Wagner College coach
Saturday, November 6, 2010 was a big day for Wagner College head football coach Walt Hameline. With his 31-20 Senior Day, home game victory over Monmouth University on Grymes Hill in Staten Island, he reached a milestone that only 63 coaches in NCAA history had ever reached before him: a 200th career win! Afterwards, there was the traditional Gatorade® shower by his ecstatic Seahawks, and the cheering and celebrating with his wife and two grown daughters on the field as a tribute video played on the stadium scoreboard -- not to mention the commemorative t-shirts. Filmed congratulations came from football greats Phil Simms, Boomer Esiasan and the current Giants coach, Tom Coughlin, as well as many others whose lives he had touched during his then 36 years of coaching.
As if winning his 200th game was not enough. 2012 was quite special for Walt, as he led Wagner to the conference title for first time, winning its first ever NCAA playoff game against Colgate. For perspective, this championship and the national coach of the year honors are arguably the second- greatest achievement of his long career, surpassed only by his 1987 Division III National Championship.
Now, after almost 40 years of coaching and this major milestone behind him, Walt is still going strong and has no immediate plans for retiring. In fact, for the past 32 years he has doubled as Wagner’s athletic director. An inductee into the Utica Sports Hall of Fame, the recipient of the All-American Foundation Johnny Vaught Lifetime Achievement Award, the Chevrolet National Coach of the Year, recipient of the Distinguished Services Award from the Metropolitan Basketball Writers Association and an inductee into the New Jersey Sports Writers Association Hall of Fame, Walt has the sixth most wins (216) among active FCS coaches.
Football is not his only passion; Walt has served as President of the Metropolitan Intercollegiate Basketball Committee and was one of just 23 members on its elite council -- a job that took him all over the world.
Walt makes the daily commute to Staten Island from his home in Colts Neck, New Jersey, where he has lived with his wife, Debi, for more than 30 years. It was at home where an energetic Walt took time out of his hectic schedule to talk with Living In Staten Island about his life, career and his passion for coaching.
LISI: Where did you grow up?
WH: When I was a little biter I grew up in New Hartford, New York which is between Utica and Syracuse. My dad passed away when I was twelve so my two sisters, one older, one younger, and I were raised by my mom. She was a coach, a disciplinarian, a mother - she did it all and she held down two jobs. My Dad had two restaurants and he had a heart attack and died.
LISI: That is pretty young to lose a parent. How did it affect you to suddenly be the “man of the house”?
WH: I can remember this so clearly...after the funeral I was on the second floor on the back porch of our house with an uncle that I didn’t like very much and he said those exact words to me, “Now you’re the man of the house!” I thought about that and I just wanted to jump down from there, climb down the tree and just run around and stuff. I didn’t want to be the man.
LISI: Did anything positive come out of it?
WH: Yeah, it led me into getting great guidance from my coaches. They became more like father-type figures in my life and my disciplinarians. They worked closely with my mother because I screwed up a few times along the way.
LISI: What did you do that got you in trouble?
WH: Nothing really bad. There was this one kid that kept calling me “Hambone” instead of Hameline, so I finally had enough and I punched him in the stomach. The football coach was a grammar school teacher so he came into the office with me with my mother. He took me aside and told me, “That’s okay, you are gonna get in trouble sometimes but ya’ know you can’t do that.” I liked the guy right then and there and even though I was a pretty good basketball player and athlete at that point in the sixth grade I sort of fell into a line with coaches and I took that path. I thought, this is what I want to do; I want to be like him. I didn’t know for sure if I wanted to teach Phys Ed or be a coach yet, but the idea was planted.
LISI: What was your first coaching job out of college?
WH: Plattsburgh State University. I was assistant coach for basketball and then football. It’s a funny story actually.We had a great year in basketball and ended up going to the NCAA’s and I was getting these migraine headaches and I had lost all my beard hair, I just had these patches. So I went to the doctor and he looked in my eyes and he looked in my ears and then he asked me what I did for a living. When I told him I was a college basketball coach he said, “You are a nervous wreck!” That was the end of my basketball coaching career.
LISI: Just basketball? It wasn’t coaching in general that was stressing you out?
WH: No, no. In football you have a lot of time between the plays and you have a whole week in between games. In basketball it’s so fast moving and the game schedule is much more intense. Once I knew physiologically I was okay, my beard grew back, my headaches went away…and I stuck to coaching football. I went on to University of Albany where I got my Masters and then to Brown University and then on toWagner College where I have been now for 30 years.
LISI: Wow, that is impressive; it must really say something to stay at the same high profile coaching job for that long.
WH: One of the great things because I’m so old now is I’ve got guys (former assistant coaches) who are all over the place.
LISI: Where did some of them end up?
WH: Mike Horan is over at Harvard, I got Jeff Fela over at Cornell, Dan Conley at Syracuse, James Jones and Keith Clark at Dartmouth and Ed Argast at Columbia. And then there is Patrick Graham coaching the linebackers for the New England Patriots. I got guys I worked with all over the world - like Johan Williams, who is the head coach in Denmark for the European Football league.
LISI: What about your past players, have any of themgone on to the NFL?
WH: Yeah, we’ve had guys that have played in the pros. Piotr Czech was with us two years ago, he’s a Jersey guy now, a kicker with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Going back, there was Alonzo Patterson, he was with the New Jersey Generals.
LISI: What would you say is the biggest difference between college football and the pros?
WH: Money. Athletes. I mean those are the best of the best. It’s a numbers game; there is only a very small percentage of guys that make it. It’s a very small pool.
LISI: Do you follow any of the NFL teams?
WH: It’s sort of hard to, but I follow the Giants. I like the Giants. I know Coughlin, their coach. I follow the Jets. But I get so entrenched in what I’m doing in football. People will ask me, “Hey did you see the game last night? Did you see the game?” No, I was in my office all night looking at the film of the team we just played or the team we are going to try and beat the next week! I am more of a college guy, even for basketball.
LISI: What changes have you seen to the game of football in your 36 years of coaching, for better or for worse?
WH: There have been major changes. I think you’re playing “flag” football in college a little bit, you’re not running the ball as much, and they are spreading people out, throwing the ball out on the perimeter. Athletically you are seeing better athletes; the kids are bigger, stronger. I don’t think they are having as much fun as I had; it’s like a job for these kids. Kids nowadays are put in camps, they have personal trainers, there is Pop Warner...everything is year round and I really think that kids are missing out. Even at our level at the college, it’s a job for these kids, they are with the strength coach at six o’clock in the morning, motivational videos, guest speakers, nutrition coaches, and it is all so structured.
LISI: Any other changes with the coach/athlete dynamics?
WH: Well, technology.We all have cell phones now. But we don’t talk on them, we don’t communicate; it is all texting. They do the video game playing too, they love that and they stay up all night playing those video games.
LISI: Do you ever play any of the video games with them, like NFL 2K1® or Madden NFL®?
WH: No! I don’t want to get beat! Come on, I want to win and I know they will beat me! [Laughs] There are only certain things I’ll challenge kids with, like catching balls or playing horse, I can always beat them in a game of horses. I shoot the ball, I make it, they get “H,” like that. I’ve got a good left hand and a good right hand. I never want to loose to them.
LISI: What about with your own kids, your two daughters?
WH: I always wanted to play Yahtzee®, I would play it until I beat them, and my wife thought it was sick. She was probably right; it probably wasn’t normal. But I have that competitiveness to win!
LISI: Tell me about your daughters…
WH: Oh, they are great girls, just terrific! Kristen is 27 and Kelly is 25. Kelly went to Syracuse University and she’s a nutritionist. She works at Monmouth Medical. Kristen got her Masters at Wagner and she is a Special Ed teacher in Howell. They both are out of the house, they both got jobs, and it’s all good! They’ve both done well and I’m lucky! They are great fans; they come to all the games.
LISI: Were they athletic themselves?
WH: They both went to Colts Neck High School; they played basketball, field hockey, tennis.
LISI: For college football you only get kids for four years correct?
WH: Four or five. At the level we are at a lot of the kids get “redshirted.” If you come in as a freshman we will redshirt you and you won’t play that whole first year and then you’ll have a fifth year. We want to develop you, get you bigger, stronger - all the big schools do that.
LISI: Are there ever times when you take on a more parental role with your players?
WH: Oh lots of times. Over the years, if there is a death in the family, problems at home, so many things can go wrong. Before it used to be more removed, but now with email everything hits my desk right away, “So and so was caught drinking in the dorm…” The rules are so much more stringent now, too. In my day we could have a keg party in the dorm the night before a game. Now they can’t drink until they are 21 and there are a lot more rules.
LISI: I know all of the parents out there are happy about that; we want to know our kids are somewhat safe at college.
WH: Of course. Another great thing that is happening in football is prevention of concussions. There is a lot of different testing and in the game itself the rules are changing. If you are outside as a receiver you can’t come in and block someone below the waist and take their knees out. There’s that macho thing about football and so many kids before would get a concussion and then continue to play. I want to win, but I’m not putting you in if you are really whacked out or if there is a danger. It’s not even up to me anyhow. Now there are doctors and trainers at every game. I think in the future it will all be done with computers; they will just hook you up and see if you are able to play.
LISI: So what was that 200th win over Monmouth like?
WH: I was so happy to get the damn thing over with! [Chuckles] We lost the game before that one and it was a really close one and it was homecoming. I didn’t care, but I felt bad for the people who put the video together and had it all ready to go for weeks. The staff had cake every week, just waiting, and the t-shirts. Like anything, as a coach I am just not into that, I am so caught up in the game and then the game we will be playing next. When you win you are up here, (indicates with his hand above his head) and when you loose you are down here on the ground. In football you have to deal with it for a week, which is bad. You need to move on. I’ve always been okay, move on, that’s history, win or loose. But it was great, it was neat, and the players were pretty pumped up.
LISI: Do you think some of the players come to Wagner specifically to be coached by you?
WH: I think so. But when I am recruiting I always say the same thing when I sit down with the kid and his parents. “At the end of a day, you don’t make a decision on a coach about where you are going to go to school, because coaches come and go, it’s the nature of the game. They are going to do what is best for them so you need to do what is best for you. Make sure you are making your decision based on the place, the academics, and the football program and of course the finances of it.” If they are basing it on the coach, he might be gone the next year.
LISI: You don’t have any plans of retiring just yet though do you?
WH: [Laughs] I guess I’m just waiting for them to fire me. No, I don’t know, I still love what I do, going out to the practices and the games and the recruiting. There are only a few people in the country that are foot-ball coaches and athletic directors at the same time. think I would be bored if I was doing less. When we win a game I think, I could do this for a long time, but then when we lose it can just be so brutal.
LISI: Which is worse, losing a close game or getting totally crushed?
WH: I think losing a close game. If you lined up and you totally kicked our tail it’s bad and we are really burnt. But if you lose one where you had opportunities to win and didn’t…Look at the Giants - last Super Bowl - when they came back. I give Coughlin a lot of credit; it’s hard to get everyone back on track. It’s not just the players you know; it’s the coaching staff too.
LISI: The coaches get down on themselves?
WH: Oh, my God, yes. I just had a basketball coach that had a bad game, lost by 15 points, and the press was really brutal on him. I had him in my office for two hours. It was like a therapy session!
LISI: Do you have any superstitions or things that you do before a game to ensure a win?
WH: I used to have a lucky polo shirt. I wore it until it just fell apart. Now we are with Nike® so I have to wear Nike® stuff. I’m not real superstitious. I just like to stay busy until I get to the field. (Debi comes in at this point to check on us and offer coffee.)
LICN: Your wife is beautiful, how did you two meet?
WH: She went to Skidmore and she dated one of my best friends and I dated one of her best friends. I graduated before her but we were from the same home town. So I asked her to play tennis - and I hate tennis but I knew she played. We started to date and we dated for like eight years and then she gave me an ultimatum. We got married. She was a flight attendant and she had a t-shirt, “Marry Me, Fly For Free.”
LISI: So you were newlyweds and you had just started your job at Wagner. How did you decide to live in New Jersey over, say, New York?
WH: Good restaurants, good pizza in Staten Island but we were also looking at the schools for when we had kids. We landed in Aberdeen for a while and then came here to Colts Neck.
LISI: What do you like to do in the area?
WH: I like the Jersey Shore. We go to Sea Girt. I love golf; I play a lot of golf. I like the restaurants. I like being able to go into the city, to the restaurants there.
LISI: Do any of your former players or coaches stay in touch with you?
WH: Yes, and that’s a great point to bring up. It is really neat to have people come back and you can see what they’ve done now.We just had a guy come back, Marc Lebovitz, who was an offensive lineman, and gave us (Wagner) $450,000 for a new video scoreboard. We have a rich history of football at Wagner and a lot of them come back as alumni and to the reunions.
LISI: Since you’ve been there so long do you ever have any former player’s children?
WH: Yep, that’s another thing that’s an age thing; I’ve had a number of them. Heck, I’ve been through five presidents at Wagner. They’ve all been pretty good though, I’ve been lucky. You got to have your head on a swivel and be aware of A, B and C or you might be out the door yourself. Our president now, (Richard Guarasci) is a huge Jets fan.
LISI: You seem fairly calm and jolly actually right now, is there a tough side of you when you are coaching?
WH: Oh yeah! Haven’t you seen any of the pictures? I don’t hold anything back. With players, if they screw up we are eyeball to eyeball. But I’m pretty good at getting over things. Mess up again and you are probably going to get the bullet.
LISI: Have you ever cried over a game?
WH: Sure, before, after, probably never during a game though. I’m emotional. That’s what is great about the game, the excitement. I tell the kids before a big game, “When are you ever going to get this excited about anything in your life again? When you get married? Have your first kid? Maybe. You win the game? There is nothing better than winning.”
LISI: I heard you were a fan of your famous neighbor here in Colts Neck…
WH: Who? Bruce Springsteen? Yes, and do you know why? I’ve gone to a number of his concerts. It’s just like getting ready for a game, he plays so hard. He just goes and it’s like he’s going to make a play, and it’s going to be a touch down and he’s going to win the game! He is going to find a way to win every time. He might start out a little bit slow but then all of a sudden – Wow! He wins the freaking game.
LISI: Do you have a motto?
WH: “Find a way to win!”
The Roadhouse – “Great variety of food, has a tremendous history."
Joe & Pat’s Pizzeria – “Bottom line – thin crust pizza, the best.”
Da ‘ Noi – “Tremendous variety of Italian food.”
People who waste time in meetings by talking too much
Three People You’d Like to Dine With:
Whoever is the current President of the United States, my head coaches, and my Dad
What Do You Love About Staten Island?
Wagner College, The People, The Food (particularly the pizza and Italian food)
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