The Man Who Hates to Lose
After 32 years, football coach and athletic director Walt Hameline hasn’t lost his fire. And the record-shattering 2012 football season shows he hasn’t lost his winning touch, either.
By Cormac Gordon / Photograph by David Saffran/Wagner Athletics
New Hartford High School had just lost a close game in the 1970 New York State basketball sectionals. And a drained Walt Hameline, point guard for the Syracuse-area team, was furious.
In the losing locker room, the square-jawed, five-foot-six teenager raised himself onto his toes to confront the Spartans’ six-foot-seven star.
Hameline chewed out the towering big man.
Competing without enough passion was the accusation. “How could you do that?” he challenged his stunned teammate, was his recollection all these years later, while sitting in his wide-windowed office on the second floor of the Spiro Sports Center, overlooking Wagner’s sycamore-surrounded Oval.
“And he was my next-door neighbor,” Wagner’s longtime football coach and athletic director deadpans.
That’s Walt Hameline.
“It just kills me to lose,” he readily admits, waving a hand over the stacks of paperwork on his super-sized desk.
The obsession isn’t just about football, either, in which Hameline has won 213 games at Wagner, ranking him 59th at the beginning of this season among all-time college coaches at any level.
Just ask anyone who’s played in one of the 61-year-old’s impromptu three-on-three lunchtime basketball games at Spiro. Or who has joined him on a post-practice run along the winding streets surrounding campus.
Staff members shake their heads at his notorious workouts in Spiro, the exercise equivalent to speed dating.
Hameline admits to being a marginal golfer. Especially when playing against more accomplished types like sometime playing partner Phil Simms.
But the father of two grown daughters, who married his hometown sweetheart, Debi McLean, after graduating from Brockport State in 1975, suffers even after those inconsequential losses. Winning counts all the time.
“I really believe that the fire still burns today just as hotly as it did the day he took over,” says Wagner associate head coach Tom Masella ’82, who played on Hameline’s first team in 1981. “Walt’s a great person, a great guy. But not if you’re playing against him, even now.”
In his high school days, besides basketball Hameline was also a 140-pound quarterback and a catcher in baseball, an unlikely three-sport star on winning teams. A classic sports overachiever.
There is a slice of very personal history that may explain the trait. Hameline says his high school coaches were stabilizing influences, and even inspirations, for a teenager whose own father had died suddenly of a heart attack when Hameline was 12.
“I could have gone in any direction,” he says of that moment in his life. “And I was lucky to have good people around me.”
It was those men who, as time passed, would encourage him to consider the possibility of coaching.
It has been quite a ride ever since. After 32 years as head coach and athletic director, during which time he’s overseen an expansion of Wagner’s sports programs and facilities in every way imaginable, Hameline remains driven.
Not to mention, pragmatic.
The Colts Neck, New Jersey, resident still cuts his own hair during the football season to save time.
“And the $15 bucks,” he adds.
And he keeps a blow-up mattress and small refrigerator stocked with cold drinks next to the shower in his office restroom. “I don’t need much to be happy,” he says, laughing.
Even now, his legacy secured long ago, Hameline will sometimes spend nights at Spiro to get in late film work with his assistants.
“You don’t want to cheat the kids,” is his explanation. “You want to teach them that in the real world they’ll be constantly evaluated on how they perform, and that you have to work hard to succeed. These days that’s so more than ever. I believe the only way to accomplish your goal as a coach is to have that drive, to stay hungry yourself.”
If it all sounds pretty intense, it is. But Hameline’s real gift has been an ability to balance all that competitive thrust with an understanding of the ever-changing role of football and athletics at Wagner.
“Wagner is a better place compared to when I got here,” he says. “The school has an elevated academic profile now. There are new fields, new buildings. I think a lot has been accomplished.”
Things on the gridiron are not what they were in 1987, however, when the Seahawks were a Division III power going 13-1 and winning a national championship. In his first eight seasons as head coach, Hameline teams went a remarkable 68-15-2, advancing to post-season play six times.
Those numbers alone made September’s naming of the field at Wagner College Stadium for Walt Hameline a natural.
“I’ve had good players, good coaches and great support here,” he says. “You have to work hard, be lucky, and have people who support you.”
The current program plays at the more competitive Football Championship Subdivision level of the NCAA. Last season’s Top 25 in the FCS included much larger, public schools like North Dakota State, Northern Iowa, and James Madison universities. The Seahawks went a disappointing 4–7 in 2011. “Those early teams dominated,” Masella acknowledges. “Now it’s a fight on every snap.”
The added challenges of recent years are part of what made this past football season on Grymes Hill so magical for its longtime coach.
Picked to finish seventh in the eight-team Northeast Conference, and beginning the schedule with three stumbling losses in the first three games, the Seahawks began an upward trajectory in week four that progressed further than anyone could have hoped.
Coupling a stingy, aggressive defense with a balanced, mature offense and a rock-solid special teams unit, Wagner rode those elements to an unlikely eight-game win streak, some of the barn-burning variety. They captured a first-ever NEC title and a trip to the NCAA FCS tournament.
And after accomplishing all that, the red-hot Seahawks pulled the ultimate upset: They defeated favored Colgate 31–20 at Hameline Field to advance to the NCAA Round of 16.
In the program’s biggest game of the last quarter-century, quarterback Nick Doscher threw for two touchdowns, running back Dominique Williams ran for 106 yards, and a swarming, dominating defense forced five Colgate turnovers.
The Seahawks traveled to No. 4 ranked Eastern Washington University for the second round of the NCAAs on Dec. 1, eventually losing 29–19.
Still, against formidable early odds, the 2012 season ranks as the school’s best since that championship year of 1987. “We really improved as the season progressed,” Hameline says. “At the end of the day, the kids have to go out and make plays. They did that, and they deserve the credit.”
And as for the surprising nature of the season’s accomplishments?
Hameline is as insistent as ever. “Our goals haven’t changed,” says the three-decade-long cornerstone of the Seahawk football program. “We’ll always strive to win.”