Wagner replacing Simons as SRJC football coach


After 17 seasons as Santa Rosa JC head football coach, Keith Simons reached a mutual agreement with the school to step down.

Former defensive coordinator Lenny Wagner will take Simons’ place, SRJC announced Thursday.

“My health the last few years has been pretty bad, and that has in turn affected the way the program has gone,” Simons said. “I think being fair to what we established there and to get it going again, and for me to get healthy, this is what needs to be done.”

Simons took over a program that had burned through six coaches in six years. He leaves it in much better shape.

Santa Rosa Junior College head coach Keith Simons on the sidelines during the Blue and White scrimmage in 2006. (SCOTT MANCHESTER / The Press Democrat)

Santa Rosa Junior College head coach Keith Simons on the sidelines during the Blue and White scrimmage in 2006. (SCOTT MANCHESTER / The Press Democrat)

After joining the team in 1996, Simons led the Bear Cubs to an overall record of 111-69 — including an 11-0 mark in 2003 — with 10 bowl appearances and victories in seven of them. His no-huddle, spread offense led all U.S. junior colleges in passing yardage six times. One of his quarterbacks, Greg Alexander, left for the University of Hawaii in 2008 as the national record holder for career touchdown passes, with 76 in two seasons.

Asked which of his accomplishments at SRJC brings him the most pride, Simons said it was sending 250-plus athletes to four-year colleges. Two of those players, defenders Koa Misi and Martin Tevaseu, are currently in the NFL; Misi starts for the Miami Dolphins and Tevaseu is with the Indianapolis Colts.

“There’s a ton of ex-Bear Cub players now coaching high school and college football who went through the program,” Simons said. “A lot of my ex-quarterbacks are out there at every level coaching football now, and they’re doing the same things they did when they played for me. That’s something I’m proud of. You’re passing on what you know, and they pass it on to the next generation.”

But Simons’ health has deteriorated in the past few years. He experienced some “pretty dicey episodes” related to his blood pressure, including a hospitalization last summer to treat blood clots in his lungs. Even more debilitating has been the chronic pain in his hips and back.

“I’d go out to practice, and I could barely stand for two hours and make it back into my office,” Simons said. “And then it would be almost impossible to drive home in my car.”
Simons, 54, had his right hip replaced four years ago, and is awaiting a similar procedure on his left hip.

There is no surgical solution for his back troubles. He’s hoping time away from the field will ease the pain.

As Simons’ physical well-being declined this fall, so did the Bear Cubs’ fortunes.
They went 3-7, ending the season with seven losses in their final eight games.

Simons never found a consistent quarterback, and was frequently unhappy with the team’s practice habits.

To turn around the program, SRJC now turns to Wagner, Simons’ defensive coordinator from 2000 to 2010.

Before that, Wagner was head coach at Mendocino College for two seasons (1998-99). And a decade before that, he was an inside linebacker at Sonoma State, playing well enough to be voted into the school’s athletic hall of fame.

While Wagner, 43, has maintained his position as chair of the Kinesiology, Athletics and Dance department at SRJC, he stepped away from his coaching duties the past two years to attend to his son Nathan, who underwent surgery for a malignant brain tumor two years ago at the age of 4.

Nathan is being closely monitored by doctors at UC San Francisco, but all of his scans have come up clean since his daunting chemotherapy and radiation treatments two years ago.

Wagner said he introduced himself to his players at a brief team meeting Thursday, and will conduct more thorough individual sessions when everyone returns from winter break.

He hopes to solidify his coaching staff over the next few weeks and, when that work is complete, begin to lay out his offensive and defensive schemes.

One thing Wagner knows for sure: He’ll be implementing many of the principles he learned from the men he has played and coached under. The staff at SSU in the early 1990s included Gary Patterson, now the coveted head coach at TCU; Tim Walsh, the head coach at San Luis Obispo; and Dan Hawkins, former head coach at Boise State and Colorado.

Most of all, Wagner said, he owes a debt to his first college coach, the legendary Hal Sherbeck, whose 241 victories at Fullerton College were the most ever for a community college coach when he retired in 1991.

“I played for some guys who were tremendous coaches and ran tremendous programs,” Wagner said.

“I’m not going to try to reinvent anything. I’ll try to emulate those guys. The best compliment someone can pay me is to say, ‘Your team plays like a Gary Patterson team or a Hal Sherbeck team.”

Over the past two years, Wagner had groomed himself for a chance to succeed James Forkum, the current SRJC athletic director and dean of the department who is set to retire April1.

In fact, Wagner was one day away from a formal interview for that position when a school vice president informed him that the football coaching job may be available.

“I was not ready for that. My wife (Catrina) was definitely not ready for that,” Wagner said. “I had to change my whole proposal.”

Wagner changed gears and now finds himself back on the sidelines. Simons, meanwhile, will continue to teach weight training classes at SRJC. He says he plans to coach football again, too, after he’s had a chance to get healthy. He just isn’t sure where.

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.

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