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Long after establishing himself as a legend in his field, John Wolfgram inherited the struggling Cheverus program in 2006. After winning 76 games and a pair of Class A state titles and setting a new Class A record for consecutive victories with the Stags, Wolfgram has announced his retirement.
John Wolfgram was the state’s premier high school football coach, but he was a teacher first and foremost, on and off the field, and his lessons have influenced countless players.
PORTLAND—The words disciplined, focused and prepared are most commonly used to describe John Wolfgram, but mere words don’t do justice to the most highly respected and triumphant high school football coach in Maine history.
Wolfgram, 68, announced April 4 that he was stepping down as Cheverus’ coach after a breathtaking 10-year run with the Stags and after four decades of roaming the high school sidelines, a storied run which resulted in an inconceivable 10 Gold Balls.
“It’s a good time for me to step back,” said Wolfgram, who also teaches English at Cheverus, something he plans to continue. “The program is in good shape. I still have my health. There are some other things I want to take a look at. I had no idea I’d coach this long. I talk about single-mindedness, taking it one year at a time. I had no idea how many years it would be. It’s been an exciting career full of competitive games and good kids.”
Reaction to Wolfgram’s retirement was immediate and laudatory.
“(John’s) most definitely the standard-bearer,” said Portland coach Jim Hartman. “What he’s accomplished is amazing. It’s hard to win games and championships. I’ve had 11 losses at Portland (in four years) and five have been to him.”
“It’s a huge loss for the entire state,” said Kevin Kezal, coach of the reigning Class A champion Thornton Academy Golden Trojans. “With John, you knew what you’d get on both sides of the ball. The question was could your kids be as disciplined as his? More often than not, the answer was no.”
“It’s been a marvelous 10 years,” added Cheverus athletic director Gary Hoyt. “(John’s) been an inspiration. He provided direction as a football coach, but even more as a mentor and role model.”
While Wolfgram earned acclaim as a high school player in Marblehead, Massachusetts and later at the University of Maine, his interest in becoming a coach actually began before he left high school.
“I’ve always loved sports and even in high school, I studied different football coaches,” Wolfgram said. “I just always wanted to coach.”
Wolfgram started coaching at Madison High School in 1971 and by his fourth season, captured his first Gold Ball, in Class C (the title was shared with Marshwood and Stearns).
Wolfgram moved to Gardiner in 1975, where he took over a proud program which had fallen on hard times. The Tigers went winless in 1974, but Wolfgram immediately wiped the slate clean and looked forward.
“Gardiner had struggled for a few years,” said Rob Munzing, who served as Wolfgram’s assistant and later succeeded him as the Tigers’ head coach. “We started watching film from the year before. After a few minutes, he turned it off and told us to get rid of the film. He just doesn’t look back. He made the commitment to rebuild. He had rebuilt Madison and won a championship. He was never meant to be an assistant coach. He didn’t need to be. I was happy to be along for the ride and soak it up.”
After finishing .500 in 1975, Wolfgram stayed at Gardiner for 10 more seasons and won three Class B crowns, in 1979, 1981 and 1985.
After the 1985 championship, Wolfgram embraced a new challenge and came south to the big-time, Class A, where he and the South Portland Red Riots rewrote the record books.
South Portland, after falling previous eight times in the state final, broke through at last in 1992, edging Biddeford, 41-36, in a regional final for the ages, before holding off Lawrence, 6-0, in the state game to finish a perfect 12-0.
Aaron Filieo, now the Cape Elizabeth football coach, was a key player for Wolfgram that season, later served as his assistant and said Wolfgram’s influence on his life and his coaching remain indelible.
“Virtually everything I know about coaching football, I learned from (John),” Filieo said. “He and my Dad are my two biggest influences. My Dad, who directed musical productions (at South Portland High School), taught me about leadership and organization. With John, it was less about Xs and Os. Anybody can learn plays and schemes. What he was able to do was instill prioritizing hard work, more character-rich standards that he really believed in. A lot of coaches have slogans, but he taught it and inspired you to believe it. That was validated even more when I coached under him.”
The Red Riots won Class A again in 1995 and 1996, part of a then-Class A record run of 31 straight victories, and captured a final championship in 1999.
Wolfgram left South Portland after the 2000 season and served as an assistant at Bowdoin College for five years.
Wolfgram returned to the high school sidelines in 2006, inheriting a Cheverus program which had lost 14 of its previous 16 games.
The Stags missed the playoffs Wolfgram’s first two seasons, then posted a winning record in 2008, losing to Bonny Eagle in the quarterfinals.
Cheverus fell one point shy of the state final in 2009 (losing, 7-6, to Windham in a rain- and wind-driven Western A Final).
The 2011 season was more of the same, as Cheverus went 12-0 and repeated by virtue of a 49-7 victory over Lawrence.
That would prove to be Wolfgram’s final Gold Ball, although it didn’t seem likely to be the case at the time.
The Stags went undefeated in the 2012 regular season to establish a new Class A win streak and playoff victories over Deering and Portland pushed the streak to 34 games, but Cheverus’ quest for a record third straight Class A crown was denied by Thornton Academy in the regional final, 20-13.
Cheverus almost returned to the pinnacle in 2013, but allowed a late Bonny Eagle touchdown and lost in gutwrenching fashion in the state final, 31-28.
The close calls continued in 2014 with a 21-20 overtime loss to Windham in the regional final. The Stags let a 14-3 fourth quarter lead slip away and had a potential game-tying extra point blocked. Cheverus also had a 36-game regular season win streak and a 20-game home win streak snapped that season.
This past fall, Cheverus went 5-3, then, after beating Lewiston in the Eastern A quarterfinals, was blanked, 28-0, at Windham in the semifinals to finish 6-4.
“(John) did a hell of a job last year,” Hartman said. “He should have been Coach of the Year.”
Wolfgram went 76-26 with the Stags and retires with 309 total victories.
Number 300 was one of the most memorable, in the regular season anyway, as Cheverus had to go to a second overtime before knocking off favored host Thornton Academy, 48-41, in an instant classic, Oct. 11, 2014.
That contest exemplified the tremendous rivalry that the Stags and Golden Trojans created in recent seasons and Kezal said that his program had nothing but respect for Wolfgram.
“It’s been a great rivalry,” Kezal said. “We’ve had some great games. It’s been fun. We knew we had to be ready to play. He brought out the best in our kids too.”
Wolfgram proved during his time with the Stags that he still had a mastery of his craft, garnering his ninth and 10th Gold Balls. His teams’ success turned Boulos Stadium from a quiet gathering place into the place to be for high school football fans, as several games drew throngs of thousands.
Wolfgram had nothing but fond memories of his decade with the Stags.
“I’ve had some really good kids at Cheverus, some who went on to play in college and a couple Fitzpatrick Trophy winners (Peter Gwilym and Donald Goodrich),” said Wolfgram. “It’s been a lot of fun. Kids are still pretty much kids, but there’s more specialization today, no question about that. There’s more things out there, like camps and personal trainers.”
“We’ve had success on the field and (John’s) made sure the players have success in their future endeavors as well,” Hoyt said. “He’s a terrific educator and person. Personally, he’s been one of the best coaches I’ve worked with. He’s been exemplary in his approach to student-athletes and the construction of a program.”
One constant during Wolfgram’s Cheverus tenure was his being mobbed by his six grandchildren following games, win or lose.
He wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Football is always a family situation,” Wolfgram said. “My daughter was a cheerleader at Gardiner. My sons played at South Portland. My grand-kids have come to see the games. My wife (Adin) has been the best assistant coach. The family has to understand and buy in and my wife and kids have been great.”
In addition to his football accomplishments, Wolfgram also coached Gardiner’s softball team to the 1980 Class A state title and was inducted into the Maine Sports Hall of Fame in 2013.
He’s also been a longtime basketball and boys’ lacrosse official and plans to continue to wear stripes to stay involved in athletics.
While the general public will focus on Wolfgram’s wins and championships, those who knew him best emphasize his character and teaching as what set him apart.
“Wherever he’s been, he created an atmosphere of winning with class and dignity,” Filieo said. “Not many can say they won as much as he did and held such a standard of class and sportsmanship. He has a very unique personality. He broke the mold.”
“He’s a kind man, a good man,” Hartman said. “A very bright football guy. His strength is he knows who he is and he doesn’t get caught up in the baloney. He stayed within himself and what his team could do.”
“We’ve lost an icon of high school football,” Munzing added. “He’s a great, great man. He’s very thorough, analytical and precise. Everything that happened, he thought out ahead of time. A lot of coaches talk about stuff, but it’s something else to actually do those things. If you don’t live them, then it’s just words. He’s the best teacher/coach, and I say it in that order, that I’ve ever seen.”
Hoyt said that the process for finding a new Cheverus coach is underway and that Wolfgram will play a role.
“He’ll participate in the search process,” Hoyt said. “We’ll evaluate the program, where we are and were we want to go. We want to make it as optimal as possible for the next person.”
While Cheverus looks ahead, it’s not entirely out of the question that Wolfgram will someday return to the place he’s most at home.
“I’m not closing any doors, I’m just ready to step back,” Wolfgram said.