Inspiring Alumni: Joe Wagoner

Inspiring Alumni: Joe Wagoner

Friday, November 11, 2016

He can laugh about it now, but one excruciating day may have been the turning point in Joe Wagoner’s life.

A sophomore pitcher for Midland’s baseball team, he took the mound during a team scrimmage for a new coach, Jeff Field.  “I threw 60 pitches and I didn’t get one out. Sixty pitches in front of your new coach and didn’t get one out.” It was just the start of a very bad day.

“I went back to the dorm and learned my dog of 15 years had died. Earlier that day, my Psych professor told me he really seriously doubted I’d make it through the year, which is great. So, I figured, screw it, I’m just going to break up with my girlfriend of three years. Let’s just round out this day.” With no one to turn to, Wagoner headed out to Moeller Field, hopped the fence and sat in the grandstand for four hours. “I realized it was up to myself to improve my situation; no one else was there. That was a real pivotal day for me.”

That day helped lead him to changing majors – he switched to business administration and graduated in 1997 – and started him on a road that has led to co-founding the Sacramento Republic FC of the United Soccer League. Starting the Republic from the ground up was a risk. That’s something Wagoner embraced while at Midland. “For some reason, what really led to a fun career path was learning to take risks. I don’t know why, but when I left Midland I wasn’t afraid to take any risks. Was it because I grew such a close support system at Midland so if I failed I knew I could go back anytime and get it figured out? I think it goes back to those opportunities where you can try all these things, and if it doesn’t work out, that’s all right. There was this spirit that I left that campus with, ‘I’m ready to take on this world. If it doesn’t work, we’ll try something else.’”

Wagoner, who grew up in Macomb, Ill., was active on campus. Besides playing baseball for two years, he became president of his fraternity, Kappa Alpha Lambda; was freshman orientation co-chairman; and sold advertising for the student newspaper. He even was the lead guitarist for a band he and his friends put together, Sausage Groove Gravy. 

“A lot of good stuff came out of all of that. … You talk about what you get out of a school like Midland; that was it for me. You don’t have to be just one thing. You can be an athlete, you can be a student, you could be a social butterfly, you could get involved in student government, and you could try out new stuff. You got to experience it all and try to figure out what your place was. So many friends went to bigger schools and just got swallowed up. I guarantee you, if I had gone to the University of Illinois or Wisconsin or UNL, it would have been curtains after about two years because it wouldn’t have been good.”

He might not have picked Midland if it weren’t for one stop on his visit to the campus.

“Honestly, the real answer (to why he chose Midland) is the planetarium. I was visiting and the first thing they did was, ‘Hey, let’s go to the planetarium.’ They’re playing Pink Floyd and brought up all these things. I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is awesome.’ I didn’t have those experiences when I visited other schools. People at Midland went out of their way to make you feel welcome, answering questions and taking you around.”

Once on campus, Wagoner developed friendships that have stood the test of time. He also learned to listen. “That’s something that stuck with me; understanding how to listen to others. When I got there, I felt I viewed the world with an entirely different lens than a lot of other folks that I was running into. … I’m very liberal, and all of my friends minus two were incredibly conservative. We’d have great conversations, but I wanted to understand how to talk to folks.”

Learning to listen paid dividends throughout his career. After Midland, Wagoner landed a job with an advertising agency on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. While he found success, Wagoner decided advertising wasn’t the career he wanted. So he sent out letters to every Major League Baseball team, every team in the NBA and NFL and 50 minor league baseball teams. “Only one person responded. And it happened to be in Sioux Falls, S.D., the one town I vowed to never go to because my folks lived there.” Wagoner’s father, Dr. Ralph Wagoner, was president of Augustana College at the time.

Still, Wagoner would take the job with the Sioux Falls Canaries. “It was tough, but there was that immediate gratification. … People come in with the weight of the world on their shoulders and they leave happy. There’s that instant gratification. It’s tangible. You can affect people’s lives doing something you love to do. For me, I just didn’t get that out of the advertising world.”

After that start, he successfully moved through several jobs in minor league sports before co-founding the Sacramento Republic. The club is working to become the next expansion team for Major League Soccer, and if successful, it will be another risk that has paid off with Wagoner. 

“It was about taking a risk. It was having the confidence. We’ve done all our homework. No one is going to out-work us. No one. We’re willing to take that risk. I was never the smartest person. I was never the best athlete. None of those things. I wasn’t a standout in anything. But I had a great attitude and no one was going to out-work me.”

That is, after all, the lesson Wagoner learned while sitting on the Moeller Field grandstand on that fateful day of his sophomore year.