Paul Wehrum was already a lacrosse legend when he gave up thoughts of retirement and decided to help rebuild the tradition-rich Union College men’s program two years ago.
After serving 24 years as the head coach at Herkimer County Community College, where he led the Generals to 21 consecutive National Junior College Athletic Association Region III championships and an unprecedented eight national titles, Wehrum thought he had reached the pinnacle of his profession.
“When we hadn’t lost in more than 200 straight games, I figured there was nothing more to do on the junior college level, so I retired as the men’s coach and as a full professor of health and wellness at Herkimer,” said the 58-year-old Wehrum.
“But then they asked me to coach the women’s team, and I did for two seasons.”
Although Wehrum still had his magic touch, leading the Generals to a pair of national semifinals, he would soon turn his attention elsewhere.
“I realized that my heart was with the men’s game,” he said. “I kind of figured that I was finished coaching. I was very fortunate that they named the stadium after me and my family, but the problem was that I didn’t want to stay there and lose a game in a stadium with my family’s name on it. It was scary. The women had never won a regional championship game, and I was nervous about losing in that place.”
Losing still scares Wehrum. Last season, in his Union debut, the Dutchmen were only 5-9.
“That was one of the longest years of my entire life,” he said. “It took me seven years to lose nine games when I was at Herkimer. It was a big challenge for me. I was a big dog in junior college, and now I’m a little puppy.”
But the puppy has some bite. Union is 2-1 in the Liberty League this year and 8-2 overall.
“We were very fortunate to get a man like Paul Wehrum. He’s done a remarkable job with the Union program,” said Union athletic director Jim McLaughlin. “He’s definitely a coaching legend who has been named to four halls of fame [National Lacrosse Hall of Fame, Long Island Lacrosse Hall of Fame, Upstate New York Lacrosse Hall of Fame and SUNY-Cortland Hall of Fame].
“For me, it’s not just his coaching, but it’s what he’s done off the field. He teaches life lessons. I know that he’s coming from a different place when it comes to recruiting the kind of student-athletes we have here at Union, but Paul is a very bright guy, and he’s adapted very well. What I really appreciate is that
he respects the Union program enough to send his own daughter [Lyndsay] here. She’s on the tennis team.
“We are very excited to have a coach like Paul Wehrum on our staff.”
It didn’t take Wehrum long to get his bearings in his new post.
“This is my first recruiting class this season, and four freshmen are starting for me,” Wehrum said. “One of the first places I visited when I got here was Niskayuna. We picked up two outstanding players from there in Wade Lupe and Ben Romer.”
The Dutchmen also have plenty of firepower with players like sophomore attack Chris Jacobson (5 goals, 17 assists, 22 points), senior midfielder Jon Miller (17-3-20), sophomore midfielder Scott Garibaldi (11-7-18), senior attack Chris Collison (15-1-16) and senior attack Tom Simmons (12-3-15) leading the way.
“I’m not only recruiting locally, but I’m also recruiting in the Baltimore area. That’s why I scheduled a game for us down there, instead of taking a spring trip to Florida. I told the guys if they wanted to see Mickey Mouse and Goofy, they would have to go there on their own time.”
Wehrum said the Dutchmen are improving.
“Our goal last year was just to get this program on its feet,” he said. “Our goal this year is the Liberty League playoffs. I want to walk before I run, but we’re getting there.”
When Wehrum finally decided to leave Herkimer, he was quickly contacted by several Union alumni. One thing led to another, and the Dutchmen eventually got their man.
“When the job opened up, I thought it was a perfect opportunity for me,” he said. “It’s a funny thing, because I always had a number of offers coming through to coach at a higher level when I was working at the community college level, but I love teaching, and I didn’t really consider those offers. I was a professor who won the Chancellor’s Award for Excellence as a teacher and full health professor. I was doing what I wanted to do, teaching and coaching.
“When I was at Herkimer, I was always sending kids to Cornell, Virginia, Syracuse and Johns Hopkins. That really felt good for me. I was touching twice as many athletes at the junior college level, because it was like a revolving door. The kids came in one year, and then they were seniors the next, and I was helping them to move on to places like Cornell and Syracuse. I always loved the teaching aspect.”
So the lure of Union’s mix of outstanding academics with a strong tradition in lacrosse was hard to pass up.
The first thing that the SUNY-Cortland graduate discovered at Union was that he had to recruit differently than he did at Herkimer CC.
“An old coach of mine told me that it’s not about the X’s and O’s, it’s about the Johnnys and Joes,” said Wehrum, who commutes from the Herkimer area. “The very first thing I was looking for were outstanding academic students. A young man can be the greatest lacrosse player, but if the academics don’t work out, he’s not going to be able to play here. That was a big change for me. It’s very difficult to get in at Union. There are a great number of applicants. Once the academic parameters were straightened out, I began to look for the right kind of athletes. We wanted to bring in bigger, stronger players, and the first area I looked at in recruiting was on the defensive end. I like the football-lacrosse combination.”
The Dutchmen, who posted an 18-40 record from 2003-2007, haven’t won eight games or more in a season since 1992, and they have never earned a spot in the Liberty League playoffs.
But Union, which tied Navy as the unofficial national USILA champion in 1929, still has a strong tradition of success, and Wehrum is well aware of it.
“This is only a game, and we want to make it as enjoyable as we can,” he said. “I think we are building another strong program here.”
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