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Union's Wehrum reflects on storied career: 'If you love the kids, you can be a great coach'

Union's Wehrum reflects on storied career: 'If you love the kids, you can be a great coach'

Coached college lacrosse for decades
Union's Wehrum reflects on storied career: 'If you love the kids, you can be a great coach'
Paul Wehrum is shown coaching Union men's lacrosse during the 2019 season.
Photographer: Peter R. Barber

SCHENECTADY — Paul Wehrum marveled at it as he went through the itinerary his wife Christine had already put together.

First, there will be a month spent on Cape Cod.

Then, a stay of six weeks in Italy.

Not long after that, a couple months in Florida away from the New York winter.

“She’s pretty good at this, right?” Wehrum said.

Finally, there is time for extended vacations like the ones the couple married since 1980 are planning to take in the year ahead. After a coaching career that spanned decades, Wehrum’s long-planned retirement was announced Tuesday. That storied coaching career, which closed with 13 seasons as the leader of the Union College men’s lacrosse program, included more than 500 wins and numerous championships.

The 68-year-old won eight NJCAA championships during his 24 seasons leading the Herkimer County Community College men’s lacrosse program, started Herkimer’s women’s program and brought that team to a championship game by his third and final season leading it, and he leaves Union as its program’s winningest head coach. Along the way, he’s earned entry to several halls of fame — including the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame — and saw Herkimer name its stadium after him.

All that is great. Wehrum is proud of all those accomplishments, but not consumed by a need to memorize them. They’re not what he is going to remember most from all his years leading teams.

“I care about the human beings I coached,” Wehrum. “If you love the kids, you can be a great coach.”

Wehrum coached several sports at the college level, and he starred in both football and lacrosse at SUNY Cortland before heading into coaching. At one point, early in his coaching career, he took a year off from coaching lacrosse to focus on football.

“And I couldn’t believe how much I missed lacrosse,” said Wehrum, who was a three-time All-American lacrosse player at Cortland and served the year after he graduated as an assistant coach on his alma mater’s 1973 U.S. Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association national championship team. “Man, I really, really missed lacrosse.”

Growing up on Long Island, Wehrum favored football and lacrosse above the other sports he tried. With a laugh, he said baseball never held much appeal for him.

“There are a lot of lacrosse guys that couldn’t hit a curveball,” Wehrum said.

After that year without coaching lacrosse, Wehrum moved back into coaching the sport. He coached at the high school and junior college levels before becoming the Herkimer’s men’s lacrosse head coach ahead of the 1980 season and stayed in that role through the 2003 campaign. During that span, Wehrum’s teams won eight national championships, compiled a 403-62 record and won a record 59 consecutive games at one point. After winning the 2003 national championship with the men’s program, he helped start Herkimer’s women’s program and guided it for its first three seasons.

At that point, Wehrum — who also spent time coaching wrestling and women’s tennis at Herkimer, where he served as a professor from 1979 to 2006 teaching health and physical education — wanted a new challenge. He’d considered retirement, but wanted to see if he could find a lacrosse program to lead at a higher level. That opportunity presented itself at Union for Wehrum, who jumped at the chance to become the Dutchmen’s first-ever full-time head coach.

“But then what happened was we had that losing season my first year,” said Wehrum, who also served as an assistant coach for the U.S. national team that won the 1998 World Lacrosse Championship. “People were saying I should have stayed at the junior college level. I remembered that. It drove me a little bit.”

While Wehrum’s 2007 team at Union went 5-9, his next dozen teams at Union combined to go 133-65 and made five appearances in the NCAA tournament. The Union program’s six highest single-season wins totals were achieved by teams Wehrum led, and the 2014 team’s 15 wins are a school-best total.

Last summer, though, Wehrum came to the conclusion he was nearly ready to stop coaching. Games and running practices still thrilled him, but the long drives from his home in Little Falls to Union’s campus had started to feel longer and hitting the recruiting trail no longer excited him the way it once had.

“I realized that maybe it was time,” Wehrum said. “I didn’t have that passion anymore to go to every camp.”

Wehrum was energized, though, throughout his final season with the Dutchmen. Picked to finish fifth in the Liberty League, Union finished second in its conference, 14-4 overall and advanced to the third round of the NCAA Division III tournament. In his final season, Wehrum — along with his associate head coach Derek Witheford, and assistant coaches Stefan Basile and Richard Aberle — earned Liberty League Coaching Staff of the Year honors.

“This season,” Wehrum said, “was such a joy.”

What’s ahead, though, excites Wehrum. There will be more time to spend with his family, especially his two adult children — Brett and Lyndsay, the latter a 2009 Union graduate — and wife. He’s looking forward to reading, making his way as a fan to Union lacrosse games, and traveling as much as possible.

“I’m healthy and strong, and so is my wife. We know how fragile that is,” Wehrum said. “I’m so fortunate.”

Reach Michael Kelly at [email protected] or @ByMichaelKelly on Twitter.

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