When Roger Wrenn finally retires from coaching high school football, he will leave much more of a legacy than the 13 Baltimore City championships he has won at Patterson and Poly. Not only has he touched the lives of hundreds of young men, but he has also inspired many of his assistant coaches to carry on his legacy as head coaches.
Not that Wrenn has any specific plans to retire. He thinks maybe after next year, but for now he's going strong in his 37th season, preparing the Engineers for their 122nd meeting with archrival City on Saturday at M&T Bank Stadium.
Tell some of his former assistant coaches that their mentor is considering retirement and the response is pretty universal.
"There's no way," Mark Junker, head coach at Chesapeake in Baltimore County, said. "I'm telling you right now he's coaching until he can't. His hobby is football. He doesn't golf. What he does in the offseason is he gets read for football."
Over the course of his head coaching career, which began at Patterson in 1974 and moved to Poly in 2006, Wrenn has passed on his old-school style as well as his passion for the game, dedication to his players and exceptional organizational skills to many assistant coaches. More than a dozen have gone on to careers as head coaches.
"He had pretty much everything to do with me being a head coach," said Eastern Tech's Marc Mesaros, who coached with Wrenn from 1996 to 1998.
Mesaros, who guided Eastern Tech to its first state football championship last December, said he always wanted to be a head coach but wasn't sure he could do it.
"I didn't think I had the knowledge base, but when you're just around him for a while, stuff rubs off on you ," he said. "When I got this head coaching job, I really wasn't sure I was ready. When you work with him, the bar he sets is really high, because you're constantly comparing yourself to him. I modeled pretty much everything I do after Roger."
Some of those former assistants still have practice plans from their time with Wrenn. They plan their weeks in similar ways and run structured practices just the way he taught them.
Wrenn isn't sure why he has inspired so many assistants to follow his lead.
"It's not so much that we've done it better than anybody else — because I'm not sure that we have — but I think we've done it with such glee and such enthusiasm and so much interconnection with our young people that they say, 'Wow this is what I want to do. I think there's just something magic that we do and I don't know exactly what it is, but it's pretty neat to see," said Wrenn, a member of the Maryland High School Football Coaches' Hall of Fame.
Among the area head coaches besides Junker and Mesaros who spent time in Wrenn's fold: Howard's Bruce Strunk, Perry Hall's Keith Robinson, Kenwood's Tony Ruocco, Aberdeen's John Siemsen, Patterson Mill's Josh Mason, St. Frances' Joseph Garner and IBE's James Turner.
While the coaches said it was rewarding to work for him, even Wrenn knew it was never easy.
"I'd like to say I'm all touchy feely," Wrenn said with a laugh, "but what I really am is pretty tough to work for. I'm very demanding. I guess I give them true responsibility. There are a lot of assistant coaches who just stand around and don't have any responsibility. I give them things and then hold them accountable."
During football season, there's never a day off. Wrenn holds practice every Saturday and meets with his coaches every Sunday to watch film and begin planning for the upcoming opponent.
Garner, who assisted Wrenn from 2004 to 2007, said he believes Wrenn has mellowed a little bit with the players but not with his assistant coaches.
"At the beginning of the season, he would always say: 'Go home and tell whoever you love, "Goodbye dear, football is here,"'" Garner said with a laugh. "From what I understand Coach Wrenn has only missed one day of practice in over 30 years. What I learned from Coach Wrenn is the dedication that you have to have to your craft to succeed."
Several former assistant coaches described the atmosphere around Wrenn as intense.
"It was 1990-whatever, but it was always 1957 at Patterson," Mesaros said. "That's what I loved about it. It was a very traditional atmosphere. He was a task master, but he had to be. If he doesn't do that I don't think I'm a very good coach."
At Patterson, Mesaros' path crossed with four other current head coaches – Junker, Robinson, Ruocco and Siemsen, who forged lasting friendships.
"He was pretty demanding of us," Robinson said. "We were young and coaching wasn't the most important thing in our lives all the time. He made us take care of some responsibilities outside of coaching the games like scouting and watching film, things he knew would prepare us to be head coaches even if we didn't realize it at the time. It was part of his plan to make us head coaches."
Strunk said Wrenn wanted his protégés to become head coaches.
"He'll nudge you out of the nest and you'll fly on your own," Strunk said. "I think it's part of him as a teacher; he prepares you to be a leader and after a while being around him, you don't want to follow anymore. He inspires you to lead."
For Wrenn, whose career record stands at 272-113-2 as he approaches his 64th birthday later this month, watching his protégés succeed — including attending Mesaros' state title game — is as rewarding as watching his players succeed.
"What I'm proudest of are my assistant coaches and players who've have gone on to coach themselves," Wrenn said. "I just think that's such a wonderful legacy that I'm leaving. I've lived long enough to see how it affects young people's lives because I see them as adults. I've coached so many children of people I've coached. I guess when I coach somebody's grandson, it really will be time to go."