Wabash football has a long and rich history of success.
And it was Frank Navarro who helped bring the tradition of winning to the Little Giant program in the mid 1970s.
Navarro, who passed away at the age of 91 on May 30, is remembered for his discipline and goal-oriented approach to coaching football.
“You always knew where you stood with Frank,” Gary Reamey, who played linebacker for the Little Giants in 1975 and 1976, said. “He was a thoughtful guy, very disciplined and efficient in his coaching approach. And he was a very likable coach.”
Navarro guided the Little Giants from 1974-1977, arriving from Columbia University, and helped Wabash to its first winning since since 1965 in 1976. A year later, he guided the Little Giants to an 11-2 overall record, their first playoff berth in program history and a runner-up finish nationally — falling to Widener University 39-36 in the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl championship game played in Phenix City, Alabama. Wabash picked up playoff wins over St. John’s University and the University of Minnesota-Morris. Navarro earned the Eastman Kodak-American Football Coaches Association College Division Coach of the Year Award in 1977.
“He made us winners and, being winners brought us closer as friends, teammates and Wabash fellows,” Bill Cannon, a junior defensive player on the 1977 team, said. “Also, the whole environment of the campus was brought into the enthusiasm of the times.”
While Navarro’s stint at Wabash was brief, it was forever impactful. Navarro was inducted into the Wabash College Athletics Hall of Fame in 1986. The new football field at Wabash, installed as part of the new $13 million Little Giant Stadium, bears his name as Frank Navarro Field. His image is the first at the west entrance to the Hall of Giants on the concourse of the stadium. Images of Navarro are also included in murals in the club-level suites of the stadium.
“I met Coach Navarro in February 2019 at an event held in his honor,” said Don Morel, the current head football coach. “After spending only a few minutes with him, it became clear to me that this man set the standard for what Wabash football has become over the last 50 years. Without a doubt coach Navarro was a tough, driven coach who loved the game and the young men who played for him at Wabash College. It also became apparent coach Navarro was a tremendous husband, father, and grandfather. He will be missed by many.”
Navarro had a 30-year coaching career with stops at Wabash, Columbia, Williams College, and Princeton — totaling a win/loss record of 99-99-6.
“Coach Navarro concluded his 30 year on-field career in 1985, having influenced the lives of hundreds of young athletes, instilling ambition and character, graced by values of hard work, humility and respect,” read his obituary prepared by family. “He was a mentor to many, having forged relationships that extended throughout his lifetime.”
What his former players remember most is how he approached each practice and game and expected the same from his fellow assistant coaches and players.
“He had an agenda every day with exact amounts of time associated with each segment of the practice,” Cannon said. He stuck to the agenda, and expected his coaches to do the same. He was very exacting with respect to each player’s actions as they pertained to the goals of the team, practice, their positions and the amount of effort they put forward. He expected us to practice like we played and play like we practiced.”
Serving as a commissioned officer in the United States Air Force, his military background was constantly popping up, even if it threw his players through a loop.
“Leading up to the Stagg Bowl he had a rare, whimsical moment at practice one afternoon when he described his theory on defensive football, and how it was like an army of infantry (the lineman), the linebackers (the tank corp) and the defensive-backs (the airforce),” Cannon added. “He used each in a war-plan, against the opposing team, based on the trends of their past performances to put his best players in the best positions to make the plays over the course of the game. I think Bruce Pickens was with me when he elucidated his theory and I’m sure my jaw was on the floor. I couldn’t believe he as being so melancholy because that was ‘way’ out of character, especially as we were preparing for the National Championship.”
Reamer remembers his relationship with Navarro to be so strong that words weren’t even needed for coach to get his point across.
“With Frank, sometimes a look is all you need,” he said. “In 1976 I was co-captain for the team. Frank would call the defensive plays from the sidelines, and I would relay them to the rest of the defense in the huddle. One game late in the season of my junior year, the opposing team was on our 40-yard line and Frank signaled me from the sideline to call a defense that anticipated that the other team would be passing. I waved-off his call. He signaled it again. I waved it off again and called a blitz play. The opposing team threw a pass for a touchdown. As I came off the sideline with my head down, but looking straight at Frank, he just stared at me and never said a word. He didn’t have to. I got the message. Needless to say, I never waved off one of Frank’s defensive calls again.”
Navarro leaves behind his wife, Jill, along with eight children and 22 grandchildren, and hundreds of former players that are forever grateful for his dedication to them and the game of football.
Wabash Athletics also contributed to this story.