How did Justin Wagar turn Grambling soccer from an afterthought to a powerhouse?

Wagar turned the program around, then left, and returned to lead them to NCAA tournament
Published: Nov. 9, 2023 at 11:15 PM CST
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GRAMBLING, La. (KSLA) - “I’m not going to lie, I’m kind of cocky, " says Grambling State University head soccer coach, Justin Wagar. “So, I love turning programs around, and that’s what I expected. ‘Don’t go there. They can’t win. They’re second to last in the nation.’”

For the first time since 2006, Grambling soccer is in the NCAA tournament. Friday night at 6:30, the SWAC champions visit SEC runner-up, Arkansas.

“They won the SEC Championship, four out of five years, " says Wagar. “They are top five in the nation for scoring. They just beat the No. 12 in the nation, Alabama, 5-0. This is David, Grambling, versus Goliath on steroids.”

Prior to Justin Wagar’s arrival at GSU, the program averaged one win a year, during the previous eight season. Since, they haven’t had a losing record. However, there was a time when the veteran coach had to step away from the university.

“I have a young daughter with cystic fibrosis, " says Wagar. “She was struggling at the time, when I was coaching at Grambling, in my fourth year. Then [COVID-19] hit. Our season got canceled. Her liver was kind of failing a little bit. So, she had lost weight four months in a row. So, we said, it’s time to step away and we’ll move where we can get her medical treatment.

In July 2022, the Wagar family returned to where it all started.

“They called me and said, ‘How’s your daughter doing?’ ‘Are you interested in coming back, ‘” Wagar recalls. “I said, ‘Man, I don’t know. I’m just getting settled in and all in Utah. The funny thing is, they didn’t really take no for an answer.”

After a 15-win season, a SWAC Championship, and a spot on a national state, the tide is turning for Grambling and soccer in North Louisiana.

“We are becoming a soccer school, yes, " says Wagar. “President [Rick] Gallot talked to Adidas, we have a great sponsorship with them. He said, ‘We not only want to highlight our football program, we want to showcase our women’s soccer program. They’re in a championship every year. Six championships in seven years. We need to give them some commercials and Adidas love and sponsorships just for their team to support the legacy they’re building there.”