Walter "Babe" Weigent

Posted by Scott on September 22, 2017

(written by Carla Swerman, Archives staff)

For most coaches, the foremost goal is to win. But, for legendary coaches, such as John Wooden or Vince Lombardi, building character is equally important. That, however, is not an easy feat. Yet, one La Crosse coach, Walter “Babe” Weigent, accomplished both during his 37 years at Central High School. His high expectations as well as his encouragement to “Get in the game [of life]!” helped him instill character while re-establishing a golden era of football for the Red Raiders.

Born in La Crosse in 1904, Weigent was a standout, multi-sport athlete at Central. He contributed to the Raider’s first golden era of football in 1921-1923 when the team recorded 19 wins and just two losses and two ties. Not only was the team undefeated Weigent’s junior year (1923), but Weigent himself was selected to the All-State basketball team, and the American Legion recognized him as the top athlete in the state.

After graduating in 1924, Weigent headed to Marquette University and was captain of the freshman football and basketball teams. His sophomore year, he transferred to UW-Madison where he played football in 1927 and earned a degree in physical education.

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1929 Lake Mills undfeated football team (Weigent far left)


Weigent began his teaching and coaching career in Lake Mills, WI. His basketball and football teams achieved many more victories than losses and also earned conference titles between 1929 and 1932.

With that track record, Weigent was sought out by the administration at his alma mater, and returned to Central in 1933. The Raiders’ golden era of football was renewed for the next 17 years with 62 victories, three conference championships, and nine city championships or ties. Weigent also coached basketball, golf, and tennis at Central and was the director of La Crosse’s city softball program for 25 years.

No matter the sport, Weigent expected dedication, sacrifice, and demanding physical training from his athletes. In football, the eleven who earned coveted spots on the gridiron had to demonstrate genuine character, mental toughness, and extreme fitness. Often, scrimmages lasted until dark or were held in the morning after a losing game. He was known to yell, “Keep those legs driving!” and “I’ve never had a team that took a physical beating and this unit isn’t going to be the first one.” Each team Weigent coached was expected to be better than the previous one, especially because the Raiders faced competitive schools, such as Madison West, Waterloo East, and Minneapolis Boys Vocational School.

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Walter "Babe" Weigent, date unknown


Despite his successes, Weigent traded in his coaching shoes in 1950 to become Central’s first athletic director. “I feel that the entire athletic environment adds character to the school and the student,” Weigent stated. He explained, “I’m convinced there is a striking coincidence between good grades, good athletics, good teams and character building. It is much easier to build character on winning teams than on losing teams.”

Before retiring from his “character-building work” in 1970, Weigent was honored with a surprise banquet in 1964, was an honorary Oktoberfest marshal in 1967, was president of the Wisconsin Football Coaches Association, and was on the state’s athletic board, the WIAA today.

Weigent passed away two years after retiring. But, his 67-year legacy lives on. It is estimated that he touched the lives of 44,000 students during his career; he was undoubtedly a mentor for many, one of whom is Carl Miller, a former student and colleague of Weigent’s. Thirteen years ago, Miller, now 83, spearheaded efforts to raise funds to honor Weigent.

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Weigent statue in Weigent Park (photo courtesy of La Crosse Tribune)


After $200,000 was collected, a local artist, Mike Martino, sculpted a 600-pound statue that depicts Weigent with his arm around a football player who is about to “Get in the game!” -- the game of life, that is. How fitting that Weigent’s seven-foot tall statue faces both Cass and 16th Streets in the northeast corner of the park that was named after him in 1977. How fitting that the bronze icon, dedicated on July 7, 2017, resides on the same land where the original Central High School was located from 1907 to 1967. How fitting that 45 years after his death, Weigent’s character is now adding “character” to his old coaching grounds.

To learn more about the local coaching legend, Weigent Park, Central High School, or sports in La Crosse, visit the second floor of the La Crosse Public Library at 800 Main Street, call (608)789-7136, or e-mail archives@lacrosselibrary.org.