In the toughest moments, the most challenging circumstances, it is the truest of leaders who can provide calm and confidence.
That kind of leader finds – or makes – a path to victory.
At Washington & Jefferson College in the mid-to-late 1980s, that leader was Pat Aigner – in football and baseball.
A graduate of Bishop McCort High School, Aigner waited patiently for his turn as starting quarterback at W&J behind Rich Riotto.
The Presidents were in the midst of being built into an NCAA Division III power starting in 1984, when they won a PAC title and an NCAA playoff game.
The ascent to becoming a great program had begun with running back A.J. Pagano leading the way in blazing a path toward the top.
Together, Pagano and Aigner came together – along with a host of outstanding offensive and defensive linemen and specialists to form a team in 1987 that created magical victories – some in unbelievable fashion – and a season that anyone associated with it will never forget.
Aigner was the maestro.
“In terms of leadership in the football program, nobody was better,” said John Luckhardt, who built the W&J program by bringing together a talented coaching staff and gifted, committed and intelligent players. “The 1987 season was a great one. Pat brought and kept everyone together. You don’t do that as a first-year starter surrounded by so many veterans without being a great leader. Pat had that knack and charisma about him; he still does.
“The great ones athletically have the ability to rise up and play exceptional in the moments a team really needs it. Pat had that capacity.”
In all, Aigner led W&J to consecutive Presidents’ Athletic Conference football championships and NCAA Division III playoff appearances as starting quarterback in 1987 and 1988.
He threw for more than 3,580 yards in his career and was an NCAA Division III All-American in 1988. He also was an Associated Press Honorable Mention All-American that season.
Aigner was the PAC Offensive Most Valuable Player in 1988 and was a first-team All-PAC quarterback that season and second team All-PAC quarterback in 1987, when he led W&J to a playoff win over Allegheny and into the Southern Region championship game against Emory & Henry.
Aigner finished his career as the PAC leader in TD passes in a season and in a game.
“I still remember meeting (former W&J assistant coach) Bob Antion at a small-college recruiting night,” Aigner explained. “I felt like I had a need to play for a program who had a chance to win and to play in games of great magnitude and importance. I knew W&J was a football program on the rise with a high-level of talent and coaching and that they were playing on a national level.
“I did have to be patient, football-wise. There is a balancing act. They say patience is a virtue. You have to know who you’re competing with. I didn’t want to be a backup and it was difficult. But in the end, it is indisputable that Rich did a great job as W&J’s quarterback and he had to follow a great one in Mike John.”
Aigner finally got his chance in the 1987 opener at Ohio Wesleyan. W&J was highly ranked in the preseason and Ohio Wesleyan was winless in 1986.
Yet, the Presidents needed a last-minute rally, which started deep in their own territory to avoid a certain – embarrassing and season-altering – defeat. Aigner was at the center of the comeback.
He guided W&J down the field and helped put the Presidents in position to have freshmen John Ivory kick a walk-off field goal to start a journey no one saw coming.
Aigner and his talented teammates earned comeback victories against Hiram, which was undefeated at the time, and Carnegie Mellon.
The CMU game saw the Presidents down 22-7 at halftime. While Pagano exploded for 357 all-purpose yards and willed the Presidents to victory, Aigner spread the ball around and gave W&J the opportunity to again give Ivory the chance to kick a game-winning field, which he did for a 38-36 victory.
“The Ohio Wesleyan game was definitely not the opener we expected,” Aigner said. “When I walked in the huddle that day, I was looking at an All-American running back (Pagano), some All-American linemen, talented players all over the place and realized I am a brand new quarterback responsible for helping bring this and keeping this all together.
“You find out a lot about yourself and your team. We had to dig deep so many times that season, really deep. It definitely brought us together. That, no doubt, was one of the best experiences of anything I have ever done athletically.
“I know we didn’t win the national championship, but I can tell you no one was more talented or more driven than our team in 1987.”
Aigner had so much to do with it.
Perhaps his most impressive performance that season was in the first-round of the NCAA playoffs against Allegheny at Meadville.
The game was delayed because of a storm that left eight-inches of snow. The wind swirled, snow fell throughout the game and the temperatures were frigid – minus-20 windchill factor.
W&J found a way to warm hearts.
The Gators rallied late to take an eight-point lead with less than a minute remaining. W&J was reeling. Pagano, experiencing the worst game of his stellar career, fumbled four times.
The Presidents had 50 seconds to find a way.
Aigner steered them 56 yards in six plays, finding Pagano on a 27-yard catch and run. Luckhardt called for the same play, in the opposite direction – for the game-tying two-point conversion.
W&J won the game in overtime, with an Arnold Tarpley interception then Pagano and fullback Rick France traded carries before France pranced through the Allegheny secondary and into the end zone.
In spite of the weather, Aigner completed 19 of 36 passes for 248 yards and helped the Presidents amass 368 yards.
Quipped Luckhardt after the game: “He was throwing a melon ball on a frozen tundra.”
The 1987 season ended the following week in a 23-16 loss to Emory & Henry. W&J fell behind and rallied before an interception deep in the Wasps territory thwarted another miracle comeback.
Aigner, with a new cast, led W&J to another PAC championship in 1988. But a tie in the opening game at Juniata, 13-13, and loss at eventual national champion Ithaca, 34-3, in the season finale denied the Presidents playoff entry.
“It was a challenge because we lost a significant amount of talent and leadership,” Aigner said of 1988. “At the same time, new players came in with a lot of skill and they gave rise to great teams in the 1990s. It was difficult at times that year. But we went undefeated in the conference and I’m proud we won back-to-back PAC championships.”
Football was only part of Aigner’s story at W&J.
As a catcher for the W&J baseball team, he was a four-time All-PAC performer and had a career batting average over .400. He led the Presidents to the college’s first PAC championship in 1986. W&J swept John Carroll in a doubleheader to clinch the crown.
In 1989, Aigner was named the PAC Baseball Player of the Year and he was named to the PAC Baseball 60th Anniversary Team.
“Pat was able to rally his teammates and evoke confidence because he engaged everyone with a genuine inclusive approach,” said John Salvitti, who played baseball with Aigner at W&J. He was a leader that valued input and buy-in (from) his teammates and he was confident yet humble in his leadership role.
“The baseball program did not have the track record of success that the football program did, but the talent level was improving. Pat not only brought additional talent, but as the catcher he became a field general for the team much like he did for football. His role was instrumental in the PAC baseball championship.”
Aigner was inducted into the W&J Pete Henry Hall of Fame in 2006. He served as honorary captain at this season’s Homecoming game.
Aigner lives with his wife, Lauren, in Gainesville, Va. He has a son, Jason, who attends Christopher Newport, where he is a member of the basketball team.
Aigner is a lieutenant with the Prince William County police department in Virginia.
“Pat is a leader,” Luckhardt said. “He came in as a freshman and was a leader. It translated to both football and baseball. He had tremendous confidence in himself and his teammates. He rises up. It’s how he leads his life. He has a voice. He is heard. Pat is just that kind of man.”
While it’s tough to rate the greatest athletes at a school with such great athletic tradition, calling Aigner one of the best is appropriate.
“That’s a tough question to answer because there have been some great overall performers,” Salvitti said. “ But the trophies on his shelf certainly have him in the conversation. To this day, he rallies people around him for the college, so he continues to perform.”
Aigner said the greatest gift from W&J is the lifetime friendships. He pointed out Luckhardt and Bill Dukett, who was the Presidents’ associate head coach and offensive strategist in Aigner’s career.
“My relationship with W&J is a lifetime relationship,” Aigner said. “My coaches there. … I still reach out to people there now and who were there in the past. They are my extended family. The Duketts are a second family to me. They are always there for me. I was fortunate to play under him. Coach Dukett has been there for me through many life experiences. When I come back, it’s like being home. My personal experience with the college and the many people has been outstanding.”