It has been two weeks since the winningest coach in college football history retired, but John Gagliardi’s former players still can’t picture St. John’s University without him on the sideline.
After all, Gagliardi is St. John’s football.
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The 86-year-old Gagliardi stepped down Nov. 19 after 60 years at the helm at St. John’s in Collegeville, Minn., and four years at Carroll College in Montana before that. He didn’t cite health reasons as the motive for his retirement. Simply, it was tough for him to see his Johnnies teams struggle in recent years to compete at the high level he had grown accustomed to in his six decades as coach. The Johnnies narrowly avoided a rare losing season in 2012, finishing 5-5 overall and 3-5 in conference play.
Gagliardi wasn’t sure if he could take on a rebuilding project — something he didn’t often have to lead during his career.
“We’ve had ups. We haven’t had many downs through the years,” Gagliardi said. “At this age, I didn’t know if I could quite pull it off.”
So after 489 wins in 64 years, Gagliardi called it quits. He retired with more wins than any college football coach in history and turned St. John’s University into a Division III powerhouse. In doing so, he made a name for himself in the state of Minnesota and in college football circles nationwide as an iconic figure who didn’t allow tackling in practices and made a habit of getting to know each of his players on a personal level.
Most of those players all shared a sentiment of disbelief when news spread of Gagliardi’s retirement.
“It’s kind of sad,” said Willie Seiler, a quarterback at St. John’s who set school passing records in the early 1990s. “He’s been there forever. St. John’s football is him. Now that he’s gone, it’s going to be a new era. For me, anyway, it was a real sad day.”
That’s not to say the retirement announcement was completely unexpected. Gagliardi admits the thought of retirement crept into his mind after he hit certain milestone victories or reached a new decade of birthdays.
But nobody wanted to believe Gagliardi would ever stop coaching St. John’s football. For several generations of Johnnies fans, he’s the only coach they’ve known.
“People were speculating it, so I was kind of going through my head after the season was done,” said Connor Bruns, a junior at St. John’s and the quarterback on this year’s Johnnies squad. “Everybody thought about it. When that day actually came, it kind of was weird to think that it’s actually real, that he’s done coaching. He’s been coaching for 60-some years. It was just kind of surreal.”
Added Bruns’ teammate, senior running back Stephen Johnson: “We just didn’t expect it. It still hasn’t really sunk in.”
Doing things his own way
Gagliardi got his start as a coach while playing high school football in the 1940s in Colorado. His high school, Trinidad Catholic, saw its coach leave for World War II. Unable to hire a new coach, the school threatened to drop football.
But Gagliardi and his teammates convinced administrators to let the players run the team. As a captain, Gagliardi was one of the players in charge, and they started making changes.
“We just kind of eliminated a lot of things we didn’t like,” he said. “Lo and behold, we won the championship. They asked me to do it the next few years. The only thing I knew was what we were doing. It all started then, really.”
After graduating from Colorado College, Gagliardi took a job at Carroll College as a 22-year-old head coach. In just a short time, he led the small school to three conference championships in four years.
That success helped him land a job at St. John’s, where he would one day create his legacy.
“It wasn’t easy leaving Carroll, to be honest with you,” Gagliardi said. “Sometimes when I was here in my early years, I kind of regretted it. There were a lot of things I liked about Carroll (but) a lot of things I liked about St. John’s, of course.”
Early on, winning came easy for Gagliardi at St. John’s. In his first year as the 26-year-old head coach in 1953, the Johnnies finished 6-2 and were crowed MIAC champions; prior to that season, they hadn’t won a conference title in 15 years.
From there, success was a constant for Gagliardi and the Johnnies. In his 60 years as coach, his teams endured just two — yes, two — losing seasons. The 1956 team was 3-4-1, and the 1967 squad was 3-5.
Gagliardi’s rosters weren’t filled with players who went on to the NFL. According to Pro-football-reference.com, only four players from St. John’s ever went on to play in the NFL, and just two of them played for Gagliardi.
Still, he got the most out of his players year in and year out.
“I remember that we just never thought we’d ever lose,” said Mike Grant, a tight end on Gagliardi’s teams in the 1970s and now the head football coach at Eden Prairie (Minn.) High School. “It never entered our minds that we’d lose a game. Whatever psychology John used to convince those guys that we’d never lose and that we were going to outperform and outplay these guys was brilliant.”
In the history books
Gagliardi passed legendary Grambling coach Eddie Robinson on the all-time wins list Nov. 8, 2003, breaking the record by securing win No. 409.
Robinson retired in 1997, and Gagliardi still had plenty of wins to go to catch him. And at his age, it was uncertain — even back then — as to how long Gagliardi might coach.
“When Eddie Robinson quit and had 400-some odd wins, I thought, ‘My God, how in the world are you going to do that?’ ” Gagliardi said. “It was unimaginable because at that time I had, I don’t know, maybe 250. Each game, one at a time, now that I look back at it, it’s very gratifying.”
Gagliardi’s 489 wins in 64 seasons averages out to a little more than 7 ½ wins per season. He had two 12-win seasons, nine 11-win seasons and five 10-win seasons during his career. It took him 13 years to go from 200 to 300 wins and another nine years after that to earn win No. 400 in 2002. The 489th and final victory of Gagliardi’s career came Nov. 3 of this season against Hamline University, a 55-10 rout.
“To have the longevity, you think close to 500 wins, it’s unbelievable,” Grant said. “That’s 50 years of 10 wins. There’s coaches who coach 30 years and never get 10 wins in a year. For him to be as good as long as he was, it’s just an incredible feat.”
More than a coach
Football can be a serious game at times, but the St. John’s coach liked to keep things light. That’s one reason his practices didn’t involve tackling — that, and to prevent injuries.
But there was more than unorthodox practices that made Gagliardi’s coaching style well-liked by his players.
“People talk a lot about the (practice) tactics, the no tackling dummies and those type of things. But really, John’s strategy was trust,” said Tom Linnemann, Gagliardi’s quarterback on the 2000 Johnnies team that played in the national championship. “He trusted his players. He allowed us to play the game. … You walk up to the line of scrimmage and look at the defense and call your own plays. It was an exhilarating feeling, but at the base of it was the trust level he had in his players.
“It’s a really hard thing to describe when he’s more than a coach. He was definitely a father figure for me.”
Even at 86 years old, Gagliardi’s sense of humor shines through. He’s quick with a joke whether he’s talking to one of his players or someone he just met for the first time.
That’s how he was both on and off the field. If a referee made a call Gagliardi didn’t agree with, his response would often elicit some chuckles from his players.
“He’s hilarious. I’ve driven up to certain speaking engagements that he’s had and he can get any crowd just rolling,” Seiler said. “He’s like that on the field, too. He could get his point across when he needed to, but he’s always kind of been that way.”
Plenty of numbers will follow Gagliardi into retirement: the 489 wins, his 64 years as coach, and of course the four national championships. But perhaps the number that will carry the most meaning is the thousands of players he coached and the impacts he had on their lives.
“I love John. He’s family to me,” Linnemann said. “He’s made a huge impression on my life. His brilliance is that he’s made an impression on thousands of guys who are now doctors and lawyers and businessmen.
“That’s his legacy. The wins are fantastic, but what he’s contributed to the fabric of guys and what they’ve gone on to do after university was truly remarkable.”
Replacing a legend
How do you follow after the coach with the most wins in college football history?
It won’t be an easy task for whomever St. John’s hires. If the new coach is one of Gagliardi’s former players, there’s a good chance many of the former coach’s traditions will continue. If it’s an outsider, there’s concern among some that Gagliardi’s legacy won’t fully be preserved, that things at the private Catholic college will change too much.
Grant has heard his name come up whenever this topic is mentioned. He employs a similar method of practice at Eden Prairie and runs his offense similarly to the Johnnies. And he’s had success at the high school level, winning multiple state championships — including this year.
Though Grant, the son of former Vikings head coach Bud Grant, said this week that he hasn’t heard from St. John’s about the coaching vacancy, he’s flattered to even be mentioned as a possibility to replace Gagliardi.
“It’s an honor that I would even be considered for the job — if I am being, I don’t know,” Grant said.
Gagliardi’s son, Jim, has been the offensive coordinator at St. John’s for 21 years and is another possible candidate to replace his father. So, too, is Gary Fasching, the Johnnies’ defensive coordinator for the past 17 years.
Whoever the next coach at St. John’s University will be, it’s clear that it won’t be another John Gagliardi.
Because there will never be another John Gagliardi.
“It’s going to be different, obviously,” Johnson said. “Even though the legend’s leaving us, what he made this program into isn’t going with him. What he did for it is going to continue to live on.”