MINNEAPOLIS – John Gagliardi put sleepy little Collegeville, Minn., on the national college football map with a style all his own.
After 60 years at Division III St. John’s, four national titles and more victories than any coach in NCAA history, Gagliardi is calling it a career at the tender age of 86.
“It’s unbelievable that I could make a living with a career in a game that is so popular and is such a huge business,” Gagliardi said Monday after announcing his retirement. “To be a small part of that has just been wonderful.”
He played a much larger role than he lets on, shirking the conventions of the stereotypical overbearing college coach. More teddy bear than Bear Bryant, Gagliardi banned whistles, tackling and, essentially, bad weather during practice.
If the notoriously thick swarms of central Minnesota mosquitos were out for blood, the coach who only responded to “John” simply called it a day.
“It was working,” Gagliardi said. “So I figured I’ll keep doing it.”
Gagliardi started coaching college players in 1949 and spent the past six decades at the private school in central Minnesota.
He retires with a record of 489-138-11 and surpassed Eddie Robinson for the career coaching victories record in 2003.
To think of St. John’s without Gagliardi in these parts is like trying to think of Duke without Coach K, the Rolling Stones without Mick Jagger, peanut butter without jelly.
“I can’t imagine St. John’s football without John Gagliardi on the sideline,” said Tom Linneman, a Johnnies quarterback from 1996-2000. “I don’t know what that looks like. And there are very few people alive that do know what it looks like.”
The seemingly carefree approach in a sport that seems to demand so much more certainly didn’t hold the Johnnies back once the games started. He won national titles in 1963, 1965, 1976 and 2003 and had managed to maintain the high expectations late into his tenure.
The Johnnies lost three games or fewer 13 straight seasons, from 1998-2010, and went undefeated in the MIAC five times in that span. But they had stumbled in the last two seasons, going 11-9 and getting dominated by rival St. Thomas both years.
“Nobody ever said that getting older was easy,” Gagliardi said. “I just can’t do the job at the level I used to anymore.”
Gagliardi’s coaching career began in 1943 when he was just 16. His high school coach at Trinidad Catholic in Colorado was drafted for World War II and Gagliardi, a team captain, took over and wound up coaching there and at St. Mary’s High School in Colorado Springs for six years.
In 1949, he got his first college gig at Carroll College in Helena, Mont., leading the team to three conference titles in four seasons. He took the reins at St. John’s in 1953, and piled up 27 conference titles, often upsetting his competition with a penchant for running up the score on overmatched opponents. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2006; since 1993, the outstanding Division III player of the year has taken home the Gagliardi Trophy.
“Arguably, John Gagliardi has impacted the lives of as many young men as any individual in the history of Saint John’s University,” school President Michael Hemesath said. “His legacy of educating young men at Saint John’s is one that any coach or professor would envy.”
His retirement even drew praise from the White House with press secretary Jay Carney lauding Gagliardi’s career and unique approach to the job.
“Even as his time on the gridiron comes to a close, Gagliardi’s genuine concern for players as scholar athletes and human beings will ensure that his influence will be felt for years to come,” the statement read.
“Maybe I ought to change my vote,” Gagliardi quipped.
Gagliardi’s 64 years were the most in college football coaching history, surpassing the record of 57 years held by former University of Chicago and University of the Pacific coach Amos Alonzo Stagg.
Linneman said Gagliardi’s trust in his players – he lets his quarterback call his own plays – is what endeared the coach to his pupils more than the easy-going nature in practice or resistance to calisthenics.
“I can talk to a guy who graduated in 1953 and we can have a mutually agreeable conversation because we have the same stories,” Linneman said. “That’s amazing. You have 60 years of football players tied together by playing for the same coach. There’s not a fraternity like Johnnies football.”
On the quiet campus 80 miles northwest of Minneapolis, the bookstore sells T-shirts with pictures of Gagliardi throughout his coaching career and the word “Legend.” There is no statue of Gagliardi on St. John’s campus, which is nestled amid prairies, lakes and forest and encloses an abbey. Yet.
Gagliardi will remain on the staff until his contract expires June 30, 2013. The search process for his replacement begins immediately.
And Gagliardi has a search of his own to begin. He said he doesn’t know what he’s going to do without the job that has in many ways defined him for three quarters of his life.
“It’s unchartered territory for me,” Gagliardi said. “Who knows what I’m going to face?”
He is looking forward to getting up in the stands at Clemens Stadium to see the view he’s been missing all these years.
“I’ll get up there and know everything,” he deadpanned, “just like the fans always seem to do.”