Legendary coach John Gagliardi has died

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John Gagliardi

By Pat Coleman

This sounds unusual to say about a man of 91, but John Gagliardi left us too soon.

John Gagliardi sitting in his office, with award plaques behind him. (St. John's athletics file photo)

The longtime head coach of St. John's, who led the university to four national championships, has died. His family made the announcement Sunday morning.

And the world could still use a heavy dose of Gagliardi's wisdom.

The legendary coach, who spent 64 years as a college football head coach, 60 of them with the Johnnies, retired in 2012, having long been college football's all-time winningest coach.

And while his 489 wins stand atop the pantheon of college football coaches, it's his philosophy which should endure, more than any record.

John, as he preferred his players refer to him, brought radical ideas to college football. He eliminated tackling from his practices, long before the current concern for the safety of student-athletes became the norm. His entire philosophy was known as "winning with No's."

This philosophy harkens back to a simpler time. John's coaching career extends well back into the black-and-white era, and photos of John from the 1950s and 1960s, with his dark-rimmed glasses, remind those of us who grew up in the color film era exactly how long he was the man in Collegeville, Minnesota. And even though no current player had John as a head coach, he coached thousands of Johnnies, and coached children and grandchildren of his former players as well. 

That is John Gagliardi's lasting legacy.

As a Minnesotan, and a Catholic, I can see where John's former players, and the people he influenced, permeate society. You'll almost certainly find a Johnnie in any office, any carpool, any church group, at any sports bar. And whether those men played at St. John's, or ever played football at all, all were influenced by the man, and speak highly of him.

It is not at all a stretch to say John is the reason why NCAA Division III football got whatever notoriety it got from the national networks in the early part of this century. Even if they can't properly pronounce his last name (guh-LAR-dee), his name is still on the lips of many Division III football players, who hope to be considered for the Gagliardi Trophy, and fans who hope their players will win the award. That award, which is given to the Division III football player who best demonstrates his all-around excellence in the areas of football, academics and community service, and has been handed out since 1993.

The strength of the Tommie-Johnnie rivalry, which has intensfied in the past decade, helped lay the groundwork for the concept of 12,000, 14,000 or even 16,000 fans attending an NCAA Division III football game and made it possible for 37,000 to attend a Tommie-Johnnie game in Target Field in Minneapolis in 2017. It isn't a stretch to say that the large attendance numbers in Collegeville inspired other schools to shoot for similar crowds at home, either. Those teams will reconvene this weekend at St. John's, in what is sure to be an emotional scene.

That's why his legacy stretches well beyond a simple number of 489, or the 1963, 1965, 1976 and 2003 national championships. It extends well beyond his six-plus decades as a head coach. John's influence has long since permeated all of Division III football.

But in a world where divisions between people and groups are exacerbated, the simpler time is what's been forgotten. And one doesn't have to go back to the monochrome memories of yesteryear: The 2003 national championship was won in a simpler time. Even his 2012 retirement came in a seemingly different era. 

Against the backdrop of such divides, John reminds me of what we could all rally around: family, collegiality. Competition for competition's sake. The development of character. 

We'll be tempted to refer to "the late John Gagliardi" whenever we write about the man, but truth is, John Gagliardi will never be late.

He'll forever be ahead of his time.

Dec. 14: All times Eastern
at Mary Hardin-Baylor 24, Mount Union 16
@ Woodforest Bank Stadium; Shenandoah, Texas
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Dec. 8: All times Eastern
at Mary Hardin-Baylor 31, UW-Whitewater 14
Box Score Recap Photos
at Mount Union 28, Johns Hopkins 20
Video Box Score Recap Photos
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