Gagliardi, college football’s winningest coach, dies at 91
MINNEAPOLIS — John Gagliardi was ahead of his time as a football coach, believing he did not need to make his players suffer for them to succeed.
Using unconventional methods at a small private university in Minnesota, Gagliardi won more football games than anybody who has ever coached in college.
Gagliardi died Sunday at the age of 91, according to St. John’s University.
“John was a winner in so many ways, but mostly in his ability to connect with others,” Gina Gagliardi Benson, the coach’s daughter, posted on Facebook. “His appreciation of others ran so deep that it was the core of who John was.”
Gagliardi retired in 2012 after a record 64 seasons as a head coach, with 60 of those at St. John’s, an all-male private school in Collegeville. He finished with 489 victories, 138 losses and 11 ties, winning four national championships with the Johnnies. But he drew as much national attention to a school with fewer than 2,000 students with his laid-back approaches to the sport. His policy was to not cut any players from the roster and guide nonstrenuous practices that never exceeded 90 minutes.
“John Gagliardi was not only an extraordinary coach, he was also an educator of young men and builder of character,” St. John’s President Michael Hemesath said in a statement. “John inspired deep and enduring loyalty and passion among his players across the decades because he taught them lessons through the medium of football that served them well in their personal and professional lives long after graduating from St. John’s University. His is a legacy any educator would be extremely proud of.”
Where Gagliardi truly made his mark was with the word “no.”
His entire coaching philosophy was based on a list of “nos,” a rejection of football’s sometimes-sadistic rituals that he detested as a player. Gagliardi hated it when people called him “coach,” preferring John instead. Long before football became safety conscious at all levels, Gagliardi was terrified of injuries, so contact in practice was kept to a minimum and tackling was prohibited. Everybody who wanted to be on the team could make it, often leaving a roster of more than 150 players.
Grueling calisthenics? No way. Same for hazing, screaming, whistles, superstitions and even practicing in extreme conditions. If the mosquitos were swarming? Forget it.
“We have one rule with our players — the golden rule,” Gagliardi said in the 2003 interview with The Associated Press. “Treat everybody the way you would want to be treated. We get the right guys. The ones that don’t need any rules. … We just hope they can play football.”
Gagliardi passed Grambling’s Eddie Robinson for all-time coaching victories with No. 409 in 2003 and again for all-time games coached with No. 588 in 2008. The major-college leader in wins is the late Joe Paterno, who finished with 409 at Penn State from 1966-2011.
The journey for Gagliardi began at Carroll College in Montana in 1949 when three conference titles in four years changed that school’s mind about dropping the sport. He then moved east to St. John’s, a Catholic institution founded in 1857 by Benedictine monks who came to minister to the influx of German immigrants in central Minnesota. Though Gagliardi — born in the mining town of Trinidad, Colorado — knew little about the school when he showed up, he soon found his niche.
During the hiring process, the monks asked him if he could beat rival St. Thomas and another conference foe, Gustavus.
“I had never heard of them,” Gagliardi said. “But I said, ‘Sure.'”
St. John’s went 6-2 and won the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference in his first season, his first of 27 MIAC titles.
“When I came to Minnesota … I’d never seen television,” Gagliardi said in the 2003 interview. “I was unmarried at the time, living in the dorms. I asked them if I could have a TV set. They weren’t so sure at first. But after we beat St. Thomas and Gustavus, they were like, ‘You still want that TV?'”
Saturdays eventually became an event on the serene, secluded campus as the Johnnies thrived under Gagliardi’s leadership. Red-clad fans have routinely packed Clemens Stadium, a natural bowl field carved into the woods where 7,500 people watch from the seats and more still sit along the grassy slopes beneath the orange hues of autumn.
As he built a power at the NCAA’s non-scholarship Division III level, Gagliardi was quick to shrug off his success with self-deprecating humor. One of Gags’ favorite gags was to pluck a time-worn, dog-eared book off the shelf in his office and point to the title on the cover: “Everything I know about coaching football for 35 years.”
Inside, every page was blank.
Gagliardi, however, was fiercely proud of his longevity, openly speaking about outlasting Amos Alonzo Stagg, who was 84 in his last season as the head coach at Pacific in 1946. Stagg’s career lasted a mere 57 years.
The first active coach to be elected to the College Football Hall of Fame, in 2006, Gagliardi wasn’t always revered by his peers. Opponents sometimes accused his teams of running up the score. In 1991, St. John’s beat Coe College of Iowa 75-2. The Johnnies started their 2003 championship season with a 74-7 win at Hamline. Their defense, though, was that their fourth-stringers were often just as good as some of the opponents’ starters, especially in the top-heavy MIAC.
“John honestly believed every one of his players were wonderful and he spoke often about how proud he was of them all. Not just how well they played football, but the things that mattered most to John: being hard-working, successful, good men,” Gagliardi Benson wrote.
Gagliardi is survived by his wife, Peg, two daughters, two sons and numerous grandchildren.
“There will never be another John,” said Bob Alpers, who has been golf coach at SJU for 26 years and athletic director since 2016. “We are forever grateful for his contributions to Saint John’s, our student-athletes and the fans of Johnnie football.”