His obituary was published by the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, ABC News, ESPN, the Los Angeles Times and dozens more media outlets.
But what exactly made John Gagliardi, head football coach of small Division III St. John’s University, so special?
Gagliardi died Oct. 7 at the age of 91. He retired in 2012 after 64 season as a head football coach at just two colleges.
Years ago, ESPN produced a College GameDay human interest story, a piece on a team too small or obscure to get regular notice. Among the oddities they cited in Gagliardi’s style: He had no playbook. He never used a whistle or recruited. No tackling at practice, no long practices and no use of blocking sleds or tackling dummies.
And he never yelled at his players. That’s what most impresses me. I’ve seen plenty of football coaches, no matter what level of the sport, who chew out their players at the slightest transgression. Or they play mind-games with players, keeping them guessing about their status. The tough tactics of many successful coaches are legendary.
But Gagliardi did none of that. And he had success. He was the winningest coach all-time in college football with 489 victories. Gagliardi won four national titles at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn. (1963, 1965, 1976 and 2003), and made the 2000 national title game. The Johnnies also advanced to the national semifinals six other years and overall earned 24 post-season appearances. His teams won 30 conference championships, including 27 at St. John’s.
Gagliardi coached at Carroll College in Montana from 1949-1952 with a record of 25-5-1. He led the Saints to three Montana Collegiate Conference championships.
All of this is impressive, but what’s more impressive is how he lived his Catholic faith.
The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, reported that Gagliardi had just one main rule — the Golden Rule — to treat each person as you wish to be treated. Gagliardi, the newspaper stated, didn’t talk much about his Catholic faith. He didn’t need to. He lived it out in everything he did.
“He may not have preached from the Bible, but his faith was a huge part of who he was,” his daughter, Gina Benson, told the Spirit. “You spend time with him and you feel this insane amount of appreciation because he appreciates people, and that’s the way he was with God. He just appreciated anything he thought was part of God’s world. Growing up with that atmosphere, you just felt like God’s gifts were everywhere.”
After her father’s death, Benson offered a wonderful tribute to him, asking people to learn from his life. “In honor of John, today make an effort to do what was effortless for John: Compliment your spouse many, many times today; listen intently to others; and ‘Be interested, not interesting.’ See the best in others.”
In a statement after Gagliardi’s death, St. John’s University president Michael Hemesath called Gagliardi an extraordinary coach and “an educator of young men and builder of character. 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.”
I’m hoping there are other “Gagliardi’s” out there — coaches and future coaches who may mimic his behavior. If you are a coach or want to coach someday, no matter the sport, you can learn much from the winningest college coach ever.
Kenny is a staff writer for the Review and a member of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Oakville.