John Gagliardi, who won more games than any other college football coach with his unconventional methods at a small Minnesota university, died on Sunday. He was 91.
His death was announced by the college, St. John’s, in Collegeville. It did not say where he died.
Gagliardi retired in 2012 after a record 64 seasons as a head coach, 60 of those at St. John’s, an all-male private university with 2,000 students. He finished with 489 victories, 138 losses and 11 ties, winning four national championships with the Johnnies.
But he drew as much national attention with his laid-back approach to the sport. His policy was to not cut any players from the roster and to guide 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.
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.
John Gagliardi was born on Nov. 1, 1926, in Trinidad, Colo., to Ventura and Antonietta Gagliardi. He played football in high school and coached a high school team while getting a degree from Colorado College.
At 22, he was hired as football coach at Carroll College in Montana, where three conference titles in four years changed that school’s mind about dropping the sport. He then moved 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 knew little about the college, 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 such titles.
“When I came to Minnesota I’d never seen television,” Gagliardi said in a 2003 interview with The Associated Press. “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 team 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.
As he built a power at the NCAA’s nonscholarship Division III level, Gagliardi was quick to shrug off his success with self-deprecating humor. One of his favorite gags was to pluck a timeworn, 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 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.
Gagliardi is survived by his wife, Peg, two daughters, two sons and numerous grandchildren.
Gagliardi’s 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. He 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 mosquitoes were swarming? Forget it.
“We have one rule with our players — the golden rule,” Gagliardi said in the 2003 interview. “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.”