John Gagliardi: Last of a kind

A week that saw college football's winningest coach say goodbye

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COLLEGEVILLE, Minn.

John Gagliardi accumulated more victories than anyone who has ever coached college football before retiring Monday after 60 years leading the St. John's University program. So it's not surprising that the man leading the search for his successor would like to find someone just like the legendary coach.

And not just for his ability to win games. Joe Mucha, a retired General Mills executive who played on Gagliardi's first two national championship teams, said the coach's influence went far beyond the field, preparing generations of players for life outside of football.

"I can tell you that I built my career modeled after the things I learned from John -- the way he prepped for a game, the way he made you believe in yourself," Mucha said. "Very few people you meet in the world affect you that way."

Gagliardi, 86, long ago gained national notoriety not only for his record victory total of 489 but for an unconventional coach style predicated on a list of "nos" that included no tackling in practice, no whistles and no use of words like "hit" or "kill." And no roster cuts, which often left St. John's with a roster of around 200 players.

Former players said his most cited refrain was, "Do the right thing." And that was in life, not just on the football field.

"He did it his way, but he did it the right way, especially for Division III football," said Blake Elliott, an All-America wide receiver on Gagliardi's last national championship team in 2003.

He finished 489-138-11 in a record 64 years as a college coach.

Gagliardi's decision brought a note from the White House, praising his unique style and the positive influence he had on so many young men. Although there had been rumblings that Gagliardi might retire, the finality hit current and former players hard.

"I did not expect it at all," Johnnies senior running back Stephen Johnson said. "My heart just dropped when I heard about it. It's the end of an era -- I feel like the world at St. John's is ending."

Monday clearly brought mixed feelings for Gagliardi, who admitted he was uncertain whether it should be a time of celebration or condolences.

When the first question at his afternoon news conference was "Why now?" Gagliardi immediately responded: "Why not?"

Although it appeared the sort of witty comeback for which Gagliardi is known, it probably was as deep an answer as he could provide.

St. John's is a Benedictine school that is in many ways a smaller version of Notre Dame for the significance placed on a winning football program. St. John's annually leads NCAA Division III -- non-athletic scholarship schools -- in attendance, and the football program is the most visible arm of a school that prides itself on athletic excellence.

For all their success under Gagliardi, the Johnnies were 11-9 overall the past two seasons, the worst two-year span for the program in more than four decades. They went 3-5 in Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference play in 2012, the most conference losses Gagliardi had experienced in his career. The recent downturn also led to unrest among the fan base.

"I've thought about [retiring] off and on through the years," he said. "I suppose -- I don't know -- but if we'd have been winning, maybe I'd have put it off for a while."

The Rev. Doug Mullen, a university vice president, said after the news conference that conversations had been held recently between school officials and Gagliardi.

"We wanted John to make his own decision, and he did that," Mullen said. "We're very happy about that. ... We owe John a lot, and we wanted to be respectful."

Gagliardi made it no secret that in leaving, he did not get everything he wanted from SJU officials. The committee will conduct a national search for a successor; Gagliardi on Monday described such committees as being for "the unwilling doing the unnecessary for the unfit."

The origins of Gagliardi's unorthodox coaching philosophy and his success date to his senior year at Trinidad Catholic High School in Colorado in 1943. That summer, the head coach, a taskmaster, was called to military service. To keep the program from folding, Gagliardi became a player/head coach, deciding he would coach by not doing the things he disdained, which evolved into his no-tackling philosophy and list of "nos."

"It's always bothered me to see a kid pay such a heavy price for playing football," Gagliardi said. "Hopefully, we kept some [injuries] away."

After six years coaching high school football in Colorado, Gagliardi became a college coach, first at Carroll College in Montana for four seasons before his 1953 arrival in Collegeville, northwest of the Twin Cities.

The school won the first of his national titles in 1963, an NAIA championship after a perfect 10-0 season. They duplicated that feat in 1965 by going 11-0. Their first NCAA Division III title came in 1976, their second in 2003, the year Gagliardi set the record for college coaching victories with his 409th.

Gagliardi received dozens of emails and phone calls from former players Monday. He marveled that almost all of the messages had similar themes -- thanking him for the role he played in their lives.

"John was tremendously successful -- unparalleled success from a football standpoint," Elliott said. "But what isn't written about is how many lives he's touched. Think about what not cutting guys means: 60 years with 190 guys on every team. That's thousands of people that have had a positive impact by being around John."

Gagliardi handled his news conference the way he handled so many postgame media sessions throughout his career, relying on a heavy dose of humor.

The note from the White House? "Maybe I better change my vote," he said.

Advice for the new coach? "You better win."

Was he feeling emotional? "Not yet," he said, then added, "I'll probably go home and cry."

He wore a thin smile as he spoke those words -- the look of a man not quite sure what to make of this day.

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