Won more games than any in col­lege foot­ball


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.

Mr. 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.”

Mr. 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.

Where Mr. 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. Mr. Gagliardi hated it when peo­ple called him “coach,” pre­fer­ring John in­stead. Long be­fore foot­ball be­came safety con­scious at all lev­els, Mr. 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 mos­qui­toes were swarm­ing? For­get it.

Mr. 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 ma­jor­col­lege leader in wins is the late Joe Paterno, who fin­ished with 409 at Penn State from 1966-2011.

The jour­ney for Mr. 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. 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,” Mr. Gagliardi said. “But I said, ‘Sure.’”

“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?’”

Mr. Gagliardi 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, Mr. 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. 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.


St. John’s Univer­sity head foot­ball coach John Gagliardi, who won 489 games, did not cut any play­ers and led non­stren­u­ous prac­tices that never ex­ceeded 90 min­utes.

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