St. John’s Gagliardi dies at 91; winningest coach had more victories off the field than on it

What must the opposing football team have thought when they began their vigorous calisthenics before the game while the St. John’s University Johnnies were stretched out on their backs glancing up at the heavens?

John Gagliardi didn’t care much what anyone thought about his unorthodox coaching methods. With more than 60 years of coaching football at St. John’s University in Collegeville, including 489 victories, 138 losses, 11 ties and winning four national championships, Gagliardi is down in the books as the winningest football coach of all time.

The esteemed coach, who retired in 2012 at age 86, garnered more than just wins with the 3,000 players who took to the field of Clemens Stadium, nestled in the woods on the college campus. They regarded him with a well-earned respect.

Gagliardi, who passed away Oct. 7 at the age of 91, didn’t do anything extraordinary in his coaching, according to those who knew him. In fact, it was some of the simplest things that captured the most attention.

Instead of the usual calisthenics many teams partake in before a game, Gagliardi believed in appreciating the moment. He called it the “Nice Day Drill.” He would instruct the players to lay on the ground on their backs and notice the world around them — the cool breeze, the rustling leaves, the sky above.

Gagliardi also didn’t have a long list of rules to follow. There were no set times for “lights out,” no spring practices, no required time in the weight room, just one main rule — the Golden Rule — to treat each person as you wish to be treated.

Former SJU football coach John Gagliardi (Photos courtesy of St. John’s University/John Biasi)

Although the Golden Rule is typically attributed to the Gospel of Matthew, Gagliardi didn’t talk much about his 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,” said his daughter, Gina Benson.

Born the son of Italian immigrants Ventura and Antonietta Gagliardi on Nov. 1, 1926, in Trinidad, Colorado, John grew up during the Great Depression. He learned to appreciate simple things and to recognize God’s presence in the world around him. Benson recalls the sheer delight he’d take in the most ordinary things.

“When we were kids, he would hold up a banana and he’d say, ‘Look at this banana. It’s perfect. Isn’t it beautiful? I mean, look at this. God made this marvelous tasting fruit with a cover that protects it perfectly. But look at it, it’s just easy to open. God designed it with perfection.’

“He was awestruck by the world,” she said. “That’s what everybody will tell you when you’re in a room with him. 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.”

The early days  

John played football in high school and coached a high school team while getting a degree from Colorado College. At just 22, he became the head football coach at Carroll College in Helena, Montana.

Benson loves to recount a favorite story of her dad’s from those days.

“At that time, he coached everything — basketball, football, baseball and track and he had no assistants. One day, he was over by the football field and he saw a young man kicking a football. He went down and said to this kid, ‘Who are you and why can you punt that football and I want you on my team.’ The guy said he couldn’t play on this team because he was a graduate of Helena and he was now a priest.”

Former SJU head football coach John Gagliardi with the Johnnies (Photo courtesy of St. John’s University/Dawid Chabowski).

John asked the man to help him coach. Again, the man declined. But John was persistent. Eventually, the man became the assistant coach in both football and basketball. That man later became Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen of the Archdiocese of Seattle, Washington. The two remained lifelong friends. Archbishop Hunthausen died in June.

At 26, John accepted the position of head football coach at St. John’s and coached 60 seasons. In the early days, he lived on campus and the Benedictine monks of St. John’s Abbey became his friends. Before each game, they would celebrate a team Mass and somehow, during those busy days, Benson said John decided to do film sessions of the football games with the monks.

“Once a week he would go over the films of the previous game with the monks,” she said. “He would go play by play and talk about the play and the strategy. The room was filled with monks. He did that for a very long time.”

Benedictine Brother Mark Kelly, who cared for the abbey’s grounds for 57 years — including some work on the football field — was one of John’s best friends. He visited John the night before he died.

“I always felt like a member of the family,” Brother Mark said. “I knew John’s parents and attended his kids’ sporting events. And his wife, Peg, was an incredible cook. I really felt like part of their family.”

Brother Mark also traveled on the bus with the football team and assisted with the food.

“Some people thought all he wanted to talk about was football but he was rehearsed in what was happening in the world. He was a very intelligent man,” Brother Mark said.  “He was a great man. I will miss his company, his wisdom. He was a true friend.”

Forgiveness, patience and love are key

John and his wife, Peggy, pose with their wedding photo and a more current photo of them in the same pose (Photos submitted by Gagliardi family).

John, who is survived by his wife Peggy of 62 years, has four children, daughters Benson and Nancy Little, and sons John Jr. and Jim, as well as 19 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren.

All four Gagliardi children attended the Catholic elementary school on campus (before it closed permanently) and then attended St. John’s Preparatory School. Each went on to attend either St. John’s University or the College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph.

“It was important to him that we attend Catholic schools. He appreciated that opportunity for us,” Benson said.

“The other thing I learned from him was how he lived a life of forgiveness. I heard him all his life saying, ‘I’m sorry.’ He’d say it to my mom often,” she said.

“I also remember when he’d have some session with his players. He’d come home for supper and then he’d go back for film sessions. He’d come back home just kind of in anguish because he thought sometimes he had been too hard on a player. He’d been talking to my mom and say, “Gosh, you know, I think I was too hard on this kid.” He’d talk about it a while with her and then he’d pick up the phone and I’d hear him call this player and apologize to him.”

“Sometimes he felt so bad in fact that he’d get in the car and he’d drive up to that kid’s dorm. He’d apologize in person. That was a trait that when growing up I just assumed everyone was like that and then as I was an adult I came to realize that most of us, we all make mistakes but most of can’t even admit to those mistakes much less apologize for them.

Benson said the greatest lesson she learned from her father was how to treat a spouse.

“He totally appreciated everything about everyone but especially my mother. Appreciation wasn’t enough for him. When he appreciated, he complimented. She was at the receiving end of compliments constantly.”

Benson said his example did two things: it made a better marriage, and it also gave others a witness of how a spouse should be treated. In his obituary, the tribute reads, “In lieu of flowers, make an effort to do what was effortless for John: compliment your spouse often, listen intently to others and see the best in all.”

“The older my mom got and her memory started to fade, I watched how my dad would patiently answer her questions over and over and over again and never showed frustration. He would answer it the first time as nicely as he did the twelfth time. Patience was infinite and his love was his greatest gift,” she said.

Be interested, not interesting

St. John’s University head football coach lights a candle at the University of Notre Dame in 2006 when he became the first active coach to be elected to the College Football Hall of Fame (photo submitted by Gagliardi family).

He truly embraced the saying, “be interested, not interesting,” Benson said.

“When he was around you, he made you feel like the important person in the world. It wasn’t because he was trying to be interested in you and was trying to do the right thing, it was because that was who he was. He was so interested in everyone and gave each person the same respect. That’s what I’ll miss the most. When you’re with him, you just have this feeling of being so important and of him being so genuinely interested in you,” she said.

In a quiet way, he attested to his faith, simply by being himself.

“He didn’t preach it, he didn’t tell you to do it, he just did it,” Benson said. “People who knew my dad witnessed him live a life they saw was good and wanted to do the same. He just lived life the way he did because his Catholic upbringing made him who he was and he taught all those around him how to be a good person. He was a living role model.”

Mass of Christian Burial will be 11:00 a.m. on Monday, October 15, 2018, at St. John’s Abbey Church in Collegeville. Inurnment will be in the parish cemetery.

Friends and family may visit from 4:00 – 8:00 p.m. on Sunday afternoon at St. John’s Abbey Church. Visitation will continue Monday morning from 9:00 – 10:45 a.m. in the church. Arrangements are with the Wenner Funeral Home, Cold Spring.

Author: Kristi Anderson

Kristi Anderson is the editor of The Central Minnesota Catholic Magazine for the Diocese of St. Cloud.


Great article Kristi!! You gave a side of John that was more faith -ased than all the football based stories I have read upon his departure.

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