by Wally Langfellow
Winter 2004

he 2003 post season was just eight days away for St. John’s University’s football team. But their 77-year-old legendary coach was more than ready for a reporter and photographer on this November day. And why not? He was just three days removed from visiting with the President of the United States at the White House, where he was honored for becoming the winningest coach in college football history.

Photograph by Tom Dahlin

Indeed, it was just another day in a year where phone calls and letters had come in from all over the world praising the man who has meant so much to this program and university. It was a year when people outside the state of Minnesota finally started to learn about John Gagliardi.

The coach begins rustling through a pile of letters and papers that are next to his desk in his modest office. “This is the pile I’m going to try and answer,” he says pointing to one of the stacks. “The others I’ll at least try to read.”

When quizzed, he figures there are hundreds of well wishes ranging from former players and students, to politicians, and business leaders many of whom he had never met before. His favorite, so far anyway, is from a recent student. Not even a player. But that shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows anything about a coach who inisists that his players call him by his first name and not call him coach.

Maybe more so than anybody in college sports anywhere, Gagliardi understands that what he is providing as a head football coach is a chance for kids to play a game while getting an education. He hopes in the process that they are also learning some real life lessons.

Gagliardi, the son of Italian immigrants, thought at a young age that he would spend his life working in his dad’s auto body shop in southern Colorado. “That’s what I thought I was going to do for a living,” he says. “My brother and brother-in law did that and had a pretty good life.”

Photograph by Tom Dahlin

But things changed in 1943 at the age of 16 when his high school football coach was drafted into the service during World War II. Gagliardi, who was the team’s captain, took over the coaching duties. He went on to coach high school football for six years.

It was then on to Carroll College in Helena, Montana where he had early success coaching players just barely his junior to three conference titles in four years. He also coached basketball and baseball at Carroll. In 1953, now all of 27 years old, Gagliardi was about to begin a trek at St.John’s, a place where his predecessor Johnny “Blood” McNally said “nobody could ever win.”

In his first year at the helm, Gagliardi lead the Johnnies to their first MIAC title in 15 years. Gagliardi has also coached track and hockey (five seasons) at St.John’s and still has the best winning percentage (.625) of any hockey coach in school history after compiling a five year record of 42-25-1. So, could he have imagined 50 years ago all of this success including a trip to the White House? “I couldn’t imagine it 50 days ago,” Gagliardi says.

Photograph by Tom Dahlin

Despite having to tell his story over and over to countless reporters, Gagliardi still seems to be puzzled about all the hoopla surrounding his accomplishments.

On November 8 the Johnnies were at home against Bethel for what turned out to be the game that made him college football’s winningest coach. When asked about what he remembers the most about the day that he passed Eddie Robinson with career win 409, Gagliardi says, “That we won. And that 13,000 fans showed up and stayed out in the cold all that time. I told them (the fans) after the game, I really admire you because I don’t think I’d be there myself if I didn’t have to be.”

Six weeks later, things got even bigger and better with career win #414. Facing a team that hadn’t lost in 55 games, and had won 109 of their last 110, the Johnnies beat Mt. Union of Ohio 24-6 in the Division III national championship game. It was the first national title for Gagliardi and St.John’s since 1976, and his 4th overall. But the timing of this one couldn’t have been any better. “Maybe it's my year," Gagliardi said.

If you think that Gagliardi is getting too old for all this, think again. Witness the whirlwind day he had on his trip to the White House, leaving Collegeville at 3:00 a.m. and returning at 11:30 p.m. some 20 hours later. In between he was on airplanes and transport vehicles visiting President Bush and other dignitaries including Minnesota Congressman Mark Kennedy, a St.John’s alum who arranged the meeting.

Gagliardi said the one disappointment on his White House visit was that the President didn’t invite him to accompany him to meet the Queen of England the next day. “I was ready to go” Gagliardi quipped. So much for being too old.

So what about retirement? Gagliardi has been hearing that question for years, but right now it’s not in the cards. He says he’ll continue doing what he does as long as he’s healthy and as long as he’s producing. “My whole team, my whole years I’ve never had goals, just great expectations,” Gagliardi explains.

As the coach politely but abruptly wraps up the interview by saying he has work to do for next week’s playoff game, the subject of his Italian heritage comes up. After finding out that the reporter’s ancestors are also from Calabria, Italy, Gagliardi whisks the reporter back to his desk.

“Listen to this,” he says as he plays a voicemail from an Italian reporter based in New York. “I think this guy wants to do a story on me for some newspaper in Italy. Can you understand what he’s saying?” Gagliardi asks. The reporter also struggles to understand the broken English on the voicemail, but confirms the coach’s hunch is correct.

“I have a new found respect for you,” the coach jokingly says as he finally shows the reporter out.

Respect from a legend. Now that’s Italian.