John Gagliardi put sleepy little Collegeville, Minn., on the national college football map with a style all his own.
After 60 years at Division III St. John’s, four national titles and more victories than any coach in NCAA history, Gagliardi is calling it a career at the age of 86.
“It’s unbelievable that I could make a living with a career in a game that is so popular and is such a huge business,” Gagliardi said Monday after announcing his retirement. “To be a small part of that has just been wonderful.”
He played a larger role than he lets on, shirking the conventions of the stereotypical coach. More teddy bear than Bear Bryant, Gagliardi banned whistles, tackling and bad weather during practice.
If the notoriously thick swarms of central Minnesota mosquitos were out for blood, the coach who only responded to “John” simply called it a day.
“It was working,” Gagliardi said. “So I figured I’ll keep doing it.”
Gagliardi started coaching college players in 1949 and spent the past six decades at the private school in central Minnesota. He retires with a record of 489-138-11 and surpassed Eddie Robinson for the career victories record in 2003.
To think of St. John’s without Gagliardi in these parts is like trying to think of Duke without Coach K, the Rolling Stones without Mick Jagger, peanut butter without jelly.
“I can’t imagine St. John’s football without John Gagliardi on the sideline,” said Tom Linneman, a Johnnies quarterback from 1996-2000. “I don’t know what that looks like. And there are very few people alive that do know what it looks like.”
The seemingly carefree approach in a sport that seems to demand so much more certainly didn’t hold the Johnnies back once the games started. He won national titles in 1963, 1965, 1976 and 2003.
The Johnnies lost three games or fewer 13 straight seasons, from 1998-2010, and went undefeated in the MIAC five times in that span. But they had stumbled in the last two seasons, going 11-9.
“Nobody ever said that getting older was easy,” Gagliardi said. “I just can’t do the job at the level I used to anymore.”
Gagliardi’s coaching career began in 1943 when he was just 16. His high school coach at Trinidad Catholic in Colorado was drafted for World War II and Gagliardi, a team captain, took over and wound up coaching there and at St. Mary’s High School in Colorado Springs for six years.