Former St. John's Football Coach Gagliardi Glad to Still Be Here at 91

November 02, 2017 07:00 PM

All things considered, John Gagliardi feels pretty fortunate as he turns 91.

Especially compared to the alternative.


"At least I'm still here," said the longtime St. John's University football coach, flashing a grin as he reclined in a chair in the living room at his home on Central Minnesota's Big Watab Lake earlier this week.

"I'm grateful I've lived this long. A lot of people I knew my age are gone now."

Gagliardi - who celebrated his birthday Wednesday - concedes getting around isn't as easy as it used to be, even as recently as five years ago when he was still on the sideline coaching.

And hearing issues make it more difficult to keep up with conversations when he ventures out in public, especially in a crowd.

But he still feels lucky. After a serious infection put him in the hospital for several weeks at the end of 2015, he said his overall health has been pretty good.

"Really, I can't squawk too much," he said. "I'm not sick. I haven't had to deal with cancer, or some other painful illness. I'm in pretty good shape, considering."

     Games to watch: Week 10

St. John's (5-1 MIAC, 7-1 overall) at Hamline (1-5 MIAC, 2-6 overall), 1 p.m. Saturday

The Johnnies return to action after their bye week, having won four straight since falling 20-17 to league-leading St. Thomas on Sept. 23 at Target Field. They are now back up to No. 6 in the most recent Division III national poll. The Pipers, meanwhile, have lost four in a row, including a 35-28 setback at Augsburg last week. But junior quarterback Justice Spriggs ranks second in the MIAC with an average of 235.5 yards passing per game.

St. Cloud State (3-2 NSIC North, 6-3 overall) at Bemidji State (4-1 NSIC North, 6-3 overall), 1 p.m. Saturday

The two NSIC North Division teams are both looking to rebound after tough losses a week ago. St. Cloud State fell 21-16 at home against Northern State. Bemidji State fell 17-0 at home in the snow against division leader Minnesota-Duluth.


After 60 seasons as the head coach of the Johnnies, Gagliardi stepped down in 2012. In all, he spent a record 64 seasons in the collegiate head coaching ranks, ending his career with 489 victories, the most in college football history.

Along the way, his teams at St. John's won four national titles - the last coming in 2003, the same year he passed former Grambling coach Eddie Robinson atop the all-time wins list.

But he takes more pride in the fact that many of his former players went on to successful careers in a variety of fields. One - 1992 St. John's graduate Denis McDonough - even served as White House Chief of Staff.

"I've had some magnificent young men who I've (now) watched grow into magnificent older guys," he said with a chuckle.

"That's probably the biggest thing I miss - being around those guys."

Since retiring, Gagliardi had still been a regular presence at Johnnies' home games, watching from a suite in the press box and holding court with former players, alumni and others who wanted to stop by and offer greetings.

But while he attended part of the team's season-opening victory over St. Scholastica this fall, he hasn't been back since. Opting instead to stream the game's online and watch from the comfort of his living room.

"It's incredible I'm able to do that," he said. "Who would have thought the technology would get to the point where I could watch every St. John's game on my own TV. I know people worry that could hurt their attendance. I guess it's definitely hurt my own attendance.

"But I liked going to the games and seeing people. It just gets too hard to hear someone and hold a conversation with so many other people around."

Yet if Gagliardi isn't at the games in person anymore, his fingerprints remain all over the St. John's program. The last player to have had him as a coach - center Ben Eli - graduated following a medical redshirt season last fall.

He's now helping out as an assistant coach, making him one of nine of 11 coaches on the current staff to have played for Gagliardi. That includes head coach Gary Fasching and Gagliardi's son Jim, the team's offensive coordinator.

"We're still running pretty much the same defense, and practically the same offense," Jim Gagliardi said. "We still practice the same way. There's been a few tweaks here and there. But it's pretty much the same way it's always been."

Gagliardi continued to teach a class at St. John's the past several years. But he's turned more of the duties over to Warren Bostrom, a former player and current professor at the school who recently authored a book about his old coach.

This fall, he made the first class, but didn't get back again - though he did send introductions for various guest speakers via video.

A few weeks ago, though, Bostrom brought the class to him - setting up shop in the Gagliardi garage for a surprise visit.

"The best part was they cleaned the garage up for us," Peg said smiling.

Beyond that, Gagliardi still talks football, not only with Jim, but with grandson Johnny Benson, who just completed his first season as the head coach at nearby Kimball High School.

"He still enjoys that," Jim Gagliardi said. "Johnny was living out there this fall, and the two of them would go over film together. I think that kind of stuff helps keep him going."

And Gagliardi is still going, even as he enters his 92nd year.

"I've got some mixed feelings about it," he said of turning 91. "I'm glad I've lived this long. I'm not so glad it means the end is getting closer.

"But except for my hearing, I still feel OK. So I'm hoping I still have some time left."


Frank Rajkowski

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