At St. John’s, Gagliardi is remembered for lessons in life, football
On a chilly but brilliant fall Monday morning on the St. John’s University campus, friends, family and former players of John Gagliardi began arriving early and filing into the massive Abbey Church.
They were here to pay tribute to the father, grandfather, teacher and coach who inspired so many.
“There are painters, and then there’s Michelangelo. There are musicians, and then there’s Mozart. There are writers and then there is William Shakespeare,” said the Rev. Timothy Backous, who led the funeral mass. “And of course, there are coaches, and then there’s John Gagliardi.”
“To say that all these names belong in the same breath is not an exaggeration at all, because each of them brought a genius and transcendence to an ordinary human endeavor,” Backous said.
For Gagliardi, that ordinary human endeavor was the game of college football. No one loved the game or its players more.
In his 60 years at St. John’s, Gagliardi led his team to four national championships and won 489 games, more than any other college football coach before he retired in 2012. He died Oct. 12 at age 91.
But as Backous said, it was Gagliardi’s deep love and respect for his players that earned him lifelong devotees.
“Even though they didn’t know it at the time, their experience with John was a kind of audition for life,” Backous said. “What he expected of them on the field demanded clear thinking, intense concentration and sound execution. That should sound familiar to all of us, because that’s exactly what life demands of each of us.”
Gagliardi was known for his unconventional coaching methods. He never cut any players from the roster. He never held a practice longer than 90 minutes and didn’t allow tackling during practice.
But he also taught his players just as much about how to live their lives off the football field.
One of those players was Denis McDonough, former chief of staff to President Barack Obama and a graduate of St. John’s who played football for Gagliardi.
“There’s thousands of young men who came through St. John’s and were able to do things because of the lessons they learned from John,” McDonough said. “And whether that was a lesson about perseverance, or clarity of thought, or the remarkable marriage and love story he had with his wife and the way he honored his wife. These are lessons we all took from John.”
Boz Bostrom, a 1995 St. John’s graduate who later became a professor at the university, wrote a book about Gagliardi called “A Legacy Unrivaled.”
“John’s lessons are just simple things — he liked to say the golden rule, treat people the way they wanted to be treated,” Bostrom said. “And he used that on the football field by not beating up his players and letting them take drinks of water when they needed to. But then, those are things we want to do in everyday life.”
St. John’s University President Michael Hemesath said first and foremost, Gagliardi was an educator.
“He was about using football in the context of educating young men about life, and he did it tremendously,” Hemesath said. “We saw that today at the funeral, when hundreds of guys from all across the country from many generations came back to honor him because of what he had done for them as a coach, as a mentor, as an educator.”
To honor college football’s all-time winningest coach and his positive influence on @CSBSJU, our state, and the nation, Governor Dayton has proclaimed today “John Gagliardi Day” in Minnesota.
Read the full proclamation here: https://t.co/ZDSBcOZMLV pic.twitter.com/owUn3b7ED4
— Governor Mark Dayton (@GovMarkDayton) October 15, 2018