John Gagliardi, college football’s winningest coach, retires at 86

John Gagliardi, the winningest coach in college football history, announced his retirement Monday after completing the worst two-year span at St. John’s (Minn.) University in more than four decades.

The legendary coach with four small college national titles to his credit had consistently deflected talk of possible retirement in the closing weeks of this season, even as the Johnnies tumbled toward a 3-5 MIAC record that was the most conference setbacks for the 86-year-old Gagliardi since becoming St. John’s coach in 1953. It was just his third sub-.500 conference record in 60 seasons at St. John’s. The Johnnies were 11-9 over Gagliardi’s final two seasons.

Gagliardi finished his college coaching career with a record of 489-138-11 (.775 winning percentage) and was 465-132-10 (.774) at St. John’s, an NCAA Division III school in Collegeville, Minn.

The school will initiate a national search for Gagliardi’s successor, and the most oft-rumored candidates are Eden Prairie High School coach Mike Grant, a former St. John’s All-American, and assistant coach Gary Fasching.

Gagliardi gained national attention not only for his wins, but for an unconventional coaching style predicated on no tackling in practice. There’s also no yelling, no tackling dummies and no whistles. Gagliardi, in fact, compiled a lengthy list of “no’s” that were the foundation of his philosophy.

Gagliardi was so unique in his approach that he and his program were the subject of a book, “The Sweet Season,” by Austin Murphy, a Sports Illustrated writer.

Gagliardi got his start in coaching as a player/coach at Trinidad, Colo., in 1943 after the head coach was summoned to serve in the wartime military. It was then, Gagliardi said, that he began thinking about his no-tackling practices.

“I was thinking more like a player than I was a coach back then,” Gagliardi told the St. Cloud Times in 2011. “There was stuff that I didn’t like, but had endured up to that time because I had no choice. … But I figured if I didn’t like it, other players probably didn’t, either.”

Trinidad won its first league championship in school history. After graduating from Colorado College, he was hired to coach football, basketball and baseball at Carroll College in Helena, Mont., where the football team won three conference titles in four seasons.

He moved to St. John’s in 1953, and never left. At the start of this season, Gagliardi said of his coaching philosophy: “It has always been my way of doing things and it’s more solidified than ever as the years go by … because it’s proven to be successful for us, and we think we’ve prevented a lot of injuries,” adding: “We seem to have won more than our share of games.”

Those who have spent any time with Gagliardi know him to be a master storyteller, and quick-witted. Of his no-blocking, no-tackling practices, Gagliardi once told a reporter that this was his advice to his players: “Visualize it. Fantasies don’t always have to be about the opposite sex.”

Where most coaches make quarterbacks off-limits for practice contact, Gagliardi made everyone off-limits for hitting.

“What about the other guys (on the team),” he said. “They’ve got mothers (worried about injuries) too.”

In a 1988 interview with the Star Tribune, Gagliardi said his biggest change in — at the time — 35 years as coach at St. John’s was videotape.

“I spent 30 years locked in the office with the lights off, the drapes pulled, squinting in the dark, listening to that damn projector clatter,” he said. “With videotape, I can come out of the dark. I can see. I can hear. I can live like a human being again.”

Gagliardi also gained a well-earned reputation for being one of the sharpest offensive coaches at any level of college football.

“If there’s one thing I admire about Gagliardi, It has been his ability to stay ahead of the curve,” former Hamline coach Dick Tressel said in a 2000 interview. “In the ’60s, they had dominant teams built on power football. In the ’70s, he started running a triple-option that was wonderfully executed. A decade later, he went to the spread offense, throwing the ball all over, before our league was ready for it.

“John has always been up to date with the trends in college football. He’s always playing the style of football good athletes want to play, no matter what that style happens to be at the time.”

Gagliard’s most recent national title game in 2003, a year in which he also set the national record for most career college coaching victories.

And he kept right on winning in subsequent seasons. In a five-year span starting in 2005, the Johnnies claimed four MIAC titles and earned five NCAA postseason berths. In 2006, Gagliardi became the first active coach to be enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame.

But the last three years were rare disappointments for Gagliardi and his program. The Johnnies fell to third place in 2010, and were 8-8 over the MIAC the past two seasons. The nine losses were the most in a two-year span since 1967 and ‘68.

Worse, perhaps, the Johnnies were replaced as league power by arch-rival St. Thomas, which has won 27 straight MIAC games and three straight league titles

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