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Remembering John

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John Gagliardi on the sidelines with Gary Fasching in a 2007 file photo. (Photo by Tim Ward, d3photography.com)
John Gagliardi on the sidelines with Gary Fasching at the 2007 Tommie-Johnnie game, which St. John's won 34-17.
Photo by Tim Ward, d3photography.com
 

By Frank Rajkowski
Special to D3sports.com

Not long after being assigned to the St. John’s football beat at the St. Cloud Times in 2000, one thing became abundantly clear:

If I was going out to Collegeville to check in with John Gagliardi on a story, I’d better make sure I had at least a couple free hours to spare.

Because while we’d eventually get down to talking about whatever topic it was that had brought me to his office upstairs at the Warner Palaestra, it would only come after any number of roundabouts, detours and digressions far off the beaten path.

I spent countless hours in that office over the course of the 13 seasons I covered John and his teams.

And if I’m being honest, I’d have to say the amount of time actually spent discussing upcoming opponents, the state of recruiting or other matters immediately related to the task at hand accounted for maybe 20 percent of the total.

John Gagliardi stands alone with the 2003 national championship trophy
John Gagliardi is presented with the 2003 national championship trophy, with cheering Johnnies players standing behind him.
Photo by Todd Allred, D3sports.com
 

The rest veered wildly across a wide range of subjects: his father’s career in a body shop in Trinidad, Colorado, the merits of a new reclining chair or gadget, how much more work owning a dog would be than I could possibly know ... and on and on and on.

Yet almost always, it was time well-spent.

It certainly offered me valuable insight into why he was able to form such long-lasting bonds with his players, bonds that remained strong decades after they’d taken off a Johnnies jersey for the last time.

He was genuinely interested in the people around him and what was going on in their lives. Even the beat writer assigned to cover him for the local newspaper.

It always amazed me to be in the office when a guy who had played for him 20 or 30 years before stopped in while on a visit back to campus.

Sometimes they would be the standouts - the players no head coach ever forgets.

But more often, they’d be one of the countless number of guys who took up spots 100 to 150 on the vast Johnnies’ rosters over the decades.

“John, you probably don’t remember me,” they’d say a little sheepishly. “I was on the 1977 team as a backup.”

And inevitably, John would recall who they were, who they’d been behind on the depth chart and proceed to bombard them with question after question about their families and how things were going in their careers.

Things were often going well - sometimes very well. Which usually led John to joke that if he’d known what they were going to go on to accomplish, he probably would have played them more.

And those guys likely walked out of the office that day feeling like they were a former All-American.

In the days since his passing at age 91 early Sunday morning, I’ve been asked by a few people why he was able to coach so successfully for so long.

The guys who played for him over the years can and have been offering far greater insight into that question than I can.

But I think a big part of it was the connection he was able to form with players - from a halfback in 1953, well before Elvis hit the scene, to a lineman in 2012, when I had already gotten far too old to know even half the groups players were listening to in the locker room prior to games.

And then there was this:

John had a remarkable knack for understanding the obvious.

That might not seem like a difficult quality to master. But it amazes me how many people in all walks of life, including myself, can spend so much time overthinking a dilemma when the easy solution is right there in front of them.

Players are getting hurt in practice? Don’t scrimmage or tackle. A slant pass is working? Run it until it doesn’t. A quarterback is smart enough to call his own plays? Let him.

A small example from 2009, the season in which the Johnnies won the last of Gagliardi’s many MIAC titles.

 

John Gagliardi and the 1976 Stagg Bowl champs
John Gagliardi and the 1976 national champion Johnnies.

It was the week leading up to a nonconference game with UW-Eau Claire (a team that always played St. John’s tough over the years). And John peered out over his team at the film session on Monday.

He noticed one head sticking well above the others - a backup sophomore defensive lineman who stood 6-7. He called him up front, had him jump and immediately penciled him in on defense during extra-point attempts.

That Saturday, the Blugolds scored a touchdown and had a chance to tie the score in the final minutes. But the extra point attempt was blocked by the backup plucked from the crowd days before.

St. John’s added a final touchdown and went on to win 35-27.

That ability to put players in the right spot to be successful was demonstrated again and again over the years.

Knowing the players he had coming back on one of his teams in the mid-1970s, he spent a summer drawing up a new offensive scheme, workshopping it in the backyard in Collegeville with his kids.

The resulting quad-option helped deliver the Johnnies their third national title in 1976.

Blake Elliott breaks free for a 51-yard touchdown run in Stagg Bowl XXXI.
 

Perhaps the best player Gagliardi coached at St. John’s was wide receiver Blake Elliott in the early 2000s. And when teams tried to take him out of the passing game, the Johnnies simply put him at running back.

Hard to stop him from taking a handoff.

Elliott broke free on a 51-yard touchdown run out of the backfield in an upset victory over Mount Union in the 2003 national championship game to earn Gagliardi a fourth title.

John always liked to say the Johnnies’ consistent success over the years came down to “ordinary people doing ordinary things extraordinarily well.”

But there’s no getting around the fact that there was a lot of extraordinary talent involved in St. John’s football over the course of the decades he spent in Collegeville.

Starting with the head coach himself.

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