The word was out by noon Saturday that John Gagliardi was in intensive care, and this time the 91-year-old football coach of historic standing was not going to make it.
I was in Duluth for the Gophers-UMD hockey opener and started the drive back near midnight. Most of that time was spent thinking of Gagliardi and 52 years of interactions, occasional in many of those years, frequent in others.
He was hilarious and cunning. He was beloved by his players, and those opponents who resented him either have been outlived or came to respect him as a coach with a well-earned legend.
I hit the flat, tree-lined stretch of Interstate 35 at Cloquet and came to realize this before Moose Lake (26 miles):
Gagliardi had a tremendous appreciation for great football players. You can ask, “What football coach doesn’t?’’ but it was different with John.
I had a chance to sit in his office a few dozen times, and there were plaques for coaching awards and citations and photos of Gagliardi with other famous coaches and people.
“If you were in one of those pictures in John’s office, you had it made,’’ Mike Grant said Sunday.
There always were laughs during a session in that office, but what I remembered was the reaction when you would mention one of those greats from his six decades at St. John’s.
You might ask, “How good was Steve O’Toole?’’ You would get the slightest double take from John, a nod of the head, a few seconds of silence, and then in his quietest voice of the day he would talk about what a privilege it was to coach an iron-willed player such as that.
Gagliardi died around 2:40 a.m. Sunday. John was 22 when he coached his first college game at Carroll College in Montana in 1949, and he was 26 when he arrived in Collegeville in 1953, and his 489 victories are 81 more than the next coach on the all-division list — Grambling’s Eddie Robinson.
The first of four national championships came in the NAIA’s 1963 Camellia Bowl with a 33-27 victory over Prairie View A&M, a black college with SEC and Big Eight-level talent that was not recruited there because of segregation in the South.
St. John’s reputation in football revolved around Gagliardi from that time forward, and it will again Saturday, when 18,000 people or more will show up in Collegeville to see if the Johnnies can win one for John against archrival St. Thomas, the MIAC’s new football heavyweight.
For all the acclaim aimed his way, I know this to be true from the double take, the nod and strong, quiet words: John Gagliardi always knew it was about the playmakers.
Mike Grant played for Gagliardi as a tight end in the late ’70s, and was an assistant coach for two seasons — 1987 and ’88 — before returning to Forest Lake High School, and then moving to Eden Prairie to create a football dynasty.
I called Grant on Sunday morning to remind Mike that he was the luckiest football coach of all-time — being raised in Bud Grant’s home, playing for, working for and becoming a confidante to Gagliardi.
“I tell people that something had to rub off, being around the two best coaches ever,’’ Mike said. “The older I get, the more I start thinking like John. He would lose a great player and convince himself that he would never coach in another winning game.
“That was John’s paranoia. Dad had the ability to put it behind. He would look at the geese flying overhead. If John saw geese flying over, he would say, ‘What the hell are those?’ ’’
We detoured for a while in the conversation and then Mike said:
“John is the smartest man I’ve ever known. And part of the smartness was that he didn’t want anyone to know it. He had that whole Columbo thing going … ‘I don’t know anything.’
“You see these college football coaches now look in the mirror to get dressed for a game. They want to make sure they look the part, head to toe. John came to the game looking like he went to Goodwill and said, ‘Give me your worst item.’
“The coaches that kept losing to John would talk about all the advantages there were for St. John’s. What they didn’t realize is they were getting outcoached.
“He didn’t want to spend any time on what he called ‘stupid drills.’ His instruction to players before practice started was, ‘OK, mill around a little.’ Then, he would start in on running plays until they were being run to perfection.’’
Anyone who ever heard Gagliardi speak at a function knows that he was a funny man. It also could be that way in the Johnnies’ legendary, Monday game reviews, unless you happened to be the player featured because of a mistake.
“He could be as merciless as any coach in a film session when you messed up an assignment,’’ Grant said. “And the worst thing you could do was to start explaining why you blocked the wrong guy. There was one answer with John: ‘My fault.’ ’’
As part of his Columbo routine, Gagliardi didn’t advertise that the first thing he looked at in a newspaper were the stock markets.
“I walked into his office one morning in October 1987 and his head was on the desk,’’ Grant said. “I thought he had died. Then he looked up and said, ‘I was going to sell last week.’
“It was Black Monday.’’
And another ever-present obstacle in John’s view of the world were the officials assigned to Johnnies games.
“I’d call him after most games and one question would be, ‘Any bad calls?’ ’’ Grant said. “Late in his career, John said, ‘There’s one blessing in getting old. You know there were some bad calls, but you can’t remember them.’ ’’
As for the photos in Gagliardi’s office, did Mike Grant have it made?
“There was a photo of John, Bud and me at training camp in Mankato on a shelf — but behind another photo,’’ Grant said. “John never did anything by accident. Those photos were displayed in order of importance.’’