Reusse: Grandpa Gag always did it his way

  • Article by: PATRICK REUSSE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 20, 2012 - 11:53 AM

Funny, innovative and a sore loser, John Gagliardi did it his way.

It was May 1966 and the occasion was the annual dinner to honor St. John's athletes on the campus in Collegeville. I was a new sportswriter at the St. Cloud Times and went to this Johnnies event with my boss, Mike Augustin.

This was quite a celebration, since the athletes being toasted included the members of the 1965 football team that had brought the Johnnies a second NAIA national title in three seasons.

The main speaker was Don Riley, author of the notorious "Eye Opener'' column for the St. Paul Pioneer Press. He was hilarious. Another speaker was football coach John Gagliardi. He might have been funnier.

For those Minnesotans who take their sports interest to the small-college level, there is now a generation that only knows Grandpa Gag ... the old-timer moving along the sideline, occasionally signaling to an official to come over to hear a complaint.

Grandpa Gag has had many successful moments, including a fourth national title with a monumental upset of Mount Union in 2003, but this should not be the only way that John Gagliardi is remembered as a football coach.

When the triple option was the rage in college football, Gagliardi won the NCAA Division III title with his own quadruple option in 1976. When it was still being said a rushing game was needed to win, Gagliardi's teams started throwing the ball all over the lot and winning in double digits year after year.

Tom Linnemann, his quarterback from 1998 to 2000, said Monday, "I hope people will remember that John was an innovator.''

Yes, he was that. He also was the worst loser of all time and a character. These traits collided Dec. 6, 1991, when a potent St. John's crew went to Ohio to play the Dayton Flyers, then a Division III powerhouse.

The Johnnies turned it over an astounding 10 times -- four interceptions, six lost fumbles -- and lost 19-7 in the national semifinals.

And there was a postgame sight that I can close my eyes and still conjure:

Gagliardi is sitting alone in a large entry area. Inside, the Johnnies are showering and getting in civilian clothes. John interrupts his mumbling over the turnovers to say:

"I figured if we could beat this team, we should be able to win [another national title].''

Then, he looks toward a door and says: "Every time I see one of these great players come out of the locker room, he's a senior. It sounds callous, but I've always said, 'We're all replaceable.' "

The next player out is Steve O'Toole, a magnificent defensive tackle. "Except him,'' the coach says. "We won't be able to replace him.''

That to me was Gag -- even in his earlier days, even as a perennial winner, publicly he was always the fatalist when it came to the next challenge, to the next season.

John turned 86 on Nov. 1. From his 30s into his 70s, he was much in demand as a speaker at football banquets around the country.

This was a line that he never missed: "When I came to St. John's, the monks told me there was a vow of poverty. I didn't realize that included the football coach.''

He also would take out a large piece of paper and ask the audience to view this as the big picture of football recruiting. And then he would start tearing away pieces that represented the players not available to St. John's:

Ability. Rip. Going elsewhere. Rip. Academics. Rip. Economics. Rip. And on it went, until Gagliardi would hold up a bit of paper barely visible between his right thumb and index finger.

The audience would howl in laughter, and wonder, "How does Gagliardi do it against these odds?''

We will never see another like him, not a coach who lasts 60 seasons in one place, and not one who suffered more over one defeat than he would celebrate over a dozen victories.

On Monday, Gagliardi's retirement became official and the tributes rolled in, including from the White House in the name of the President Barack Obama.

"Obama's never heard of me and, besides, he's in Burma,'' Gagliardi said. "That came from Denis McDonough, who played for me and now is one of Obama's guys in the White House.''

Gag paused in this phone conversation late Monday afternoon and then said: "I think Denis played in that game in Dayton. Why did you bring up that one? I'll be thinking about those 10 turnovers all night.''

Patrick Reusse can be heard noon-4 weekdays on 1500-AM. preusse@startribune.com

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