Steve O’Toole received an appointment to the Naval Academy in the mid-1980s. He went from Little Falls to Annapolis to become a Naval officer and also the play football for the Midshipmen. He left the academy after one year due to a medical issue.
Bob Verkuilen, from Little Falls and a St. John’s booster of the highest order, was aware that O’Toole was returning from Annapolis and started making frantic contact with Mike Grant, a St. John’s football assistant.
“Veek was saying, ‘O’Toole’s great, he’s great … we have to get him,’ ‘’ Grant said.
O’Toole came to Collegeville to check the campus and to meet coach John Gagliardi.
“I was coming out of a situation where you were awake every morning at zero-400, your bunk was made so tight that you could bounce a quarter off it, and every thing you did was at double time,’’ O’Toole said.
O’Toole talked with Grant and others and then went to Gagliardi’s office. “When I walked in, I called him ‘sir’ and stood at attention,’’ O’Toole said. “He was sitting there with his feet up on the desk. He looked at me and said, ‘Steve, sit down and relax. Call me John.’
“And then he said, ‘What position do you play? From what I’ve heard, you could really help us on the defensive line. I’ve been looking at ways we could use you there.’ I hadn’t met him, I hadn’t said I was coming to St. John’s, and he already had some ideas on what I might be able to do in the Johnnies defense.’’
O’Toole warmed Verkuilen’s heart by deciding to become a Johnnie, and after a couple of weeks of practice he was wondering about the decision.
“I was going full speed in practice, banging into people, being physical,’’ O’Toole said. “After one of those plays, John came over and said, ‘Steve, we don’t do that here; we don’t want to get anyone hurt in practice. Tone it down, OK?’
“I remember thinking, ‘How do they win around here?’ I didn’t get it. And then the players who had been in the program – juniors and seniors, including some who didn’t play that much – started explaining it to me.
“It was preparation. And much of what we did was self-taught; upperclassmen explaining plays and what to do on defense. It was all about have a plan for a season, for the next game – and it was done with an amazing support system within the team.’’
Once O’Toole started to get the concept, there were still oddities to deal with – including Gagliardi’s intolerance for inconveniences presented by nature at practice time.
“One clear memory is walking toward practice on a late fall day when it was 45 degrees, maybe 50, with a little wind, and I was thinking, ‘This is a great day for football,’ ‘’ O’Toole said. “And then John pulled up next to me in his car, wearing a winter hat, a parka and thick gloves and said, ‘Steve, do you want a ride to practice?’
“I said, ‘No, I’m good. I’ll walk 150 yards.’ ‘’
O’Toole has taught grade school and also coached as an assistant with Mike Grant for 26 years at Eden Prairie. Grant played for Gagliardi in the late ‘70s and was an assistant in 1987 and 1988. Gagliardi died at age 91 early on Sunday morning.
All conversations about Gagliardi include laughs over his desire to have 66 degrees and partly cloudy with a slight breeze every day for outdoor practices.
“In August, John didn’t like being on the practice field in the morning because of dew,’’ Grant said Sunday. “He hated dew. And gnats. Gnats drove him crazy. And he didn’t like rain. He didn’t like it when his glasses were wet.’’
And, of course, the No. 1 enemy – cold.
Gagliardi was the hockey coach at St. John’s soon after he arrived at Collegeville in 1953. He had never seen a hockey game, so he read a book and started coaching.
Except, the rink was outdoors, next to the small building that housed some small athletic offices, the gymnasium – “Rat Hall’’ – and a locker room. John’s routine was to crack a second-floor window and offer instructions from inside to his hockey players practicing outdoors.
Gagliardi’s office door always was open a crack, if a player or anyone else, wanted to stop in. Early in his Johnnies career, O’Toole decided to stop by to see the coach on a winter day, looking for suggestions as what he could do over the next several months to get ready for another season.
“John was in there with a feet up, watching a Western on TV,’’ O’Toole said. “I said something about that and John said, ‘What should I be watching? It’s February.’
“I asked anyway – ‘What can I do to improve? -- and he said, ‘Well, let’s see,’ and he looked in a drawer, and pulled out an index card that said ‘O’Toole’ and rattled off a litany of specific mistakes I had made during the previous season, and I should try to eliminate those.
“That was John: He saw everything, in practice or a game.’’
The last game O’Toole played as a tremendous defensive lineman for the Johnnies came in the Division III semifinals in Dayton, Ohio in 1991. The Dayton Flyers were then a D-III power (before being moved to Division 1-AAA), but the Johnnies were loaded and with a big chance to win on the road.
And then they had 10 turnovers and lost 19-7. It was an old and dank stadium going back to the days when Dayton played football at a major college level.
There was a large, empty anteroom outside the locker room. John was sitting there on a folding chair. He was all-timer at suffering after any loss, but this was three times the usual angst considering the stakes and all those turnovers.
"I figured if we could beat this team, we should be able to win another title,’’ Gagliardi said.
Then, he looked toward the locker room and said: "Every time I see one of these great players come out of there, he's a senior. It sounds callous, but I've always said, 'We're all replaceable.' "
The next player out was O'Toole, the tremendous defensive tackle.
"Except him,'' Gagliardi said. "We won't be able to replace him.''
Or John Gagliardi.
I talked to Mike Grant and he said: “There was only one John. There will never be another.’’
And then I talked to Steve O’Toole and he said: “There was only one John. There will never be another.’’