Young John Gagliardi envisioned a life in Trinidad, working in his immigrant father’s auto-body shop, content with a high school education.
But with the end of World War II, everything changed. Family members returned to reclaim those jobs in the garage and the teenager’s prospects there dimmed.
The football coaching Gagliardi did as a 16-year-old at Holy Trinity High School looked like a more promising future. So, the son of an Italian immigrant, one of nine children, embarked on a legendary career that ended some seven decades later in Collegeville, Minnesota, about 80 miles northwest of the Twin Cities.
Gagliardi became the winningest football coach in college history, earning a place in the College Football Hall of Fame and now the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame.
When Gagliardi retired in 2012 at age 86, his career record was 489-138-11. Much of that was compiled at St. John’s University in Minnesota, a Division III school where he coached for 64 years. On November 8, 2003, Gagliardi broke the record for career coaching wins with 409, passing Grambling State University’s Eddie Robinson. The crowd of 13,107 in Collegeville that day was the largest in Division III history.
Gagliardi’s Johnnies went on to win the 2003 national championship with a 24-6 victory over Mount Union. It was the last of four national championships for St. John’s under Gagliardi, an unorthodox coach who cared more about his players’ well-being than scoring touchdowns.
“It’s always bothered me to see a kid pay such a heavy price for playing football,” Gagliardi said in an interview. “Hopefully we kept some injuries away.”
The Johnnies never held full-contact scrimmages, ran laps or practiced more than 90 minutes and graduated in astonishing numbers, most in four years.
Even as a 16-year-old at Holy Trinity in 1943, Gagliardi never forgot what it was like to be a player. He took over as player/coach for the Tigers when the football coach departed for military service and immediately broke a long-standing tradition by allowing water on the practice field.
He said later he was hot and thirsty himself, and he was sure the other players were too. Gagliardi attended Colorado College while coaching at Colorado Springs’ St. Mary’s High School. Although he left Colorado after graduation, he returned to Trinidad often while his mother was still alive and retains many old friends there.
His first college coaching job was at Carroll College in Helena, Montana, where his four-year record was 24-6-1 with three Montana Collegiate Conference championships.
Then, he interviewed at St. John’s when the campus was buried in snow, wondering if he even wanted to leave a Montana job he loved.
Gagliardi was asked if he could win without scholarships, and he said he had at Carroll.
“I was kind of naïve, really. I was cheap, so I was their guy,” Gagliardi said later. “In retrospect, everyone else had scholarships and we’re the only ones without them. We did win…but it was tough.
“When we went to Division III and no one had scholarships, we really started dominating.”
And, dominate the Johnnies did under Gagliardi.
You can achieve anything with ignorance and confidence.