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Mike Grant on John Gagliardi, ‘the smartest man I’ve ever known’

October 7, 2018

The word was out by noon on 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 Gophers-UMD hockey opener and started the drive back near midnight. Most of that time was spent thinking of Gagliardi and 55 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 loathed 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 35W 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 doesnt? but it was a bit 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 Johns office, you had it made, Mike Grant said on Sunday.

There were always laughs during a session in that office, but what I remembered between Cloquet and Moose Lake was the reaction when you would mention one of those greats from his six decades at St. Johns.

You might ask, How good was Steve OToole? You would get the slightest of double takes from John, a nod of the head, a few seconds of silence, and then in his quietest voice of the day he would offer some exploits and talk about what a privilege it was to coach an iron-willed player such as that.

And if someone knew they had it made with a small framed photo in Gagliardis office, you had it made for sure as an all-time Johnnies great if John would take his feet off the desk, pad across the room and put in a tape of your plays some great, more with that great player doing the routine to perfection.

Gagliardi died around 2 a.m. on 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.

A decade later, the Johnnies had a startling victory over Prairie View AM Does the name Otis Taylor ring a bell? to win the NAIA national title in the 1963 Camelia Bowl.

St. Johns 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 watch the Johnnies play the new MIAC football heavyweight, St. Thomas.

Yet, I know this to be true from the double take, the nod, the pad across the room: John Gagliardi always knew it was about the playmakers.

Mike Grant played for Grant as a tight end in the late 70s, and was an assistant coach for two seasons 1987 and 8 before returning to Forest Lake High School, and then moving to Eden Prairie to create a football dynasty.

Grant had called me on Saturday to inform me that John had received Last Rites and wouldnt make it to the see the Johnnies and the Tommies one more time. I added that part; Mike didnt put it that way.

Mikes voice was catching as we talked briefly Saturday. On Sunday morning, I called to remind Mike that he was the luckiest football coach in the world, growing up in Bud Grants house and playing, coaching with and sharing shoulders to lean on with Gagliardi.

We were on the phone for almost an hour, and Mike Grant had what I considered terrific insights to offer, and here they are, with some editing, starting with the luck of being Buds son and Johns compadre:

The older I get, the more I start thinking like John. He would lose a great player and convince himself that he never coached a winning game.

That was Johns paranoia. Dad has the ability not to think that way. He looked at the geese flying overhead. If John saw geese flying over, he would say, What the hell are those?

I didnt know this as a player, but coaching with him for two those two years allows me to say this with 100 percent sincerity: John is the smartest man Ive ever known.

And part of that smartness was that he didnt want anyone to know it. He had that whole Colombo thing going I dont know anything. He wanted every opponent to think there was no plan.

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. Johns. What they didnt realize is they were getting outcoached every week. Yes, John had some great players, but he also was so outstanding with fundamentals, keeping the game simple, do your job, that he took average guys and gave them a way to play great.

He didnt want to spend any time on what he called stupid drills. His instruction to players before practice started was, OK, mill around a little. Loosen up, and then start running some plays until they were being run to perfection.

He had the note cards with plays diagramed with his black marker. I have a few of those cards as keepsakes, even though it was only fully clear to John what was on there.

Im told that John was an outstanding athlete and would get in footraces with his players when he first came to St. Johns. Me? I never saw him exercise. He needed a car to drive the 200 yards from the family house to his office. And he would drive the 100 yards to the practice field. He wasnt going to walk up the hill.

In August, he didnt like being on the practice field because of the dew. He hated dew. And gnats. And he didnt like rain. Made his glasses wet. He hated wet glasses. And cold he couldnt stand cold. Basically, he liked to practice inside. He would have loved coaching in the Metrodome.

John was a tremendous comedian. Anyone who heard him speaking at a luncheon or dinner knows that. The film sessions were legendary. It was funny, unless you were the guy who messed up.

He could be as merciless as any coach in film session if you messed up an assignment. 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.

Ive passed that along to our players in high school. My fault.

Another thing John didnt like to admit was the first thing he read in the paper every morning was the stock market. His office door was always open a crack, and I walked in one morning in October 1987 and his head was on the desk. I thought he had died.

Then he started to moan. He looked up and said, I was going to sell last week. It was Black Tuesday.

I would call him on Sunday after most games. Late in his career, we were talking and I asked what I always asked: Did you get any bad calls? And John said, Mike, thats the blessing about getting old. You know there were five or six bad calls, but you cant remember them.

One more question for Mike Grant: Did you have it made with a photo in Johns office?

Yes, but its John, Bud and me at training camp in Mankato, Grant said. And it was on the shelf behind another picture. John never did anything by accident. Those photos were arranged in order of importance.

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