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Former Concordia-Moorhead coach Christopherson says Gagliardi a legend for 'MIAC and Division III' football

Head Coach John Gagliardi: Credit: Thomas Brossart -Saint John's University1 / 2
Head Coach John Gagliardi and Kevin Wenner (24): Credit: Thomas Brossart -Saint John's University2 / 2

MOORHEAD, Minn. — An assistant soccer coach at St. John's University in the late 1980s and early '90s, Jim Cella remembers peering over to watch legendary head coach John Gagliardi guide the football team.

During the middle of practice, his players would take a brief break, lay on their backs in the grass and look up at the sky. It was called the "Nice Day Drill."

Cella said he later used that tool at his practices. He was the head men's soccer coach at Concordia for more than a decade, ending in 2003.

"Just to enjoy the day, enjoy what you're doing," said Cella, who's been the sports information director at Concordia for nearly 20 years. "It's a pretty nice day out."

Gagliardi, a college football coaching legend, died Sunday, Oct. 7. He was 91. The winningest coach in college football history, Gagliardi earned 489 victories during his 64-year coaching career.

Cella said the "Nice Day Drill" is one an example of what made Gagliardi a successful coach.

"He was just so logical and thought things out," Cella said. "You don't have to do what the rest of the coaches are doing."

Gagliardi was an innovator. He became known for his "No" list, which included no whistles, pads or tackling during practices. Cobbers head football coach Terry Horan, who played and coached against Gagliardi, remembers attending a coaching convention with Gagliardi and former Florida State head coaching legend Bobby Bowden featured on a panel. The room filled with coaches.

Gagliardi discussed his coaching philosophies, including no hitting at practice. Horan said

Gagliardi then asked Bowden for his thoughts.

"I see you don't play Georgia," Horan said was Bowden's response.

Gagliardi won four national championships at St. John's (1963, 1965, 1976 and 2003) and was the program's head coach for 60 seasons. He was the head coach at Carroll (Mont.) College prior to his legendary run in Collegeville, Minn.

Horan marveled at Gagliardi's longevity.

"I know what goes into a season," Horan said. "To do that for 60-plus years is amazing. ... I enjoyed the days of playing against him and coaching against him. They always did it the right way. The were always classy and they still are."

Former Concordia head coach Jim Christopherson coached against Gagliardi for 32 seasons (1969-2000). Christopherson also played for the Cobbers from 1956-1959 in Gagliardi's early seasons as Johnnies head coach.

Gagliardi took over the Johnnies program in the early 1950s from Johnny "Blood" McNally, who famously said nobody could win at St. John's, Christopherson said.

Gagliardi proved McNally wrong, building a dynasty.

"After he got it going, that was the team we had to get by if you were going to be in the playoffs, you probably had to beat St. John's," Christopherson said of his longtime Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference rival. "What a legend for the MIAC and Division III football. ... I don't know if we'll ever see a coach again with that success and the record that he had."

Christopherson said the Cobbers had a respectful rivalry with St. John's. He relished the challenge because he knew Gagliardi's teams were well coached. Christopherson added Gagliardi could be a sly fox, downplaying how good his St. John's teams were.

"You knew that he was putting you on. Don't listen to Gagliardi," Christopherson said with a laugh. "He had something up his sleeve. ... His teams were just thoroughly well prepared in every area. They would find ways to win."

Cella said Gagliardi treated everybody "genuinely and with respect," whether it was the first-string quarterback, a reserve lineman, an assistant soccer coach or a groundskeeper.

Even though St. John's was a Concordia rival, Cella said Gagliardi donated money to the building of Jake Christiansen Stadium, which was completed in 1966.

"A good man, great for the game and sure will be missed," Horan said.

Eric Peterson
Peterson covers college athletics for The Forum, including Concordia College and Minnesota State Moorhead. He also covers the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks independent baseball team and helps out with North Dakota State football coverage. Peterson has been working at the newspaper since 1996.

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