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Eric Peterson, Published November 19 2012

Peterson: Gagliardi a unique legend

Fargo - When Jim Cella was an assistant soccer coach at St. John’s (Minn.), lore circulated through the athletic department that John Gagliardi was quite the crooner.

A few of the coaches in the department said they had heard a cassette tape of the legendary head football coach singing karaoke.

Cella – now the sports information director at Concordia – never got the chance to hear those alleged tapes that featured Gagliardi’s golden pipes.

“The rumor was there’s a pretty good one of him singing Frank Sinatra’s ‘My way.’ ” said Cella, who spent most of the 1980s in Collegeville, Minn., as a student-athlete and then as a coach.

Gagliardi, who is the winningest coach in college football history, will have more time to sing karaoke now if he chooses. Monday, he announced his retirement after 64 seasons as a head coach, including the past 60 at St. Johns.

Like the aforementioned Sinatra song suggests, the Gagliardi, 86, did it his way. Gagliardi’s coaching “No” list was the stuff of legend. There were “no” whistles, pads or tackling during practice to name a few. His players call him John, not coach.

“The thing that I always look at is the coaching with the word ‘No.’ He was unique in how he coached football,” said longtime Concordia head baseball coach Bucky Burgau. “He didn’t care how anybody else did it. He was going to do the way we thought it should be done.”

Gagliardi finished his coaching career with 489 victories and won four national championships.

“He was coaching when Jake Christiansen was coaching,” said Cobbers head coach Terry Horan, trying to put the longevity into perspective.

“It’s really amazing.”

Christiansen coached football for the Cobbers from 1941-1968. His name is on Concordia’s football stadium. An interesting tidbit: Gagliardi was one of the donors for Jake Christiansen Stadium, which was completed in 1966.

The last two Concordia head coaches, Horan and Jim Christopherson, both played and coached against Gagliardi.

Christopherson was the Cobbers head coach for 32 seasons (1969-2000), and also an assistant coach for Christiansen for six years before that. He played for the Cobbers from 1956-59 on teams that never lost to Gagliardi.

“He was just building the program in those years,” Christopherson said.

Christopherson relished coaching against St. John’s because he knew that meant the Cobbers would have to be at their best. The path to a Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference title often meant you had to beat the Johnnies.

“He gave the MIAC national credibility,” said Christopherson. “He was a legend not only here in the MIAC, but nationally.”

To illustrate that point, Gagliardi’s retirement news reached the White House, which sent out a written statement Monday that recognized Gagliardi’s storied career.

Horan remembers being at a coaching convention with Gagliardi and former longtime Florida State Bobby Bowden being the featured panelists.

An audience member asked Gagliardi about his “no” approach to coaching.

After explaining his philosophy to the group of coaches, Gagliardi turned to Bowden and said: “What do you think about that Bobby?”

Bowden’s response to Gagliardi: “I see you don’t play Georgia.”

When Cella was a St. John’s student in the early 1980s, he took Gagliardi’s “Theory of Football” class.

Cella remembers one day in class watching old film reels of former St. John’s running back Jim Lehman, who was the MIAC most valuable player in 1955.

Lehman, the father of pro golfer Tom Lehman, also played on defense and was a special teams ace. Gagliardi told the class that Lehman racked up the all-purpose yards.

One of the kids in the class asked Gagliardi how many all-purpose yards would Lehman get if he played in the 1980s.

“Probably only about 90 yards,” Cella remembered being Gagliardi’s answer. “The kid was like ‘Really? The game has changed that much?’ ”

Gagliardi countered with his classic wit:

“He goes ‘No, you don’t understand. Jim Lehman is in his 50s right now.’ ” Cella said.

Monday, college football saw a unique legend step away from the game.

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Eric Peterson at (701) 241-5513.

Peterson’s blog can be found

at peterson.areavoices.com