The only college football coach of note to work later into life than Joe Paterno, with more wins than the Penn State icon, doesn’t hide his resentment over the way Paterno’s career ended.
“That whole firing business, I thought that was a group of people who were acting like modern-day Pontius Pilates … the way the board handled it,” John Gagliardi says. “I’ve always admired Joe Paterno, and always will.”
The man who has coached at Division III St. John’s (Minn.) for 59 years — and earned a record 484 victories in 63 seasons overall — met Paterno just once, and the two corresponded only a few times beyond that. But theirs was a natural kinship.
They were born 50 days apart in 1926, Gagliardi in early November and Paterno shortly before Christmas, and both traced their ancestry to the southern Italian region of Calabria. On separate college campuses, they became marvels of their sport. For their success. And for the length of time they sustained it.
Paterno surpassed Eddie Robinson’s Division I record of 408 wins in his final game in late October. He was 84. Gagliardi won No. 409 in 2003. He had just turned 77, and would win the last of his four national championships — the first two in the NAIA, the next two in the NCAA’s D-III — at the end of that season.
Now 85, Galiardi and St. John’s are coming off a 6-4 season and their first back-to-back playoff misses since the late 1980s. The Johnnies’ final game, a 61-0 rout of Hamline (Minn.), came three days after Paterno was let go amid a sexual abuse scandal and series of dismissals and forced leaves at Penn State.
The coaches’ first contact came, as Gagliardi recalls it, when Paterno’s teams were going through a rough stretch in the early 2000s. He sent Paterno a supportive note: “Sort of like, ‘I’m sure you’ll come back.’ ”
Not until a national coaches’ convention in Nashville in January 2009 did they finally get together. After a presentation featuring Paterno and former Nebraska coach Tom Osborne, Gagliardi was brought out to meet Paterno in front of a crowd of some 3,000 coaches. Dozens pressed the stage to take pictures with their cellphones.
“I had a chance to talk to him a little bit off stage. He had to fly back right away, but we exchanged a few notes,” Gagliardi says. “That was very nice. I enjoyed it.”
A photo of their meeting sits in his office today. Gagliardi sent a copy to Paterno shortly after the convention, cracking wise in an attached note: “A couple of southern Italians, and neither of us look a day over 80.”
When word came Sunday of Paterno’s death, “I felt pretty saddened about it, really,” Gagliardi says. “But I don’t know that I have the right to feel that way. He’s got family, and he’s got close friends. And every guy who ever coached for him, I’m sure, feels a very deep loss. I’m just kind of an outsider.
“The fact that our lives kind of paralleled each other since 1926 is kind of interesting. I always took it as a source of satisfaction, but I didn’t dare mention it to anybody. It sounds like bragging or something. That’s one of the reasons I didn’t ever want to push myself on going there, to (visit Paterno at) Penn State. I was tempted to do it, but I never did.”
So from a little more than 1,000 miles away, he followed Paterno’s late-career arc. Then, its stunning collapse. And finally, Paterno’s passing.
“It’s like a Greek tragedy,” Gagliardi says.
“I feel a deep loss. I don’t know how those people who condemned him feel. They should feel horrible.”
Contributing: Thomas O’Toole
Paterno contemporary feels ‘pretty saddened’
January 24, 2012