Like many former St. John’s University football players, Josh Nelson had been waiting for news about the future of legendary SJU Coach John Gagliardi.
That news came Monday, Nov. 19 while Nelson was at work.
Gagliardi, 86, was stepping down after coaching the Johnnies for 60 years and guiding his teams to four national titles and 27 Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference crowns. He ended his coaching career with 489 victories, the most ever in college football history.
Nelson, who played four seasons (2000-2003) at SJU, wasn’t too surprised Gagliardi was retiring. But, hearing that an era had ended was still a jolt.
“I think most of John’s former players knew he might retire at the end of this season and kind of expected it,” said Nelson, a 2000 Milaca graduate. “But, once the announcement came it was a strange feeling to know he would no longer be on the sidelines coaching. It’s hard to picture that.
“I guess it was a miracle he was able to coach so long, so well.”
Nelson was a starting running back at St. John’s and the Johnnies compiled a 32-2 MIAC record and 50-7 overall mark over the four seasons Nelson played.
“Coach Gagliardi was in his 70s when I was there,” said Nelson. “He still had a lot of energy and his mind was sharp, very sharp.
“I was always amazed by how well he related to boys who were five decades younger than he was.”
In Nelson’s senior season the Johnnies went 14-0 as Gagliardi notched his fourth national title. St. John’s stopped touted Mount Union (Ohio) 24-6 in the 2003 NCAA Division III championship game (Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl). Mount Union had won three straight Division III titles and carried a 55-game winning streak into the game.
“That was a storybook season,” said Nelson. “When we beat Bethel, John moved past former Grambling Coach Eddie Robinson on the all-time victories list with 409.
“Mount Union was a powerhouse and I don’t know that many people gave St. John’s much of a chance.
“Before the game John got the team together and told us if we played well and everyone did their job we could beat them. The way he said it you knew he meant it. And, that’s what we did.”
Nelson had one of his best games in the semifinals a week earlier as he caught three touchdown passes and ran for another in a 38-10 victory over RPI. He caught eight passes for 192 yards, with his scoring passes covering 80, six and one yard.
“I really enjoyed playing for Gagliardi,” said Nelson. “He stressed team play.
“He not only taught us how to play football but he also taught us how to become solid young men. He taught us things like having respect for others and to have confidence in ourselves. Those things proved important after our playing days were over.”
Nelson said Gagliardi had an eagle’s eye in practice and during games.
“He didn’t say much in practice but you knew he was watching,” said Nelson. “If you we’re just a little bit off in how you lined up he’d spot that and come out on the field and point that out. He could see the big picture and knew when something wasn’t quite right.
“I remember a game where we were close to scoring near halftime. We ran a play to the outside that was stopped cold for no gain. John called time out and there was time for one more play. He said run that same play. An assistant coach pointed out that the play hadn’t worked and suggested a different play. John said we had missed a block on the play and if we made that block we’d score. The block was made and we scored on the final play of the half.”
Nelson said he doesn’t know who will take over for Gagliardi and that’s been a topic of conversation for players he stays in contact with.
“John would start out each season by saying St. John’s would have to find a way to replace irreplaceable players and each year that seemed to happen,” said Nelson. “Now St. John’s is faced with replacing an irreplaceable coach.”
Nelson works in sales for the Oracle Co., a technology firm. He and his wife Rachelle are expecting their first child, a girl, in April.
“St. John’s and coach Gagliardi will always be a big part of my life,” said Nelson.
Josh isn’t the only Nelson to play at St. John’s under Gagliardi.
Younger brother Shawn, a 2005 Milaca graduate, was on the Johnnie squad as a safety for three seasons.
“It was a good experince,” said Shawn. “He taught us about football and life after football.
“He was quiet for the most part but, if you made a mistake he’d point it our and tell you how to correct it. He was very precise. We made the playoffs each year I was there and I remember practicing on Thanksgiving.
“It was an honor to play for him.”
Marty Nelson, father of Josh and Shawn, is proud his sons played for St. John’s and Gagliardi.
“Coach Gagliardi was always respectful with the boys,” said Marty. “He’s a great coach and he teaches lessons about life, too. I found out why kids wanted to play for him.”
So, what was it like playing against Gagliardi and St. John’s?
“We were always fired up a little more when we played St. John’s and coach Gagliardi,” said Milaca graduate Zach Zimmer, who played for Gustavus four seasons (1999-2002). “Looking across the field he carried a big presence on the sideline. He could get a little animated, too.
“The games against St. John’s were always hard fought. Unfortunately, we lost to the Johnnies all four games when I was at Gustavus.”
Zimmer and his wife Laura have two sons and a daughter. Zach works for the Associated Financial Group.