St. John’s to honor coaching legend Joe Gallagher, 90, on Saturday


Joe Gallagher, basketball coach at St. John’s for 44 years, will be honored at the Northwest Catholic school on Saturday. Gallagher also had successful tenures coaching football and running the athletic department. (Preston Williams/THE WASHINGTON POST)
April 29, 2011

“They want me to use a walker, but I don’t feel I’m ready for that,” Washington coaching legend Joe Gallagher is saying. It’s Wednesday afternoon in his high-rise apartment at Leisure World in Silver Spring, a day after Gallagher turned 90.

“But I’ve got it close by,” he added with a soft chuckle.

One thing is for sure: With recall powers and sense of humor intact as he bears down on a century of living, Gallagher certainly needs no assistance strolling down memory lane, something he will do a lot of Saturday afternoon at St. John’s.

A birthday celebration will honor his life and 44-year career (1947-91) as the Northwest private school’s boys’ basketball coach, as well as his stints as football coach, athletic director and history teacher. The venue will be Gallagher Gym, named for the coach and late wife Doris some 20 years ago.

Hundreds of players and colleagues from throughout his coaching tenure (870-292 in basketball, 171-32-10 in football) are expected to be on hand, including classmates from his 1939 graduating class at St. John’s.

“Ninety years old,” Gallagher, clad in a St. John’s sports shirt, said in a can-you-believe-it tone. “My grandmother and grandfather both died within a month of each other when they were 75. They were old. And here I am 15 years ahead of them.”

Despite all those wins and his highly regarded “firm but fair” coaching style, Gallagher is not nearly as well known, locally or nationally, as Hall of Famer Morgan Wootten of DeMatha, his Catholic league foil for decades as well as business partner during the more than 30 years they jointly ran the Metropolitan Area Basketball School.

But who hired Wootten before DeMatha? Gallagher. He plucked him from a coaching job at an orphanage and made him his junior varsity football and basketball coach at St. John’s.

Wootten, 80, who plans to be on hand at the event Saturday, has long cited Gallagher’s influence during his formative coaching years, observing how Gallagher won and lost with class, adapted to his talent and took an interest in players’ lives beyond basketball.

“How lucky can a guy get to be tutored or to have as a mentor one of the greatest coaches that ever coached the sport?” said Wootten.

Perhaps the crowning moment of Gallagher’s career was receiving a lifetime achievement honor for high school coaching from the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame — also known as the Morgan Wootten Award. But when you ask Gallagher’s former players what has stuck with them most about their coach all these years, you get life stories, not basketball stories.

Ivan Lanier, a 1985 graduate, was a 5-foot-7 guard who so wanted to be part of the St. John’s basketball program that he played on the junior varsity as a junior. He was a long shot at best to earn a spot on the varsity his final year, but figured if he dived for enough loose balls and took enough charges, Gallagher would have to keep him.

He made it, the 13th man on a 13-man team, soon to be dubbed “DNP” by teammates, scorebook shorthand for “did not play.” He didn’t care. To this day, he claims he wore the widest smile in a team photo.

“I remember Joe Gallagher coming to me saying, ‘I couldn’t cut you because you have too much heart,’ ” recalled Lanier, now national director of state government relations for the American Diabetes Association. “That made such an influence on my life. He gave me a lot of confidence, believing in somebody beyond them just having talent.”

Ron Steptoe, a 1983 grad, tells of the time he was vying for admission to the United States Military Academy, but a key St. John’s administrator was not forthcoming with a recommendation because he did not believe Steptoe to be West Point material.

Gallagher did think so, and he threatened to resign if the St. John’s official did not endorse Steptoe for the appointment.

“Joe went crazy,” said Steptoe, now chairman and chief executive of a medical service company. “He said not only can this guy go to West Point and be successful, he will go to West Point and I will put my name on the line for him at the academy. Oh my God, I love Joe. Joe Gallagher was someone that really would fight for his players. I will forever be grateful for what he did for me.”

There are so many stories about the spunky Irish kid who grew up on 24th and K in Foggy Bottom, who captained the 1942-43 George Washington University team that beat Duke for the Southern Conference tournament title, who achieved the rank of captain in the Marines during World War II.

There’s the crooked right index finger that confused players about which one of them he was pointing at. There’s coaching the St. John’s football team in the 1962 City Championship that ended with a race riot among fans, halting the traditional title game. There’s Gallagher cutting one of his sons from the program. There’s waking up at 3 a.m. and fumbling for his notepad to devise a gimmicky offense to beat DeMatha.

And there were the phrases: “You win some, you lose some and some you should have never scheduled.” “Never send a kid home from practice unhappy.” “I might have lost the game, but I’ve never lost a party.”

In many ways, Gallagher’s life has been shaped by death. He was 8 months old when his father died. He planned to attend Notre Dame but his mother’s parents died that summer, so he opted to stay local and attend GW. In December 1990, at the beginning of what he had determined would be his final season at St. John’s, Doris, his wife of 46 years, died suddenly.

So here Gallagher sits, at 90, in his memento-filled apartment, with some medical issues, sure, but having outlived many of his former players. Eleven died last year, he said. He has a singing outing a couple of days a week. He stays in touch with St. John’s people and his four children and their families. And he keeps steady company with a lady friend one floor below his.

He has devised a winning game plan for that situation, too.

“I keep my light on 24 hours a day,” he said with a laugh. “So she doesn’t know whether I’m coming or going.”

Varsity Letter is a column about high school sports in the Washington area. E-mail Preston Williams at williamsp@washpost.com.

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