Mourners honor Joe Gallagher, legendary St. John's basketball coach.
CS POTO BY MICHAEL HOYT Mourners honor Joe Gallagher, legendary St. John's basketball coach.

Longtime St. John’s College High School basketball coach Joe Gallagher often consoled his assistants and players after a defeat remarking, “We might have lost a game, but I have never lost a party.” As family members and friends gathered at Gallagher’s Mass of Christian Burial at St. Bernadette Church in Silver Spring, they honored a firm but fair coach, father and grandfather who also won at life. A member of the St. John’s class of 1939, the former coach and history teacher died Sept. 15 of natural causes. He was 93.

“We can give thanks for the life of Joe Gallagher and we can give thanks for eternal life,” said Father Joseph Kleinstuber at the Funeral Mass. The priest, who served as St. John’s chaplain and director of admissions from 1973 until 1998.  “Joe and I were friends and colleagues for many years – but it was not always that way,” the priest said, noting that as a student at St. John’s rival – Gonzaga, Father Kleinstuber did not like it when his alma mater fell to Gallagher’s Cadets on the court.

Known for compiling an 870-292 record over 44 years as head coach of St. John’s basketball team, Gallagher was an accomplished athlete himself. Enrolling in St. John’s the fall of 1935, Gallagher entered the school’s ROTC program and competed in both football and basketball earning All-League and All-Met honors along the way. In addition to captaining the football team, Gallagher was named Most Valuable Player of the Star Metropolitan Tournament his senior year helping to lead St. John’s to the Catholic League basketball championship.

His classmate Earl Griffin remembered his good friend as “a great guy. Joe was a good student, a great coach who was all business but very funny.” Griffin, 93, kept in touch with Gallagher and attended the 90th birthday party for Gallagher held at Gallagher’s Gym on the campus of St. John’s on April 30, 2011. At the party, Griffin said the two were “almost like brothers. I was an only child, Joe was an only child."

After graduation from St. John’s, Gallagher attended George Washington University and played on the team that beat Duke for the 1943 Southern Conference tournament title. Later he would be elected to the college’s Hall of Fame.

During World War II Gallagher served as a captain in the Marine Corps before returning to St. John's in 1946 to teach history and serve as football, basketball, and even a brief five-year stint as baseball coach. In his 21 years as football coach the Cadets won 171 games, 11 Catholic League championships and eight City Titles. According to the school many of those games were played for a crowd of more than 50,000 at historic Griffith Stadium.

From 1946 until 1991, Gallagher headed the St. John’s College basketball program earning 12 Washington Catholic League championships and one City Title. Gallagher was tapped to coach both the McDonald’s All-American Game’s East Team and the Capitol City Classic three times. A Washington Metropolitan Coach of the Year and Washington Catholic League Coach of the Year seven times, Gallagher received the Morgan Wootten Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008. The award given annually to one boys’ and one girls’ high school coach by the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame is named after one of Gallagher’s first assistants – Hall of Fame Coach Morgan Wootten.

“He was my mentor,” Wootten said. Before heading out to the court as Gallagher’s assistant, Wootten was studying to earn a pre-law degree at the University of Maryland. “He gave me the JV job at St. John’s and I fell in love with coaching and teaching,” said Wootten who quickly switched his major to history.

The two remained friends and rivals as Wootten soon left for the head coaching position at DeMatha Catholic High School. And although they often faced off in the league, they teamed up to create the Metropolitan Area Basketball School -- the first summer basketball day camp in the world. Today similar skills camps for both boys and girls can be found across the country and even throughout the world, Wootten noted. Additionally the two began a clinic for high school coaches that features workshops and guest speakers from the college and professional level. “We started two things that are still rolling along,” Wootten said.

Gallagher “put a smile on everybody’s face” and was a role model both in coaching and in life, added Wootten who said he would turn to his friend for advice on anything. “He taught me so much,” Wootten said. “Joe Gallagher impressed on me that a player would never forget their coach.”

That was evidenced as over 500 former students stopped by the Joe Gallagher Gym at St. John’s College High School Sunday evening for a viewing according to Jeffrey Mancabelli, president of the Christian Brothers sponsored school.

“The heart of the La Sallian school is the relationship between the teacher and student,” Mancabelli explained. “Joe Gallagher’s legacy is the lives that he touched.” Time and again visitors commented that Gallagher connected with each of his students – not just athletes but those in the classroom as well, Mancabelli added. “He truly embodied the mission of the La Sallian Brothers,” Mancabelli said. “He was a model of that.”

In addition to a scholarship set up offering tuition assistance to students, Gallagher was honored by St. John’s many times during his career. In 1966 Gallagher received the President’s Medal and upon his retirement in 1991 the Most Distinguished Alumnus Medal. A member of the first St. John’s Athletic Hall of Fame induction class, he also coached more than 80 percent of its current members. In 2012, Mr. Gallagher was inducted into the Washington DC Sports Hall of Fame, and this March he was presented with the Washington DC Touchdown Club’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

But the greatest honor in Gallagher’s life was his family. Predeceased by his wife of 46 years, Doris Gallagher, survivors include four children, 12 grandchildren and 4 great-grandchildren. “Today we honor Joe Gallagher as a father, family man, grandfather and great grandfather,” said Jay Gallaher, who delivered the eulogy for his father, emphasizing his dad’s humor but also his serious side. “He strongly believed if you were going to be a successful athlete, you had to be a successful student first,” Jay Gallagher said.

A member of the Knights of Columbus, the coach also stressed his faith while his family was young, Jay Gallagher recalled. “Dad impressed his Catholic faith on his children and his students at St. John’s” Jay Gallagher added. “He loved his time talking with each grandchild, especially seeing how their grades in school were doing.” Jay Gallagher shared stories of his dad celebrating the holidays including carving the turkey at Thanksgiving “his talent at carving the turkey was unmatched” and covering the Christmas tree in tinsel. “When the first two grandchildren arrived he placed bar stools around the tree to protect his tinsel,” Jay Gallagher said adding that it made it very difficult to get to the presents.