As a rule, I find athletic coaches hard to like. As a middle school and high school athlete, I didn't like any of the ones I played for. Over the years as a journalist, I've gotten along well enough with a few and grown fond of two or three. One I really liked was Jim Margraff. And damn it to hell, he died in his sleep last night at age 58.
Jim coached football at Johns Hopkins University, and coached it very well. For most of the last decade, his teams have been perennial conference champions, and last November went all the way to the NCAA national championships semifinals. He was smart, good humored, humble, and cared about everyone in the organization, as far as I could see. He was a pleasure to work with, and had a wry outlook on the game he played and coached. One day when I was photographing his team at practice, he was scrolling on his phone with a bemused expression. He told me that for the first time his son was playing football, and he wasn't sure the boy had the right mindset for the game, because not everyone does. "It's not a natural thing for somebody to run full speed into somebody else," he said.
I wrote at length about Jim in 2007, for a story titled "Dr. Football." Here is a taste:
Jim Margraff may owe his career at Johns Hopkins to a man lost in a hotel. In January 1978, Dennis Cox, then head coach for the Hopkins baseball team, attended a coaches convention in Atlanta. In the towering Westin Peachtree Plaza one afternoon, Cox got turned around and couldn't figure out which elevator would take him to his room. Another coach, Don Pranzo from Miller Place High School on Long Island, New York, offered help. As they rode the elevator, a grateful Cox asked Pranzo if he had any pitchers who might be good recruits for Hopkins baseball. Pranzo said yes, he did, a senior named Margraff. There was just one problem. The kid wanted to play college football instead of baseball. For Cox, that wasn't a problem — he was the Hopkins football coach, too. What was that name again? Margraff?
Thus did the winningest coach in Johns Hopkins football history come to the university's attention. The following August, Margraff showed up on campus as an undersized, homesick freshman. By the season's opening kickoff, he was the Jays' starting quarterback, and before he graduated in 1982, he rewrote almost every career passing record. Five of those records still stand, including most yards passing (6,669) and most touchdown passes (50). His 98-yard completion to receiver Bill Stromberg versus Georgetown in 1979 remains the longest touchdown pass in Hopkins football's 125-year history.
... Margraff watches his assistants work various groups of players: the offensive line, the linebackers, special teams, the defensive backfield. The focus is on precise execution of fundamentals. The coaches demand concentration and effort, but following Margraff's lead they approach their jobs as good-humored instructors. A Hopkins football practice is strikingly short on screaming coaches berating their players. "At the end of the day, I ask, 'How would I want someone talking to my child?'" Margraff says. "I'm not going to yell, I'm not going to call you names. I've never wanted to be a stereotypical football coach. You'll hear some yelling sometimes. It's an intense game, things are going to happen. But afterwards you find that guy and chat with him a little bit." As if to illustrate his point, Margraff spots junior fullback Alex Copelan walking from one drill to another. This irritates him and he shouts, "You jog off! You jog off! If you're gonna walk, get off the field." Minutes later, he finds the player and playfully slaps his helmet. Copelan smiles and laughs at something the coach says. "The players have to know it's going to be fun," Margraff says. "At a place like Hopkins, you can't walk out of a chem lab and then come here and have a coach yelling at you for two hours a day. You have to have fun, and we try to make it that way."
... Football coaches can be turbulent, unpleasant people. You needn't follow the game long to become convinced that something about the profession attracts and encourages a disproportionate number of arrogant, callous jerks with enormous egos, unchecked tempers, an inflated sense of entitlement and self-importance, a pathological need for control, and a sense of priorities you'd expect more from a 9-year-old. But you can spend many hours with Margraff and never glimpse any of that. Alice Collins Margraff, his wife of 15 years who was a star Hopkins lacrosse player and is in the Hall of Fame alongside her husband, says he takes losses hard, but that's about the extent of his dark side. "With Jim, what you see is pretty much what you get," she says. His ego goes undetected. He does what he can to deflect attention and praise. Alice says he doesn't even like to open his own birthday gifts or Christmas presents; he lets their three children do it. He doesn't think football is the most important thing in life; he doesn't even think it's the most important thing on campus. "Football is fun," he says. "You want to see something important? Go down to Hopkins Hospital."