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Local Sports

Legendary coach Gordie Gillespie dies at age 88

Legendary coach Gordie Gillespie died Saturday night after a long illness.
Legendary coach Gordie Gillespie died Saturday night after a long illness.

JOLIET – Joliet has lost its legend.

Gordie Gillespie died Saturday night after a long illness. He was 88.

A Chicago native who starred in college basketball for DePaul coach Ray Meyer, he arrived in Joliet in 1950 and in the 65 years since, he brought this community to sports heights never imagined.

Whether it was coaching Joliet Catholic football, or Lewis basketball or baseball, or baseball, football or women's basketball at St. Francis, it didn't matter. Gillespie's teams won, and his players ran through the wall for him. They didn't have to be asked.

Gillespie retired from coaching in 2010 with 2,402 total victories against 1,170 losses and eight ties in the three sports combined. That's a .672 winning percentage.

His Lewis teams won three consecutive NAIA baseball championships in the mid-1970s. His Joliet Catholic football teams won four straight state titles from 1975 through 1978 and a fifth in 1981. His USF baseball team was the NAIA national champion in 1993.

"What Gordie's teams did the middle and late '70s has to be the greatest feat in the history of coaching," said Mike Feminis, who played on Gillespie's first St. Francis football team in 1986, became an All-American linebacker, coached under Gillespie at USF for four years and now is the head coach at Saint Xavier.

"He will never be duplicated."

'He never wanted the glory'

Gillespie retired from college baseball coaching in 2010 as the winningest coach of all time. He had that record until University of Texas coach Augie Garrido surpassed it in 2014.

But even more remarkable than all the success, Gillespie coached college baseball for 59 years, including 10 years at Ripon in Wisconsin (where his oldest son, Bob, was the athletic director and baseball coach) and coached quality teams in 110 sports seasons.

"The success he had in all the sports is absolutely mind-boggling," Feminis said. "Sometimes I think I'm losing my mind just coaching football, then I think about what he did."

Of course, for as long as his health allowed, Gillespie never really retired. In recent years, he helped his close friend, Dan Sharp, with the Joliet Catholic football program, mentoring the quarterbacks.

"Dad coached because he loved seeing kids succeed," said Gordie Gillespie Jr., one of Gillespie's seven children. "What gave him the most fulfillment was being able to say, 'Our guys succeeded.' He never said, 'My guys.' He never wanted the glory.

"He had no regrets in life. I'm sure he would say he wouldn't change a thing. It's sad, but now this is a time to celebrate his wonderful life."

Gillespie was a member of the inaugural class of the Joliet Area Sports Hall of Fame. He has been inducted into 18 halls of fame and received numerous coach of the year, coach of the decade and coach of the century awards.

"The Good Lord is building quite a team," University of St. Francis Director of Athletics Dave Laketa said of Ernie Banks dying recently and Gillespie and Minnie Minoso dying over the weekend.

"He's got Ernie and Minnie, and now he's got his manager."

Beyond the field

Yet as much as Gillespie accomplished as a coach, and as much as his legend grew through the years, he was equally talented as a teacher, a public speaker and, most of all, a true friend and caring person.

"What stands out about Gordie is his unconditional love for all the players and coaches he ever came in contact with," said Sharp, who said Gillespie always was a second father to him. "He truly cared for every other person."

Bob Gillespie said three things stand out in what he loved about his dad.

"First, it wasn't the number of wins," he said. "It was all about the kids he coached. Look at how many he coached became great coaches and great people.

"Second, it was never about him. He always wanted to know how he could help you.

"And third, playing the game right was paramount. How you ran on and off the baseball field mattered. Doing it right was expected. Those things created that mystique. You not only had to beat Joliet Catholic's football team, you had to beat Gordie. And a lot of teams weren't confident they could do that."

Gillespie's seven children through a previous marriage are Bob, Mike, Billie, Greg, Gordie Jr., Margaret Mary and Jackie. He and his widow, Joan, have 40 grandchildren and 42 great-grandchildren between them.

Like most families, the Gillespies scattered when they became adults. Gordie Jr., though, stayed in Joliet.

"I consider myself the most fortunate of all the kids," he said. "I lived the pinnacle of dad's career with him. I was there for every championship. I was the biggest fan of every team he coached. I was the luckiest guy in the world.

"And on top of that, what a great father he was. He was the most sincere, caring and compassionate man.

"You couldn't match him."

Final game

Gillespie died at 8:45 p.m. Saturday, at the precise moment a basketball game at Milwaukee ended.

Mike Gillespie's daughter, Kristen, coaches the Benedictine University women's team, which was playing in the Northern Collegiate Athletics Conference championship game against Wisconsin Lutheran in Milwaukee. Mike and Gordie Jr. drove there to see the game.

"I looked at the clock when the game ended and it was 8:45," Mike said. "I talked to Bob a little after that, and he said dad died at 8:45. So dad stayed until the end of that game. He couldn't get the 'W' this time, but somehow, he was there."

And others were there for Gillespie.

At the induction ceremony for Joliet Catholic's first Hall of Champions class last September, Tom Thayer got up before the crowd, looked at Gillespie and said, "Gordie, we are all here for you." That spoke volumes.

"I am most certain that today the Lord is telling coach Gillespie, 'Well done, good and faithful servant,'" Laketa said.

When Gillespie was asked about possible retirement several years ago, he said, "God will retire me. He'll tell me when it's time."

God has made his decision. Maybe he did need a baseball coach. And a football and basketball coach. He got the best, all at once, perhaps the only person who ever coached 110 sports seasons at high levels, who always won more than his share and never quit caring for each of his players and assistants.

He is Joliet's legend.

Forever.
 

–––––––

ARRANGEMENTS

Public visitation is scheduled for Thursday at New Covenant Community Church, 1995 Mills Road, New Lenox. A private funeral will be Friday. A public memorial has been scheduled for March 21 on the University of St. Francis campus.

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