After the death of Johns Hopkins football coach Jim Margraff early this year, there wasn’t an extraordinary amount of talk about the games his teams won despite the fact that he was the winningest football coach in school history.
Instead, those who knew Margraff reflected on the life he led and the thousands of people he influenced.
“There are two words that come to mind when I think of Coach [Margraff] — humility and decency. He was a great teacher and a great coach and to be a great teacher, you have to have humility. Jim had that,” Hopkins men’s lacrosse coach Dave Pietramala said. “And that second word — decency. Jim was simply a decent man, and I mean that as the highest compliment. There was a time in the 1930s, ’40s, ’50s, when it meant something special to be called a decent person, and Jim was a decent man in that very special sense.”
When Margraff died of a reported heart attack Jan. 2 at age 58, his coaching record was simply astonishing, especially during the past 10 years.
Throughout his 29 seasons, Margraff’s teams were 221-89-3. Since 2009, the Blue Jays have won or shared the Centennial Conference championship every season, compiling an 83-6 conference record and going 102-17 overall.
“When he got here, the program was not in a great place in terms of production,” Pietramala said. “But you look at the team now, and you see the result of Jim’s attention to detail and the preparedness of that team in every way.”
However, it wasn’t the gaudy record and nine appearances in the NCAA Division III postseason tournament during the past 10 years that people chose to talk about as they recalled Margraff. It was his humanity.
“The world is a lesser place without Coach [Margraff] in it,” Towson University head football coach Rob Ambrose said. “We lost a great man, a great teacher, a great mentor who made a difference in hundreds, probably thousands, of people’s lives.
“In any situation, Jim was probably the smartest person in the room and yet he never made anyone feel that way. It’s not easy being as intelligent as Jim was and yet not make other people feel intimidated. But he was so humble, he put everyone at ease.”
Former Hopkins wide receiver Bill Stromberg, who played in the early 1980s and is now the CEO of financial firm T. Rowe Price, has a special association with Margraff. The two were teammates at Hopkins.
Margraff was the Hopkins quarterback. Stromberg caught 258 passes for 3,776 yards and 39 touchdowns and is the only Hopkins player enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame. The two remained lifelong friends.
“As a teammate, he was a leader on the field from the very beginning,” Stromberg said. “I remember even as a freshman, Jim coming into the huddle and almost immediately commanding attention and respect, and that wasn’t easy because you had seniors around. But Jim could do that because he knew everyone’s assignment and he was like a coach on the field.”
Stromberg credited Margraff with helping him pile up the statistics that earned the receiver a spot in the College Football Hall of Fame.
“For me personally, he was willing to do extra work allowing me to run extra routes before and after practice,” Stromberg said. “And from time to time, other players would join us.”
However, it was the work Margraff did at Hopkins during his nearly 30 years as the head football coach that Stromberg said had even more impact.
“He was a great ambassador for Hopkins,” Stromberg said. “The pitch in recruiting kids to this type of school is that you can combine excellence on the field with excellence in the classroom. And Jim was terrific at communicating that.”
Like others, Stromberg recalled Margraff’s character, especially how he treated others.
“Jim treated everyone with respect,” Stromberg said. “And while he did set high standards and he wanted all his players to achieve, there was always a sense of helping others simply be better.”
Hopkins athletic director Alanna Shanahan, who arrived at the university in 2016, knew Margraff for just a handful of years. Yet, she was left with the same profound impression as those who knew him for decades.
“Great coaches, at their core, are great educators and Jim Margraff was a perfect example of that,” Shanahan said.
“He appreciated the bigger picture, and you don’t always see that with football coaches. Coach Margraff wasn’t interested just in making his football players better football players. He wanted to help make them better people. … His ability to influence people was both unique and powerful.”
Following Margraff’s death, Hopkins offensive coordinator Greg Chimera was named interim head coach. Chimera, also a Hopkins alumnus, played fullback for Margraff.
Like others, Chimera said Margraff never accepted credit for the team’s success. Instead, Margraff would point to the contributions of his assistant coaches and players.
“But not only did Coach deflect the praise and give the credit to the people around him,” Chimera said. “If something went wrong, even if he wasn’t around, he would take the blame and protect those around him. For Coach Margraff, it was always about the people who were around him, never about himself.”
Sam Matz — who was a running back at Hopkins a few years prior to Margraff’s playing days and is now an orthopedic surgeon and the team physician at McDaniel College — developed a decades-long friendship with the Blue Jays coach.
Each year after the Hopkins-McDaniel game, the two would meet on the field to chat. On one occasion, the regular McDaniel quarterback, Brad Baer, was unable to play because of a broken bone.
“After the game, Jim asked about Brad and I pointed to where he was on the sideline wearing a cast on his leg,” Matz said. “Jim went over and told Brad he was sorry that he couldn’t play and while he was glad that Hopkins had won, that the game would have been much better if Brad had been able to be on the field. That’s how Jim was. He’d take time to lift up an opposing player, and it was absolutely sincere.”
Matz said the sense of acute loss has lingered.
“So many people felt that they had their own special relationship with Jim — and they did,” Matz said. “He was one of those rare people who had room in his heart for so many people.”
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Johns Hopkins Athletics
Issue 251: February 2019