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Dr. Football

Coach Jim Margraff doesn't scream, doesn't berate, doesn't throw tantrums. He teaches. And he wins more football games than any coach in Hopkins history.

By Dale Keiger
Photos by Mike Ciesielski

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.

When Margraff returned to Homewood in 1990 to take over as head coach, Hopkins had never won a Centennial Conference football title, had never qualified for the NCAA Division III championship tournament, had not had a winning season in five years, and had won only two of its last 20 games. In the 17 years Margraff has been in charge, the Jays have recorded 12 winning seasons, four Centennial Conference titles, and three post-season East Coast Athletic Conference championships. In 2005, Hopkins earned its first trip to the NCAA tournament. And Margraff has not won by recruiting one-dimensional athletes for whom classes are merely a distraction from the gridiron. In its history, Hopkins football has produced 10 academic all-Americans; Margraff has coached eight of them, as well as five of the program's seven recipients of NCAA Postgraduate Scholarships. In 1997, the university recognized his contributions as a player by inducting him into the Johns Hopkins Athletics Hall of Fame.

How fortunate for Hopkins football that Denny Cox got lost in that hotel.

On a hot, muggy Baltimore afternoon in August, Margraff, 47, strides across Homewood Field and convenes one of the first days of 2007 pre-season practice by blowing a whistle: duh-duh-dut! duh-duh-dut! duh-duh-dut! Matching that cadence, an assistant coach shouts, "Line it up! Line it up! Line it up!" Several dozen young men, already sweating, jog into place to begin stretching and warming up their muscles. They range in size from Scott Goldsmith, a junior offensive lineman who weighs in at 320 pounds, to Chris Martino, a junior running back listed as 5' 3", 145 pounds, though on the field among his teammates he looks even smaller.

Margraff, number 3 in the photos at right, still holds the record at Hopkins for most yards passing and most touchdown passes. The NCAA permits three weeks of pre-season drills for Division III football teams. There is no time to waste, and Margraff has scripted every minute of this two-hour practice. As a quarterback, Margraff was Mr. Touchdown. As a coach he's more Dr. Football. He approaches the practice field like a professor approaches class: Study your discipline until you are expert, prepare a detailed lesson plan, then instruct. "Coaching is teaching," he says. "You've got to enjoy watching somebody do something that they couldn't do two weeks ago."

This day, he and his seven assistant coaches scrutinize every drill, every player, making precise adjustments to stance, timing, motion, position on the field. Football rarely strikes the casual observer as a game of precision or nuance. It looks to be all speed and power and brute force. But much of football is physics applied to the requirements of a game, and physics is a precise business. Yes, you shove a 240-pound linebacker out of the way with strength and a fondness for recreational violence. But leverage multiplies that strength and violence, and leverage is a matter of how you place your feet, the angle of your upper body, the locus of your center of gravity. The difference between a touchdown and a missed pass can be a receiver who made his cut in from the sideline nine yards downfield instead of 10, or a quarterback who had his weight slightly too much on his back foot or failed to fully square his shoulders. Turn a few inches too far, and you fumble a handoff. Get caught slightly off balance or back on your heels, and you can be knocked down by someone 30 pounds smaller who got the physics right.

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, A&S '89, 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."

Margraff's first few weeks of Johns Hopkins football in 1978 were not fun. "I was the most homesick guy in America," he recalls. Bob Babb, now Hopkins' head baseball coach, was an assistant football coach when Margraff played, and Babb still remembers the freshman's early days. "When he showed up, he was small, and he lost a lot of weight in our summer camp, and he was homesick. It was actually one of my jobs to make sure he felt better and didn't head back home."

Home was Long Island, where he had grown up as the son of a guitar-playing tavern owner. Fred Margraff had been a salesman for Brooks Brothers clothing before opening his first bar, and his son recalls, "I was the last kid in the world to wear jeans to high school. Everything was prim and proper. Then my father got into the bar business and grew his hair long. Of the two of us, he had the beard and the long hair and I was the Oxford button-down, straight-laced kid." As college approached, the button-down kid thought he might like to teach social studies someday. On his way back from a visit to the Homewood campus, Margraff's father asked him if he actually wanted to be a teacher, or did he want to coach. Margraff said he wanted to coach. His father said, "I don't intend to tell you what to do with your life, but you're going to Hopkins."

Margraff began setting football records in his first season, but he insists he was not that talented as a player. He had an accurate arm and a tremendous receiver to throw to in Stromberg, the only Hopkins football player ever elected to the College Football Hall of Fame. Babb recalls, "He epitomizes the phrase 'got the most out of his God-given ability.' Very smart. Very bright. He studied very hard." Margraff hears this and nearly brags, sort of: "I wasn't bad. I walked into a good situation here."

Johns Hopkins first fielded a football team on October 7, 1882. The head coach was a student, the opponent was the Baltimore Athletic Club, and the score was unusual for football: 4-0. Three years later, in 1885, Hopkins lost to Princeton, 108-0. Another three years went by before the team tried its luck versus the Tigers again, and this time the Homewooders fared better — Princeton won again, but only by 104-0. Over the next few decades, Hopkins played D.C. Teachers College, Penn Medical College, something called the Delaware Field Club, something else called Druid A.C., and a team recorded only as the Baltimore City Eleven. The team managed to take the field only twice in 1887, but the next year played 11 games and defeated Navy, Maryland (54-0!), and Virginia. The first championship season was 1948, when Hopkins went 7-1 and won the Mason Dixon Conference. Over the years, Hopkins has had a coach with the first name Thorson, a coach named Howdy, and a 1949 team captain with the wonderful moniker Quintusa Langstaff.

In the locker room just before kickoff, the coach told his players, "When at the end it's close, seize that moment. That's what we do here. Play loose, play hard, have fun." When Margraff took over in 1990, Blue Jays football had just experienced back-to-back 1-9 seasons, the worst since 1912. Coaches take the blame for losing seasons, but Margraff knew the players were not exempt. He called a team meeting, and before he closed the door he taped to it a sign: IF YOU WANT TO PLAY FOR HOPKINS AND YOU'RE LATE FOR THIS MEETING, SIT DOWN BY THE DOOR. When he opened the door at the end of the meeting, there were 15 players in the hall. He had made his point. If the players couldn't be bothered to show up on time for the first meeting with their new head coach, then losing 18 games in two seasons could not be blamed on inadequate coaching.

Margraff set 10 goals for the team, a progression of obtainable milestones. One of them was to win one of the first three games. The Jays lost the first two. In the third week, against Fairleigh Dickinson-Madison, Hopkins fell behind, fought back, and won the game in the last two minutes, 16-13. Margraff had planned for this moment. He carried a carton into the locker room, opened it, then began tossing T-shirts to the jubilant players. The shirts read HOPKINS FOOTBALL: WE'RE BACK. He describes the scene after that as bedlam.

In a single season, Margraff instilled an expectation of success. Through the 1990s, Hopkins achieved seven winning seasons and kept raising the quality of its game. Babb watched it happen. "It feeds on itself," he says. "Once you've experienced a little success — and you have kids who think, 'Jeez, if we work just a little bit harder we can get to the next level' — it perpetuates itself." Starting in 2002, Hopkins had the best four years in team history. The Jays won 36 out of 44 games and played in the post-season all four years, including the NCAA tournament in 2005.

That sort of success has helped Margraff recruit successfully against Ivy League schools and marquee D-III programs like Williams and Amherst. His pitch: If you're good enough to play for Cornell or Columbia in your junior or senior year, you could probably play for Hopkins in your freshman or sophomore year. Plus you will finish with a Hopkins degree. He says, "When I have young guys come in, I tell them that if they're truly serious about being a doctor or an engineer, they want to ask these other schools, 'How many football players have you had go on to med school in the last few years? How many players do you have working now in engineering?' This is where Johns Hopkins excels. If the other teams have one guy go to med school every four or five years, we'll have four or five who go every year."

Margraff looked forward to this season because, for the first time in two years, he would not battle fatigue. In March 2005, the coach had open-heart surgery to correct a congenital defect in his aorta, the same defect that had killed his father when he was only 48. He prepared for the procedure in typical Margraff fashion. Alice says her husband can't even buy house paint without thorough research; in this case, he read everything he could find about the condition, researched surgeons, even watched online video of the operation. In July 2005, he needed a second procedure to drain fluid that had accumulated around his heart, but there was no question of missing the season. Alice recalls, "Before he was allowed to drive, he had my father driving him down to Hopkins because he just didn't want to be away from things."

Before the 2007 season, Centennial Conference coaches forecast Hopkins to finish second. Margraff knew that could be a challenge. The Blue Jays would enter the season with only 12 seniors, but 55 freshmen and sophomores. The entire starting defensive line had graduated, as had the second-leading receiver in school history, Anthony Triplin, and one of the best kickers in all of Division III football, Ben Scott. Margraff would open the season with an experienced defense but a sophomore starting quarterback and only one senior on offense.

The year began in thrilling fashion September 1, with the Jays driving for a touchdown with 1:34 left in the game, then blocking a field-goal attempt to preserve a 17-16 victory over Hampton-Sydney. But the next week, Randolph-Macon defeated Hopkins 18-9, and six days later, under Friday night lights at Homewood Field, Gettysburg thoroughly whipped the home team, 41-10. Moravian College was next on the schedule, and they were undefeated after three games. Injuries plagued the Jays. Just as two receivers hurt in training camp came back in time for the Moravian game, the Jays lost two running backs, including the only senior at that position, Phil Roberts. Two experienced defensive linemen were out, as were three out of four strong safeties; one had hurt himself doing dishes, when a glass shattered and slashed his hand so badly he needed surgery.

All week, Margraff watched game films late into the night, studying his opponent and his own team, looking for a game plan, looking for a way to win. Moravian's defense liked to blitz the quarterback, and on the films the Jays' staff thought they'd spotted a few of what a poker player would call "a tell": a safety who tended to rock back on his heels just before a blitz, a linebacker who sometimes gave away his intentions by how he placed his feet when the defense lined up. In practice, the coaches had the second string run Moravian's offensive and defensive sets, so the starters could practice against them. The loss to Gettysburg had been a conference game, and a second conference loss could doom Hopkins' shot at a championship. Gettysburg had jumped out to a fast 28-0 lead. Hopkins couldn't let that happen again. "The big thing," Margraff said the day before the game, "is to make sure we haven't lost our confidence and a little bit of swagger. If Moravian goes up 14-0, we can't be oh no, here we go again."

In the locker room just before kickoff, the coach told his players, "When at the end it's close, seize that moment. That's what we do here. Play loose, play hard, have fun."

Margraff: "If losing is the worst thing that happens to you this year, that's not a bad thing." The game started well for Hopkins, with freshman Alex Lachman kicking two field goals for a 6-0 lead. But Moravian came back and led at halftime, 21-16. With five minutes to go, the Jays got the ball, trailing 41-34. They drove to the Moravian 13-yard line, and with hundreds of Hopkins fans on their feet and roaring, sophomore quarterback Michael Murray lofted a pass to freshman Tucker Michels, who leapt and pulled in the ball for a touchdown. The Jays had fought back to tie. Only 1:20 remained; if they could stop Moravian, they could force overtime and maybe pull out a victory. But Hopkins' kickoff team gave up 24 yards on the kick return. Then a pass interference penalty cost them another 15. Moravian methodically drove to the Jays' 17-yard line, and with a second remaining kicked a field goal. Final score: Moravian 44, Hopkins 41.

Back in August, before the season began, Margraff had said, "After a tough loss, you have to say to players that if this is the worst thing that happens to you this year, that's not a bad thing." Now he assembled his weary, downcast players on the field and said much the same. He reminded them that today a freshman had tied a Hopkins record with four field goals, a freshman had scored the last touchdown, and the veteran players had given everything they had. "You kept fighting," he said.

Get some rest, he told them. Tomorrow we go back to work.

Dale Keiger is associate editor of Johns Hopkins Magazine.

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