The coaching legend – who has amassed 2,402 victories in four sports which also included a highly-successful run as football coach at Joliet Catholic High School from 1959-85 – informed Saints’ athletic director Dave Laketa of his decision following USF’s 41-14 season which ended in the semifinals of the NAIA National Baseball Championship Tournament Opening Round on May 14. He will remain a part of the USF family and will serve as a Special Advisor to the Athletics Department and Baseball Program.
“When you get to be 85,” said Gillespie, “the good Lord has a way of telling you that it is time to slow down. I’m looking forward to spending more time at home and being with (wife) Joan who has not been feeling 100 percent for a while now. There are times when you just have to recognize that family comes first. You reach a point when you just don’t have the time or the energy to do the job the way that you have always done it in the past and that time is now for me.
“I have loved every minute of what I have done in coaching for the past 59 years,” said Gillespie. “I love this school and all the great people that I have had the opportunity to work with and the young people whom I have had the honor to coach.”
While Gillespie has achieved fame and success in coaching four sports, it is his record on the baseball diamond for which he will be remembered the most. He leaves the coaching ranks just seven wins shy of 1,900 victories (1,893-952, .665), the most ever by any coach at any level of college baseball. Augie Garrido of the University of Texas and Gene Stephenson of Wichita State University are currently second and third. Both are still active but neither has yet to reach the 1,800-victory mark.
Gillespie began a run of 59 consecutive seasons as a college baseball head coach at then-Lewis College in 1953. He spent 24 years with the Flyers and posted no losing seasons after a 5-9 record in his first year. He directed Lewis to the NAIA World Series eight times and his teams won national titles in his last three years at Lewis in 1974, ’75 and ’76.
He then made the short move down Illinois Route 53 to Joliet and assumed the head coaching reins at St. Francis. He tutored the Saints’ baseball program for the next 19 years and took his clubs to the NAIA World Series eight more times. The Saints won the school’s first and only team national championship in 1993.
He left St. Francis after a World Series appearance in 1995 and moved up to Ripon College, an NCAA Division III school in Wisconsin, where he replaced his oldest son Bob – who was also Ripon’s director of athletics – as the Red Hawks’ head coach. He posted a 239-130 record in 10 seasons and led Ripon to the NCAA DIII playoffs in six of his last seven years.
In the spring of 2005, Gillespie’s long-time assistant and his successor at St. Francis – Tony Delgado – announced his retirement. It did not take Laketa long to find Delgado’s replacement. One drive up to Wisconsin and Laketa had his man as Gillespie accepted the Saints’ offer to bring him back to Joliet.
Gillespie coached the Saints for the past six seasons and won two Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference championships and one CCAC Tournament title. He directed the Saints to the Opening Round of the NAIA National Tournament in each of the last two years. He earned over 1,000 of his 1,893 wins at St. Francis, eclipsing that magical number earlier this season. And, he did all that after he had turned 80 years of age.
Gillespie also coached men’s basketball for 15 years at Lewis and started the women’s basketball program in 1976 at St. Francis. In his 15 years at Lewis, he had just two losing seasons and his inaugural St. Francis women’s team posted an 11-7 record.
While he is known nationally for his baseball accomplishments, the Gillespie legend may be even more prominent in Joliet in the sport of football. Despite the fact that he never played the game, Gillespie directed the Hilltoppers of Joliet Catholic High to 222 wins and five Illinois state championships during a remarkable 27-year run. He may have added more state titles to his resume but the state playoff system was not put into place until 1974, his 16th year on the Hilltoppers’ sideline.
He was recognized by the Chicago Tribune as the head coach of the all-time Illinois prep football team in 1991.
Gillespie left Joliet Catholic in 1986 and started the football program at St. Francis. He directed the Saints to winning seasons in each of their first six years and had the school in the NAIA national playoffs in just its second year as a program in 1987.
Overall, in 110 sport seasons over the course of 59 years, Gillespie compiled a record of 2,402-1170-6 (.672). In all, Gillespie’s teams failed to record at least a .500 mark on only 10 occasions. In five of those years, he fell just one win short of the break-even point.
When asked to recall highlights of his career, Gillespie did not mention a single one of his nearly 1,900 baseball wins or any of his more than 2,400 coaching victories.
“My highlights have been working with all the wonderful people at these great institutions over the past 60 years,” said Gillespie. “It has been an honor to come to work every day for the Carmelites at Joliet Catholic, the Christian Brothers at Lewis and the Sisters at St. Francis. They were all truly inspirational and played a great role in my life as a coach and an administrator.
“The years at St. Francis have been very special ones,” continued Gillespie. “There have been so many people whose company and talents I have treasured over all these years.
“(Former President) Jack Orr brought me here in 1976 and he laid the foundation for the great athletics program that we have here today,” said Gillespie. “Pat Sullivan played baseball for me at Lewis and then joined me at St. Francis where he built one of the most respected small college basketball programs in the country.
“I can’t say enough about my dear friend Tony Delgado,” said Gillespie. “I recruited him out of (Chicago) Harrison High School way back when and then he was my right-hand man and dearest friend ever since. And Dave Laketa was a freshman kicker on our first football team here at St. Francis and now he has been my boss for the last several years. What a wonderful ride it has been.”
Laketa knows what his former coach and mentor has meant to St. Francis.
“Unfortunately, as much as I tried to distract Father Time, I knew this day would eventually come,” said the USF athletic director who has been at St. Francis since he enrolled as a freshman in 1986. “But what an experience it has been for the many that have been touched by Coach Gillespie not only here at St. Francis, but also at Lewis University, Joliet Catholic High School and Ripon College.
“For the 15 years that Coach and I have been together at St. Francis,” continued Laketa, “I have been blessed tremendously every day to have the caliber of a coach and person just down the hall from me, especially these past six years. For both my staff and myself to continue to be mentored by him in his new capacity will only enhance their coaching ability and my guidance both on and off the field as well as the experience of our current and future student-athletes.”
“Down the road, someone may break his record for collegiate baseball victories, but no one will ever be able to match what Coach Gillespie accomplished over three sports. Those are marks no one will ever touch.”
“And yet,” continued Laketa, “you can be amazed by all the numbers – the coaching seasons, victories and championships – but those pale in comparison to the lives he has touched and made better. That’s the most important thing, and something that is lost in sport too much now at all levels.”
Gillespie is a graduate of Chicago’s Kelvyn Park High School and DePaul University, where he played basketball for Hall of Fame coach Ray Meyer. He also played college basketball at the University of Illinois and at Great Lakes Naval Center while in the armed services.
Gillespie is the father of seven children through a previous marriage (Bob, Mike, Billie, Greg, Gordie, Jr., Margaret Mary and Jackie). He and his wife, Joan, reside in Joliet. Between the two of them, they have a combined total of 37 grandchildren and 20 great grandchildren.