Jim Margraff first set foot on the Johns Hopkins campus in 1978. It was Bob Babb’s job to keep him there.
Deeply homesick for his native Long Island, the 18-year-old quarterback openly considered leaving school. He sometimes skipped meals and lost enough weight during his first summer football camp to flash warning signals to his coaches.
“It was my job to try and cheer him up and make sure he wouldn’t go home and not come back,” recalled Babb, then a second-year assistant football coach, and now entering his 39th season as the Blue Jays’ baseball coach. “I checked in on him every night. I ate meals with him. Obviously, I did a pretty good job, because that was 1978, and he was still here this fall.”
Margraff went on to rewrite the university’s record book as a four-year starting quarterback, and later embarked on a 29-year head-coaching career that by 2014 made him the all-time winningest coach in both school and state history. That storied career came to a sudden end Jan. 2, when he died at age 58, leaving an enormous void not only in the football program but throughout the Hopkins community.
On Saturday night, just yards from the field the Blue Jays call home, an estimated 1,500 former players, friends, family members and coworkers assembled for a memorial service. They came together to reminisce, swap stories and, most of all, pay homage to the man so many considered a friend and mentor.
They spoke of his humble nature, passion for football and family — particularly wife Alice and children Megan, James and Will — and his ability to draw out the best in those around him.
“He had a very big impact on a very big number of people, and he didn’t even know how much of an impact he had,” said Bill Stromberg, a record-setting receiver who was Margraff’s top target for four years, and is now the president and CEO of Baltimore-based investment giant T. Rowe Price. “I learned probably as much about leadership from him as from anyone else. He immediately commanded respect, not because he demanded it but because he knew how to act to make other people want to follow him.”
Among the 11 speakers at Saturday’s service was Chris Ogeneski, who started at wide receiver on Margraff’s first two teams as head coach, after playing on squads that had managed one win each of the prior two years. Though many of the players and coaches remained in place during the transition, each of Margraff’s first two teams finished with winning records.
Ogeneski went on to coach on Margraff’s offense for a decade, before departing for New York to further his career in finance.
There, he soon found himself at the epicenter of the subprime mortgage crisis of the late 2000s, when Barclays, the firm at which he served as a bond trader, bought Lehman Brothers, just a day after the financial services giant filed for the largest bankruptcy in U.S. history. At what could have been the most stressful point of his career, he relied on the lessons learned from countless late nights talking football and watching game film with the man he affectionately called “Coach Mars.”
“It was a meltdown of proportions no one had ever seen,” Ogeneski said. “Being effectively at ground zero, everything I learned in finance for 20 years paled in comparison to what I learned sitting in the office with Margraff. I learned how to run things, how to organize, how to deal with what you’ve got and play the hand you’re dealt. You don’t realize it at the time. He taught us as coaches, he taught us as people, as parents.”
John Arena, a team captain and all-region linebacker who graduated in 2014, is now in his final year of medical school at the University of Pennsylvania and expects to start his residency next summer. He is one of the dozens of former players who either are, or soon will be, doctors and surgeons.
He said it was a major help having a coach who understood priorities beyond the gridiron.
“He was a Hopkins alum, and he understood what that university was like; what it was like to be a student there, the rigor of the place,” Arena said. “And because of that, he was understanding of the responsibilities everyone had outside of football. He understood that if you’re taking a class and two days a week you have to show up to practice 15 minutes later, that’s fine.
“The idea [was] that we hope to do great things here on the field, but real success is going to be determined by what you do for the next number of decades, and what you contribute to society.”
Just as Margraff didn’t let his players slack in the classroom, he also made a habit of putting in exhaustively long hours in the office.
Babb, who became very close with Margraff and a group of other longtime coaches at the school, occasionally tried to convince his friend to take a vacation. Margraff would have none of it.
“Many times he would tell me, ‘I don’t like going away. I like being here where I can come into the office,’ ” Babb said. “I had always pushed him. I said, ‘Jim, it’s 5:30 in March. You don’t need to stay here any longer. Go home. Another hour isn’t going to determine whether you win a game or lose a game next September.’ ”
But it was the same work ethic that also had made him a top player in his day.
Stromberg, who arrived at the Homewood campus at the same time as Margraff, recalls the quarterback never shying away from a little extra work.
“Of all the things I remember with Jim, so many involved practice outside of practice,” Stromberg said. “He threw countless hundreds and hundreds of balls to me and other players who were willing to do extra work before and after practice [or] offseason. Whatever you wanted to do, he was there to do it with you, partly because he loved it, partly because he was a good team player, partly because he knew it made us all better and partly because it was just darn fun.”
That’s also what made Margraff a top ambassador for the university. On numerous occasions, he would even take the time to give personal campus tours to prospective students who weren’t football recruits.
Part of his success, recalled several of the speakers, was his even temperament, never getting too excited after a win or down after a loss. As long as his players prepared well and put forth their best effort, he was satisfied.
“One of his favorite sayings that he would say all the time was, ‘We’re out here having fun. This isn’t pressure. True pressure is for surgeons and soldiers,’ ” Arena recalled.
“He wasn’t some soft teddy bear or anything like that,” Ogeneski said. “He was demanding but never demeaning — that was his thing. You knew what you had to do for him and you just did it.”
In the days following his death, Margraff (221-89-3 all time as a head coach) was named the American Football Coaches Association Division III National Coach of the Year, after in December being honored as the D3football.com National Coach of the Year. The awards followed a season in which he led the Blue Jays to a school-record 12 wins, as well as their first appearance in the semifinals of the NCAA Division III tournament.
The accomplishments were no surprise to those who knew him from his earliest days on campus.
“I remember from that first day, he got into the huddle and snapped everyone to attention. He said ‘Ready,’ and he said it loud and clear,” Stromberg recalled. “That meant time to focus, time to listen to the play and let’s go. … He wanted to win, and he knew it required everybody’s help. He was just a really good team player.”
“Maybe no one’s going to hear about him because he didn’t coach at Alabama,” Ogeneski said. “But he had so many opportunities to go places, and he just decided, ‘I’m going to stay back and I’m going to build men.’ ”