In the first two weeks after he was promoted from offensive coordinator to head coach of the Johns Hopkins football program, Greg Chimera refrained from moving into the head coach’s office.
For one thing, he didn’t want to move until he hired his replacement on offense. Looming even larger, though, was the knowledge that the head coach’s office had been occupied for 29 years by Jim Margraff, the same man who had coached Chimera as a fullback for four seasons and mentored him as he started his coaching career.
“I was kind of delaying it as long as I could because it was a weird feeling, and it still is,” Chimera said Wednesday in his relatively new digs after being named coach Feb. 22. “Actually, [Margraff’s wife] Alice Margraff called me and said, ‘You’ve got to move into his office.’ And that kind of got me, an all-right-if-she’s-saying-I’ve-got-to-do-it type of thing.
"It’s still weird. Sometimes I still walk into my other office and kind of open that thing up. But I’ll never get used to the fact that this is my deal and Coach isn’t here. That’s something that I think will just happen over time.”
The Blue Jays opened their first practice of the preseason Wednesday, and it marked the first time since 1990 that they made preparations without Jim Margraff, whose sudden death Jan. 2 at age 58 in his home in the Baltimore area stunned players, coaches, fans and the Division III college football community.
Margraff, a record-setting quarterback for Johns Hopkins, had just guided the program to its first appearance in the semifinals of the NCAA Division III tournament, where the team fell, 28-20, to 13-time national champion Mount Union on Dec. 8. Last season’s team collected a school-record 12 victories in 14 games and Margraff was named the National Coach of the Year by the American Football Coaches Association and D3football.com.
Margraff’s death still pains players, although they said the loss has been alleviated somewhat by the hiring of Chimera.
“It’s tough. He is Hopkins football,” senior quarterback David Tammaro said of Margraff. “But I’m just so happy for Coach Chimera. He’s the best person for the job, and the right person got the job, and he’s so excited. So yeah, it’s a different feeling, but we’re not missing a beat out here with Coach Chimera taking the reins.”
Margraff’s presence continues to linger around Homewood Field. Every player’s helmet will include a decal with Margraff’s initials, and there is a plan to add his initials to the turf near the Blue Jays’ sideline. The university will honor Margraff at the team’s home opener against Centennial Conference rival Susquehanna on Sept. 14 with a display in the athletic center and several former players are expected to attend.
“I think anything we can do to honor him is great because he did do so much for this program,” senior defensive end Mike Kalanik said. “He brought it from the bottom of the Centennial to where we are now.”
Players said Chimera has adopted some of Margraff’s favorite catchphrases, such as “A spoken word, a shot arrow and a missed opportunity are the only things you can take back,” “If you’re walking on a board here, it’s the same as walking on a board across two buildings. It’s just the situation that you’re thinking about,” and “Rankings only hurt those who believe them.”
Chimera said it is only natural for him to parrot his mentor.
“A lot of the things that I do and say and think are just directly because of him, and I feel fortunate for that,” he said. “If you’re going to be at a place for 10 years or 14 as a player and coach, you might as well do it under a guy like him. So I just feel fortunate that I had so much time with him and got to learn under him and pick up on his quirks.”
Like Margraff, Chimera wandered all over Homewood Field during practice, but tended to drift toward the offensive linemen. Senior left guard Joe Figueroa said he most misses conversing with Margraff.
“I remember Monday morning of the final four week, I went in there asking about something random, and we ended up talking for like two hours, kind of telling me random little stories about stuff he’s done in the past,” he recalled. “But that was just him. If he felt like a player wanted to talk to him or needed to or was just in there, he would talk to him. He wouldn’t get everything done, but it wouldn’t matter to him.”
Tammaro said Margraff had a unique ability to reach out to him when he was angry after missing a pass or failing to help the offense score points.
“He was literally my dad away from home,” Tammaro said. “Every time I met him, it was just like talking with my dad. We would just hang out, and he would calm me down. There’s so much wisdom that he had that you can’t develop unless you’ve coached for 30 years and saw everything.”
Ernie Larossa, the school’s sports information director and associate athletic director, said he had a spring tradition with Margraff.
“At the end of the lacrosse season, I would walk into his office and say, ‘It’s the start of football season now, Coach, and I need a two-deep [depth chart],’ ” Larossa said. “It’s weird that I wasn’t able to do that with him this year. I was spoiled to have a coach like him.”
Margraff was the program’s all-time leader in wins courtesy of a 221-89-3 record. His 221 victories are the most by any college football coach in state history and ranked third among active Division III coaches.
Although Chimera acknowledged the high bar set by Margraff, Kalanik said Chimera has emphasized to the players the need to quiet distractions, such as the team’s No. 5 rankings in Smith & Street’s and Lindy’s preseason polls and a No. 6 spot by D3football.com.
“It’s his program,” Kalanik said. “He’s taking control of it, he’s making it what he wants it to be, and I think he’s doing a good job it.”
Chimera is thankful for the players’ confidence in him. He stressed, however, that the team’s present and future are shared by players and coaches alike.
“I don’t look at this as my team or my program at all,” he said. “I think about the guys who played before me and obviously coached before me, and I’m just trying to do it for all of those guys and especially for our current team.”
Sept. 5, 7 p.m.