Chris Ely, the public address announcer for Johns Hopkins athletic events, does not travel with the football team for road games. So two years ago, he watched a student-run broadcast of a Blue Jays road game against a Centennial Conference opponent and heard a broadcaster refer to Johns Hopkins coach Jim Margraff as “Coach Margrove.”
“So every time I greeted Jim, I would say, ‘Coach Margrove, how are you doing?’ He thought that was the funniest thing,” Ely, a former WJZ sports anchor, said Wednesday. “He’d just laugh and shake his head. That’s the way he was. He was just the humblest person in the world.”
Humility was the most common character trait associated with Margraff, the Blue Jays’ all-time winningest football coach who died Wednesday at age 58 at his home in the Baltimore area.
Margraff, a record-setting quarterback for the Blue Jays and their coach since 1990, recently guided the program to its first appearance in the semifinals of the NCAA Division III tournament, where Hopkins fell, 28-20, to 13-time national champion Mount Union on Dec. 8. The Blue Jays collected a school-record 12 victories in 14 games, and Margraff was named D3football.com National Coach of the Year. He is a finalist for the American Football Coaches Association National Coach of the Year award, which will be announced Jan. 8.
Margraff owned a record of 221-89-3 over 29 years, making him the program’s all-time leader in wins. His 221 victories are the most by any college football coach in state history and ranked third among active Division III coaches.
University officials did not release a cause of death. In March 2005, Margraff underwent open-heart surgery to correct a congenital defect that killed his father when he was 48, according to Johns Hopkins Magazine. In July 2005, he had a second procedure to drain fluid that had accumulated around his heart.
“For Johns Hopkins, and in particular our athletic department and our football program, it’s devastating news,” Blue Jays men’s lacrosse coach Dave Pietramala said. “As wonderful a coach he was and as great a year as they had and as much success as they’ve had, what stands out to me about him was just what a wonderful man he was. He was kind. He had a quiet intensity. He was a great father and husband and a really caring coach.”
Margraff’s death reverberated throughout the university’s community and beyond. Conference rivals such as Dickinson and Susquehanna called Margraff “our greatest representative” and “a great leader, coach and father,” respectively. The University of Maryland expressed its condolences, too.
The Ravens tweeted a statement from coach John Harbaugh, saying in part: “Coach Margraff was a highly respected member of the Baltimore community and an icon at Johns Hopkins University. With tremendous class, leadership and determination, he inspired countless student-athletes.”
When Mount Union arrived at Homewood Field on Nov. 25, 2016, for a walkthrough on the eve of a Division III second-round playoff game against the Blue Jays, Margraff personally greeted the coaches and players as they walked off the buses.
“Typically it would be some representative of the athletic department,” Purple Raiders coach Vince Kehres recalled. “But I remember him being the first person that I saw when I got off the bus. He came right over and introduced himself and was very hospitable and personable. First impressions of people go a long way, and mine was a very humble, very friendly, courteous man.”
McDaniel coach Mike Dailey said he was introduced to Margraff nine years ago by then-head coach Tim Keating when Dailey was the Green Terror’s defensive coordinator, and Dailey remembered Margraff treating head coaches and their assistants alike.
“I don’t think you can find a nicer man,” Dailey said. “He was such a gentleman and was always so humble, even with all the successes that he had at Hopkins. You never saw him want to take the credit for it. It was always about the team, his players, his coaches. He’s just a first-class guy — top to bottom. It’s just horrible. It’s a shocker.”
Bill Stromberg, an All-American wide receiver who graduated with Margraff in 1982, was enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame in 2004. Now president and CEO of T. Rowe Price, Stromberg lauded his teammate’s ability to concentrate.
“Jim was a natural-born leader who had great instincts about doing the right thing at the right time,” he said Wednesday. “Once, when we were down against our rival, Western Maryland [now McDaniel], he stood in the huddle, smiled at everyone and said, ‘OK, we’ve got this’ — and everyone knew, at that moment, that we did.”
Stromberg said Margraff had a soft spot for his players.
“He was an incredibly dedicated person who really cared about his kids,” he said. “In 29 years at Hopkins, I think he remembered every young man who’d played for him and how he developed afterward.”
In a statement, Johns Hopkins athletic director Alanna W. Shanahan said: “Jim Margraff was a thoughtful, humble, passionate and exceptionally talented leader and our thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends at this difficult time. He left an indelible impact on all he touched and he made us all better. We will forever be thankful for the unparalleled experiences he provided for so many over the course of his highly successful career.”
Ely, the school’s public-address announcer, said the university’s community is reeling from the loss.
“I was able to speak to a couple of people in the athletic office today just to confirm what I had heard, and you could catch it in their voices,” he said. “I’m sure there are tears everywhere in that office. You almost feel lost. What do we do now? How could this happen? It’s so unfair. It’s so unbelievably unfair.”
Pietramala said he last spoke to Margraff after he was named the National Coach of the Year.
“He was more Man of the Year than Coach of the Year,” Pietramala said. “He really was a very special man.”
Margraff is survived by his wife Alice and children Megan, James and Will. Alice Margraff played lacrosse for Johns Hopkins and graduated in 1989, while Megan Margraff graduated from Johns Hopkins in 2017.
A memorial service will be held on the Johns Hopkins campus. Details for the service will be announced at a later date.
Baltimore Sun reporter Mike Klingaman contributed to this article.