By Dave Hilbert, St. Francis (Ill.) Sports Information Director
JOLIET, Ill. – Gordie Gillespie, who spent 25 years of his 59-year coaching career as head baseball coach at University of St. Francis, died Saturday evening at his Joliet residence. He was 88.
Gillespie also served as the school’s director of athletics (1976-86), athletic chairman (1986-1995), head football coach (1986-1993) and head women’s basketball coach (1976-77).
“We are saddened to hear the news of Coach Gillespie’s passing,” said Dave Laketa, University of St. Francis director of athletics. “Our heartfelt sympathies go out to his wife, Joan, and the entire Gillespie family.
“I can speak for the many coaches, student-athletes, staff and administrators that Coach Gillespie touched at St. Francis in saying thanks to the Gillespie family for sharing ‘Coach’ with us for so many years. He left an indelible mark on all of us. The teachings that he provided have been priceless and something that we have carried with us and will continue to carry with us throughout our lives.”
“I am most certain that today the Lord is telling Coach Gillespie, “Well done, good and faithful servant!”
Gillespie amassed 2,402 victories in four sports, including a highly-successful tenure as head football coach at Joliet Catholic High School from 1959-85. While the coaching legend achieved fame and success in coaching the four sports, it is his record on the baseball diamond for which he will be most remembered, as he retired from St. Francis following the 2011 campaign as the winningest coach in college baseball at any level with 1,893 victories. He held the mark until University of Texas’ Augie Garrido surpassed him in 2014.
Gillespie began his college baseball coaching career in 1953 as head coach at Lewis University (then Lewis College), a post he held for 24 years. During his tenure, he directed the Flyers to the NAIA World Series eight times with national championships in each of his last three seasons, beginning in 1974. After finishing 5-9 in Gillespie’s debut season, Lewis did not post a losing record for the next 23 years.
Following the 1976 season at Lewis, Gillespie began his first of two tenures as head baseball coach at St. Francis. During that 19-year run under Gillespie, the Saints made eight trips to the NAIA World Series and, in 1993, claimed the national championship – the first in school history in any sport.
Gillespie left St. Francis after a World Series appearance in 1995 and moved 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, after Gillespie’s long-time assistant and his successor at St. Francis, Tony Delgado, announced his retirement, he returned to St. Francis to begin a second stint as the Saints’ head coach at the age of 79. During the next six seasons (2006-2011), he guided USF to two Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference championships and one CCAC Tournament title. He also directed the Saints to the Opening Round of the NAIA National Tournament in each of his last two years. Gillespie earned over 1,000 of his 1,893 wins at St. Francis, eclipsing that number during the 2011 campaign.
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 a 222-54-6 record and five Illinois state championships during a remarkable 27-year run. He may have added even 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. In 1991, Gillespie was recognized by the Chicago Tribune as the head coach of the all-time Illinois prep football team.
Gillespie left Joliet Catholic after the 1985 campaign to start the football program at St. Francis, which he guided for eight years. 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 the 59 years, Gillespie compiled a record of 2,402-1,170-8 (.672). In all, his 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.
“You can be amazed by all the numbers – the coaching seasons, victories and championships – but those pale in comparison to the lives he touched and made better,” continued Laketa. “That’s the most important thing, and something that is lost in sport too much now at all levels.”
Gillespie was 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 was the father of seven children through a previous marriage (Bob, Mike, Billie, Greg, Gordie, Jr., Margaret Mary and Jackie). Between him and Joan, they had a combined total of 40 grandchildren and 42 great grandchildren.
Funeral arrangements are pending.