College coach nears prestigious record

Posted: Thursday, October 30, 2003

COLLEGEVILLE, Minn. No scholarships, no screaming coaches, no grueling practices, no mandatory offseason weightlifting, no whistles.

Just wins and lots of 'em.

John Gagliardi's unorthodox guidance of the football program at St. John's University, a Division III school tucked in the woods of central Minnesota, has put him on the verge of a prestigious record. With one more victory, Gagliardi will tie Eddie Robinson for the most wins by a college coach.

In his 55th season, 51 at St. John's, Gagliardi has 407 career victories. Robinson retired with 408 in 1997 after 57 years at Division I-AA Grambling State.

Gagliardi, who turns 77 Saturday, can tie Robinson's mark on his birthday if the Johnnies (7-0) beat struggling rival St. Thomas (3-5). He can become the all-time winner on Nov. 8 when St. John's hosts Bethel College a game that will also determine first place in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.

Gagliardi (pronounced Gah-LAR-dee) has done his best to downplay the attention.

''I know it's short-lived,'' he said. ''I know we're not the Timberwolves or the Vikings. I don't know if I could put up with it. Well, I guess for the money I could.''

Football at this level is decidedly different than at Bobby Bowden's Florida State and Joe Paterno's Penn State the next two coaches behind Gagliardi on the career wins list.

Classes come first, no athletic scholarships are allowed and there is no spring practice. In fact, Gagliardi's entire program is based on a list of ''nos'' a rejection of many of football's sometimes-sadistic rituals that he detested when he played.

Gagliardi hates it when people call him ''coach.'' Go with John instead. He's terrified of injuries, so contact in practice is kept to a minimum and tackling is prohibited. Nobody gets cut. The roster is routinely more than 150. Calisthenics? No way. Well, at least don't take them seriously. There is the ''Nice Day Drill,'' where players roll over on their backs and say to each other, ''Nice day, isn't it?''

''We have one rule with our players the golden rule,'' Gagliardi said. ''Treat everybody the way you would want to be treated.''

A glimpse of a Johnnies practice belies their success, which includes three national championships, eight NCAA playoff appearances in the past 10 years, three straight trips to the national semifinals, 26 MIAC titles and no losing seasons since 1967.

Players never wear full pads just helmets, shoulder pads and sweatpants or shorts. There are no gut-busting conditioning drills, only a crisp, efficient workout where the offense runs plays at one end of the field and the defense tests out its schemes on the other.

Senior linebacker Cameron McCambridge, a Division III All-American in 2002, had a scholarship offer at Division I-A Wyoming and other Division II schools. He didn't want football to be a daily obsession.

''The kids that want to come here are good athletes,'' he said. ''Maybe they're just sick of that.''

Gagliardi is an avid watcher of film, and St. John's prides itself on playing smart. It's not as if players don't work as hard as other teams.

''They've got awful big quads for not lifting,'' Bethel coach Steve Johnson said. ''I think what he's saying is, 'We don't make guys lift. They're lifting because they want to be good and help the team.'''

The conference is always weak at the bottom, and St. John's is sometimes a target for opponents who feel they run up the score.

''When you have speed and the other guys don't, that translates into points,'' Johnson said. ''If you make a mistake, they don't capitalize with a first down. They capitalize with seven points.''

McCambridge pointed out that St. John's brought only its first and second teams to the season opener at Hamline, won by the Johnnies 74-7.

''We can't just down the ball every time,'' McCambridge said. ''A lot of people think we're cocky. A lot of people just give us the credit that we're good.''

St. John's was founded in 1857 by Benedictine monks who arrived from Pennsylvania to minister to the influx of German Catholic immigrants in the area. It's a male-only liberal arts-based institution with an enrollment of 1,800, where football Saturdays on this serene, secluded campus paint a pretty picture.

Bells in a tower in front of the Abbey Church chime on the quarter-hour. Fans in red pack Clemens Stadium, a natural bowl field where 5,500 watch in the stands and several thousands more sit along the grassy slopes beneath the orange hues of autumn.

Gagliardi has almost everything to do with the buzz that's followed Johnnie football for the past half-century. After four years at Carroll College in Montana, he was hired by the monks at St. John's in 1953 who asked him if he could beat St. Thomas and Gustavus Adolphus, another conference foe.

''I had never heard of them,'' Gagliardi said. ''But I said, 'Sure.'''

St. John's went 6-2 and won the MIAC in his first season.

''When I came to Minnesota 50 years ago, I'd never seen television,'' he said. ''I was unmarried at the time, living in the dorms. I asked them if I could have a TV set. They weren't so sure at first. But after we beat St. Thomas and Gustavus, they were like, 'You still want that TV?'''

Gagliardi's son, Jim, is the team's offensive coordinator and grew up in a house just yards from the stadium where John and his wife, Peg, still live.

Jim regularly fields questions about how much longer his dad will coach.

''He does as much now as he's ever done,'' Jim said. ''He tells us what we're going to run, what we're going to play and what we're going to see. He's in complete control.''

Retire? Doesn't sound like it, according to Jim.

''What else is he going to do?''

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