College coach gets record 409th win

Posted: Sunday, November 09, 2003

COLLEGEVILLE, Minn. Winning at St. John's is predictable, just like John Gagliardi's attempts to downplay his success.

Sure enough, the 77-year-old Gagliardi became college football's career victory leader Saturday and tried to convince everyone it was no big deal.

''I guess it's better than being at the bottom,'' he said.

Gagliardi got win No. 409 when the Johnnies rallied to beat Bethel 29-26. In his 55th season and 51st at St. John's, Gagliardi passed Eddie Robinson who retired in 1997 after winning 408 games with Division I-AA Grambling State.

''I have never thought about retiring,'' Gagliardi said after a lengthy ceremony in his honor on the home field of the Division III liberal arts school in central Minnesota.

Ryan Keating's fourth touchdown pass, a 10-yard toss to Josh Nelson, gave the Johnnies the lead with 2:03 remaining. St. John's (9-0, 8-0) also clinched the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference title, its 10th in the last 13 years.

''We dodged another bullet,'' Gagliardi said. ''That's the way we always feel. When things looked very bleak, the guys came back.''

Quarterback Scott Kirchoff's 4-yard touchdown run with 4:57 left gave Bethel a 26-22 lead. Kirchoff, however, cracked his sternum on the collision and was taken away in an ambulance.

Blake Elliott, who had 15 receptions for 163 yards and two touchdowns, returned the kickoff 50 yards to the Royals 40 to set up the winning score.

''I've been here for five years now,'' Elliott said. ''Once you get to know the man, he makes you play hard. I'm glad I can say I was on this team.''

Keating completed 32 of 45 passes for 315 yards and four touchdowns for the Johnnies. Kirchoff was 10-of-16 for 137 yards and two touchdowns for the Royals (9-1, 7-1) who finished second in the MIAC.

''John's a legend he has stood the test of time brilliantly,'' said Bethel coach Steve Johnson, who was asked if he thought about trying to catch Gagliardi on the all-time list.

''No chance,'' said Johnson, who has 100 wins.

St. John's has been showered with attention in recent weeks. But the team followed Gagliardi's lead, staying focused on the conference championship and another trip to the postseason.

''We have never once talked about that record,'' Keating said.

Said Elliott: ''I've never heard 409 come out of that guy, unless you're talking about cleaning supplies or something.''

An estimated 13,107 fans clogged the stands and surrounding snow-covered hills at Clemens Stadium, the largest crowd to ever see a St. John's game.

Gagliardi, wearing a maroon parka with a huge hood pulled over his head to keep warm on an 18-degree afternoon, was mobbed by well-wishers as he walked to the center of the field after the game was over.

By small-school standards, this game was hyped like no other. When Gagliardi took his team to morning mass about four hours before kickoff, he saw scores of fans who were already waiting in line for tickets.

''These people are going to sit there in the cold the least we could do was go play,'' Gagliardi said. ''I guarantee I wouldn't have been here if I didn't have to be.''

Gagliardi, 77, has won three national titles at St. John's. The Johnnies gained an automatic bid to the NCAA playoffs, their sixth straight appearance.

Gagliardi, a native of Trinidad, Colo., who began his coaching career at Carroll College in Montana in 1949, has received plenty of national attention as he's neared Robinson's record.

Several times, he's been asked what the milestone meant to him.

''I still don't know,'' Gagliardi said, a wry smile visible on his weathered face. ''I think maybe my wife likes me a little better. ... But I bet Peggy will still make me take out the garbage.''

Gagliardi is probably best known for his unique philosophy, which eschews many of football's sometimes-sadistic traditions. His program is based on a list of ''nos'' a list of things he hated as a player that he vowed to never make one of his own players endure. Practices are short and devoid of tackling, conditioning and yelling. Nobody gets cut, either.

''We hope nobody does it the way we do,'' Gagliardi said. ''We're happy with what we're doing. We're not looking for converts, not looking to change the world. We've got this little spot here, and we like it.''

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