John Gagliardi lost the first game he ever coached at St. John’s University and the last one. If not for the 60 years of coaching in between those two defeats, the guy might have been run out of town.
The legendary football coach announced his retirement on Monday afternoon and said goodbye in a quip-filled press conference on the St. John’s campus in central Minnesota. Undaunted by that first defeat as St. John’s coach, he retires as the winningest coach in college football history, with a career record of 489-138-11. It’s not quite right to say it’s a record that will never be broken. Mount Union’s Larry Kehres — head of the all-powerful Purple Raiders machine — has 328 victories and counting and is the one guy who could threaten the mark, if he wants to stick around long enough to track it down.
It’s uncertain if the record will fall in 10-15 years or last forever. But one thing is for sure — there will never be another coach like John Gagliardi.
Gagliardi’s career is about so much more than the pure numbers, but those numbers are so unfathomable that you have to start with them when looking back at his 64 seasons as a college coach. Start with that 64. After coaching his high school team in Colorado when his coach went off to war, Gagliardi began his college career at Carroll in Montana, where he coached for four years before leaving for Collegeville.
Sixty-four seasons and 489 victories. How to put any of that into perspective? It’s impossible, and attempting to reference important points in his career to past events everyone’s familiar with sounds like one of those birthday cards that relates everything that happened the year someone was born. But so be it; in the wake of the most unique coaching career in college history, sometimes we have to rely on unoriginal ideas. So consider:
* When Gagliardi started his college career in 1949, Notre Dame won the national title. They might win it in his final year as a coach. But things have changed a bit since that initial season. Army and Rice were ranked fourth and fifth in the final AP poll. The Minnesota Gophers were eighth, Pacific 10th, Cornell 12th.
* Gagliardi started his career 10 years before Vince Lombardi started coaching the Green Bay Packers. (Gagliardi also actually coached against Vince’s son, who played for St. Thomas). Bear Bryant took over Alabama nine years after Gagliardi started.
* Who could break Gagliardi’s record if Kehres doesn’t? A coach who starts at the age of 30 and averages 10 victories a year until he’s 79 years old.
* That first loss Gagliardi suffered as SJU coach was a 7-0 defeat against St. Cloud State. It was the last time he was under .500 as St. John’s coach (he had gone 24-6-1 at Carroll).
* Patrick Reusse noted this on his radio show Monday, how Gagliardi won all those games despite playing only eight games in numerous seasons. Even into the ’70s the Johnnies sometimes only played eight games.
* Jim Christopherson was an all-time great player at Concordia in Moorhead. Gagliardi coached against him when he played for the Cobbers. He coached against him when Christopherson was coach at Concordia for more than 30 years. Christopherson retired 12 years ago.
* As St. John’s hockey coach, Gagliardi won 42 games. During his time at Carroll he coached the basketball team as well and led the team to a victory over Gonzaga.
* Gagliardi won games in eight decades.
Gagliardi’s techniques and personality were just as famous as his records. He came up with everything himself. He didn’t emerge from a coaching tree or clinic and didn’t have any mentors. He never worked as an assistant coach and basically acted as his own boss from the time he took over his high school team at 16 until the afternoon he walked off the field for the final time against Bethel at 86.
Over the years, Gagliardi insisted that he wasn’t looking for any converts who believed in his system, although with the record he had you have to wonder why more weren’t born again in their coaching beliefs. No tackling in practice, no whistles, no calisthenics, no tackling dummies, no running through tires — the list is long and familiar now to anyone who knows Gagliardi’s story. And no one calling him coach. Like everyone else his players called him John. He proved to be one of the greatest innovators in the game, and not just with practice routines. The Johnnies won with dominating defense in the 1960s, powerful running attacks in the ’70s and wide-open offenses in the late-80s and ’90s, long before the rest of the college game evolved through the air.
Gagliardi’s one-liners became as well-known as his list of “no’s.” He broke them out at preseason luncheons and postgame press conference after season-ending heartbreakers. Like Springsteen in concert, he brought out the old favorites but always made sure to pepper in some of the new stuff.
“The military has been plucking kids off farms for years and teaching them to drive tanks and fly planes, so teaching them to play football shouldn’t be that hard.”
“I don’t think about retirement but I think about suicide after every loss.”
“We have ordinary players doing ordinary things extraordinarily well.”
“Every year we lose totally irreplaceable guys. But every year more irreplaceable people show up.”
The problem for the Johnnies the last few years was that those irreplaceable players weren’t showing up. St. John’s went 18-12 in Gagliardi’s final three seasons. The offense sputtered too often and the defense gave up point totals that hadn’t been seen in Collegeville since, well, before Gagliardi arrived on campus. The only thing more maddening than the close defeats were the ugly routs. Always a step ahead, Gagliardi anticipated years ago what critics would say if his teams ever struggled: The game has passed him by. That was perhaps whispered here and there but mostly concerns centered around recruiting and money — whether St. John’s did enough of the former and had enough of the latter. And both of those issues were usually compared to the friends to the east, St. Thomas.
What was perhaps lost in the three-year downswing — and it’s a testament to Gagliardi’s career that an 18-12 three-year mark is considered a downturn — is that St. John’s has suffered seasons like this before. The St. John’s tradition — a tradition unrivaled as the slogan went — wasn’t about winning 10 games every year or winning a national title every other season. It was about Gagliardi’s unique methods and, yes, winning. But winning — even winning national titles — was occasionally followed by down years. The tradition was that the winning always returned, and Gagliardi was always there on the sidelines, arms behind his back, hands linked.
St. John’s won its second national title in 1965, but followed a year later with a 4-3-1 record. In 1967 the Johnnies fell to 3-5, Gagliardi’s last losing season. SJU improved to 6-4 in 1968 and 8-1-1 in ’69. The 1973 season ended in crushing disappointment again — at least that’s how .500 seasons are viewed in Collegeville — as the Johnnies went 4-4. Fortunes eventually turned and Johnnie dominance returned, capped by an undefeated year in 1976 and the third national title. But then? Six and three in 1978, 5-3 in ’80, 7-4 in ’83, 4-4-1 in 1986. The modern SJU dynasty started after that and continued through, basically, 2009. Ten-win seasons became the norm, as did semifinal appearances. Finally, in 2003, SJU broke through and won Gagliardi’s fourth national title, snapping Mount Union’s record 55-game winning streak.
Those who love their narratives probably wanted Gagliardi to retire then, to go out on top. Others thought the exposure from the national title run would be a recruiting boon and a decade of dominance would follow. It didn’t, even if the Johnnies were outstanding in the first years after that title, winning 11 games in 05 and ’06 and 10 more in ’07 and ’09. These last three years felt like a new experience for the Johnnies, even if history showed they were anything but. The difference? Gagliardi won’t be there to turn it around.
So where does the program go from here? The school begins its search for a replacement. Assistants Gary Fasching and Jim Gagliardi are considered contenders, though the younger Gagliardi has said he may not be interested in the head position. Outsiders might catch the eye of the search committee. And then there’s Eden Prairie coach Mike Grant, Bud’s kid, who’s now going for his eighth state title this week. He’s a former Johnnie player and assistant and has long been rumored to be the heir apparent. Maybe it’s finally time. Maybe to replace a legend the Johnnies will go with someone who already proved he can excel while growing up in the shadow of one.
But the program will retreat back from the spotlight, primarily because Gagliardi has been St. John’s for so long. There’s a great picture that’s run in the St. Cloud Times of a game at the Natural Bowl during Gagliardi’s first few years at St. John’s. There’s nothing there. Two teams, one set of small stands with some fans. A lone car. Today there are athletic complexes and end zone stands and a giant scoreboard and turf and and large press boxes and 10,000 fans. The program existed before Gagliardi, but he is the one responsible for making sure Collegeville is something more than a dot on the map.
The national media goes away now. They’ll win plenty; they’ll rebound in the tiny MIAC standings you see printed in the Star Tribune each Sunday. The fan base will remain large and passionate, perhaps the greatest in Division III. But things are different, because the one guy that linked generations of players and fans will now be watching it along with everyone else. They’ll be a great Division III program. There are a lot of those. Between 1953 and 2012, though, there was only one program coached by John Gagliardi.
The program probably lost some kids over the years because they weren’t sure Gagliardi would be around four years, but how many more went to play for a legend?
Even non-football players were attracted to the school by Gagliardi. Here’s what I knew about St. John’s as I entered my senior year of high school: It’s the school that hosted the Knights of Columbus free throw competition when I won the state title in 1989. And then in the fall of 1992, our Sports Illustrated arrived with a picture of Gagliardi on the cover and on the inside was Austin Murphy’s first, but certainly not his last, story on Gagliardi. The St. John’s name again entered my world. I read the story and loved it. A few visits later, and after a two-year detour to a junior college, I found my way to Collegeville. Is an SI cover a reason to go to a school? Well, no, and my parents’ bank account probably agreed at the time. But Gagliardi made people aware of the school, even if they never had the chance to play for him on the field.
Johnnies football will live on, it will remain strong. But no matter how many MIAC titles it wins in the future and no matter how quickly the Johnnies again become national title contenders, St. John’s will never be the same, now that the man they called John can no longer be called coach.