Not sure what the big deal is about St. John’s 63-7 defeat at St. Thomas on Saturday afternoon. In 1930, St. Olaf beat the Johnnies 82-0 in a game the old-timers say wasn’t even that close. Now that was a crushing loss.
John Gagliardi was not actually on the sidelines for that particular matchup 81 years ago but Saturday’s game was unlike anything he’s experienced in his reign as the St. John’s coach. It’s the most points the Johnnies have given up under Gagliardi and their worst defeat under the legendary coach. To hear some fans talk – including ones who graduated from SJU – those 63 points the Tommies scored might somehow tarnish the 63 years Gagliardi has been a head coach. It’s an absurd belief, about 56 times more embarrassing to the school than that 56-point defeat.
But it’s the way the world works now. Maybe it’s always been that way, it’s just easier now for the disgruntled to voice their opinion minutes after a game ends and speculation about the future begins.
A handful of frustrated St. John’s fans – perhaps concerned about the taunts they’d hear from their Tommie co-workers come Monday morning – speculated that perhaps, just maybe, and we’re only saying this out of concern for the football program, while acknowledging that, yes, Gagliardi has been a good coach and has done some nice things for the school, the team and the community, it was time for SJU to consider a change on the sideline.
Of course, Gagliardi knows this is the way things go in sports. He’s predicted it for decades, always noting – usually when referencing other coaches whose tenures are measured in decades and not years, guys like Eddie Robinson and Joe Paterno – that when an older coach struggles, people say “the game has passed him by.” Gagliardi’s always been a step ahead of the competition – he’s also a step ahead of the critics’ barbs.
There’s no question this is an abnormal year in Collegeville. The Johnnies sit at 2-3, have been embarrassed twice and lost in improbable fashion to Augsburg – and St. John’s never loses to Augsburg. One of their wins came in overtime, the other against Northwestern – not the Big Ten version.
The offense can’t find a quarterback and the defense can’t stop anyone – SJU has already given up nearly as many points as they usually give up in playoff seasons that run 13 or 14 games. The Johnnies look slow, confused and overmatched. It sometimes feels like imposters are wearing the red and white. To tweak an old SJU line, it seems like they now have ordinary players doing ordinary things extraordinarily poorly. This comes after a season when the Johnnies missed the playoffs by going 7-3, although last year’s team lost by a total of seven points and the offense put up seven games of 500 yards.
The success of the Tommies probably fuels some of the frustration from Johnnies’ supporters. It’s one thing to lose to Bethel’s Royals, which has happened six times since 1999 – they’re just a bunch of good ol’ Christians who love to run. It’s one thing to lose to Concordia’s Cobbers – they’re just a bunch of good ol’ farm boys who love the option.
But to lose to St. Thomas two straight seasons? To trail 49-0 in the first half? It frightens St. John’s fans, sparks fears of a run of Tommie dominance, fueled by a new coach, new facilities and a bit of old money. Considering the way St. Thomas dominates in other sports in the MIAC, maybe – the worries go – football is the next thing St. Thomas will conquer. Maybe they’ll join other purple powers in Wisconsin-Whitewater and Mount Union, who take turns winning the Division III national title.
Speaking of the Tommies, yes, they surely ran up the score on Saturday. The 63rd point came in the third quarter, courtesy of a TD reception by star receiver Fritz Waldvogel. And that’s fine. Worthy of applause, even. It’s what dominant teams do to lesser ones. The Johnnies are infamous for running up the score. When it happens to SJU – as it did in 1993 against Mount Union and as it did Saturday – you hear people from other schools cackling and can practically see them smirking. All Johnnie fans want is for those same people to quit complaining when it’s again SJU passing and scoring when up six or seven scores. And that day will return. Right?
So all of that plays into the misguided calls for a new coach, a laughable idea that is, unfortunately, taken all too seriously by a few people. Just be thankful the Internet didn’t exist in 1986, or even more people would have been calling for a new coach. That year, the Johnnies finished 4-4-1. The St. Thomas game that year? A 56-21 loss. Perhaps Tommies coach Glenn Caruso learned the lesson from that game, which was told by former St. Thomas coach Mark Dienhart in The Sweet Season. Dienhart’s defensive coordinator in 1986 was Jerry Miller, who died in 1998. His last words to Dienhart, as relayed in the book, were, “I’ll never forgive you for not scoring 60 on Gagliardi.” For the Johnnies, that 1986 season also included a tie to Macalester. Macalester! A perennial punching bag the Johnnies had defeated every season since 1968. In 1986, it had been 10 years since Gagliardi had led the Johnnies to a national title. And now they were giving up 56 points to the Tommies, tying Macalester and finishing .500 for the season. Maybe the game had passed by the 60-year-old Gagliardi. Fortunately the old coach stayed on.
In 1997, you heard similar whispers when the Johnnies went 6-4, a season that included losses to Augsburg and St. Thomas. Both times – after 1986 and ’97 – Gagliardi and the Johnnies figured things out and went on dominating runs, the most recent of which included a national title in 2003. And it’s not like the dominance completely ended when Blake Elliott graduated. The Johnnies enjoyed unbeaten regular seasons in 2005, one-loss regular seasons in 2006 and 2007 and a conference title in 2008. In 2009, they also went unbeaten in the regular season. What have you done for me lately? A hell of a lot. And the players all still graduate and don’t get arrested and become good citizens and good employees of Target or other major corporations and do all the other things that make Division III football what it is.
But now Gagliardi’s 84 years old – 85 in less than a month – and the Johnnies are looking at a three or four or – good God, no – perhaps a five-loss season. People talk about recruiting and complacency and say the program’s grown arrogant, a particularly ironic statement when it comes from one of the most arrogant fan bases in all of Division III. Many D3 fans tout the level of play for its purity and compare it to Division I ball and the scandals and money that dominate that level. Division III football does things the right way, the argument goes.
Yet many of those same folks can now be heard wondering if it isn’t time for Mike Grant or Kurt Ramler or someone…else, to right this St. John’s ship, which has now gone two whole seasons without an unbeaten regular season. D3 football – so different.
People always talk about how difficult it is following in the footsteps of a legend. Legions of coaches who came after John Wooden at UCLA and Bear Bryant at Alabama learned that lesson. For years people talked about how tough it’d be for whichever coach does eventually replace Gagliardi. But maybe it’s even tougher following in the footsteps of your own legend. Everything you do is compared to what you’ve done, and when what you’ve done is win four national titles and more games than any coach in college history – all while utilizing the most unique coaching methods the game’s ever seen – failure is always one loss away, catastrophe three.
John Gagliardi has seemingly been around forever but it’s absurd to think he’ll coach forever. No way he’ll be on the sidelines when he celebrates his 98th birthday on November 1, 2024. But this isn’t simply about nostalgia or history or doing what’s right or letting a legend go out on his own terms – though all of those things are applicable. He remains the best coach for the Johnnies now, in 2011 and beyond, and not just because of what he’s done the previous six decades. He remains the best coach for the Johnnies because he’s still sharp and hungry, and, yes, a little arrogant, even after Saturday. He’s also in charge of a struggling team, but one that’s still a superior program. And he remains motivated. Sixty-three points won’t eradicate that motivation – it might even spark it.
The school’s not named after him, but the football program is him. It’s been an ugly season. Could get uglier. But it’s happened before – yes, it’s happened before in Collegeville. And the Johnnies always bounce back. The Johnnies are down. But John Gagliardi won’t ever be out.