Most everything looks the same on the St. John’s football practice field. There are still nearly 200 players and they’ll still run around in shorts and shoulder pads. The defensive coordinator who’s been on the staff for nearly 40 years remains. The Collegeville setting is as picturesque as ever, even with the lights.
But for the first time since the 1952 season, John Gagliardi won’t lead those practices. Gagliardi retired at the end of the 2012 season, after 60 years on the St. John’s sideline and 64 as a college coach. And as Frank Rajkowski wrote in the St. Cloud Times, if you go back to the time he spent coaching his high school team, Gagliardi has been on the sidelines since he was 16.
This must be a strange time for college football’s all-time winningest coach. He seems to be adjusting pretty well — whatever that means — judging by Rajkowski’s story and one by St. Paul Pioneer Press columnist Bob Sansevere. Gagliardi maintains his office and is often in it. The new coaching staff, led by head coach Gary Fasching, still ask for Gagliardi’s opinion and they “want him at practice as much as he can be there.” But who knows what Gagliardi will feel when summer ends and fall begins and the St. John’s season actually starts. Gagliardi told Rajkowski, “It’s different, there’s no doubt about that. I don’t know if it feels weird. But it’s different. It’s really hard to say how it feels exactly. I still haven’t figured it out myself yet.”
And honestly, as an alum and fan of the Johnnies, I haven’t figured it out myself, either. All I know is my enthusiasm isn’t at its normal levels.
I came to St. John’s because of Gagliardi, a strange thing to say for someone who stopped playing football in ninth grade and was obviously never recruited. My longest conversation with him came in the St. John’s post office. But in those days before the Internet, what did I know about St. John’s? It was in central Minnesota, near St. Cloud but not in it, right? It hosted the 1989 Knights of Columbus State Free Throw competition, which I won — meaning I always remembered the feel of the floor at the Palaestra, even if I knew nothing about the surrounding campus. Then, in the fall of 1992, I saw Gagliardi on the Sports Illustrated cover, read the story and started learning more about the man, but also the campus. I eventually spent two years there and am grateful for them. Looking at it objectively, it’s absurd that an SI cover played a key role in forking over $40,000 for an education. I’m just glad once I got there my experience fulfilled my expectations.
Since graduation I can’t say I’ve been an avid follower of all the sports teams. I don’t check the basketball scores each night; I couldn’t tell you anything about the baseball program. Golf won some national championships, but don’t ask me for details. But following the football team’s fortunes remained a passion. I wrote about the team and listened to every game on the Internet. On messageboards I debated and discussed the team with other D3 football fans, penning 500-word diatribes on the offense, defense and, god help me, the kicking game. I read everything online about the team and Gagliardi, printing and saving stories by everyone from the LA Times to Patrick Reusse.
Each August I anticipated the start of practice and then the beginning of the season, following like one of those SEC boosters with three names, only this friend of the program’s contributions aren’t quite seven-figures. I enjoyed the national attention the program received, all of which focused on Gagliardi’s longevity, methods and victories. Even national titles at the Division III level don’t bring the type of attention Gagliardi and the Johnnies received, and I understand that shouldn’t affect my feelings for the team. How superficial can you be? It shouldn’t affect it, but it does. The Johnnies are now just another Division III program and not simply because they’ve been just another D3 team record-wise the past few seasons.
Maybe I am just shallow. When Saint John’s searched for a new coach, I loved the idea of Mike Grant returning to Collegeville. There was his legendary record at Eden Prairie that appealed, but he also had a star quality and the famous last name. I have no idea if he could have enjoyed the same type of success in college, and I do think Fasching will do a good job for the Johnnies. I love that a fellow 1997 grad, former quarterback great Kurt Ramler, has joined the team as assistant head coach and offensive coordinator. A thrilling player to watch when he led St. John’s, Ramler coached Carleton for several years and proved energetic and innovative. Still I was initially disappointed when Grant dropped out/didn’t get what he was asking for/wanted to stay in high school/wanted more assurances from the school/liked being in Eden Prairie. It sounds like a caricature of a talk radio caller, asking for the big name outsider while a qualified assistant waits in the background.
Perhaps it’s simply due to my connections to the university. Maybe four years on campus would have deepened my appreciation for all parts of the school, not just the famous football program or its famous coach. Never underestimate the power of getting drunk with your fellow wide-eyed freshmen. I don’t have the connection of the former players, the people who actually won all of those games, whose love of the program will remain as strong as it was the first time they stepped on the field. No family connections — no siblings, cousins or kids are on the team.
Of course winning always helps and almost always changes everything, even in Division III. If the Johnnies again find themselves battling for the conference title or advancing in the playoffs, would my enthusiasm return to previous levels? We have 100 years of sports history to show the answer is almost certainly yes.
I’m probably overplaying the ambivalence a bit. I’m still talking Johnnie football on the D3football.com board. At some point on an early Saturday evening I’ll write a 500-word treatise about the offense, defense, and, yes, kicking game. My fond memories of the school remain, and not simply because I get to cash an occasional check for writing for the alumni magazine.
But something’s definitely different without Gagliardi, though perhaps I need to give it a full season — or 60 — to figure it out. For now I remember the past while reading about the present and wondering about the future. I examine the SJU schedule. Two Wisconsin teams to open the season. And then, on September 21, the MIAC season opens against all-powerful St. Thomas, on the road in St. Paul. Dreaded St. Thomas, unbeaten in the conference since 2010, national runner-ups in 2012. God I’m sick of the Tommies. Please, Johnnies, whatever happens this year — beat the Tommies. It’s all I want.
Because some things never change, even when everything else does.