Like Fine Wine

St. John's coach John Gagliardi is 81 and at 9-0 doesn't look to be slowing down

Oct. 31, 2007

By Pat Coleman

Special To from


Pat runs and and offers regular analysis on E-mail here!


COLLEGEVILLE, Minn. - After 583 games and 452 wins, St. John's coach John Gagliardi has no intent of slowing down.


Gagliardi, in his 59th year as a college head coach and 55th year at this college northwest of Minneapolis, has his No. 3-ranked Johnnies off to a 9-0 start and turns 81 Nov. 1. He talks about coaches who've been accused in the past of letting the game pass them by, such as Penn State's Joe Paterno, and it's clear the Johnnies, who have won 110 games over the past 10 seasons, are in no danger of letting Gagliardi fall into that group.




He's the winningest coach in college football history, a member of the College Football Hall of Fame and the Division III football top student-athlete of the year award is named after him. But he's not ready to rest on his laurels.


"I hate to retire because then all you have to think about is all the damn memories, and then you start dredging them all up and you've got nothing to look for in the future," he said after Saturday's 51-34 win against archrival St. Thomas in front of an announced crowd of 12,123.


For St. Thomas, the season has to be considered a disappointment. The Tommies leave Collegeville with a 2-6 mark but had a chance to make it a one-score game with 5:14 left before failing on a two-point conversion attempt.


"Well, they always get up for it," Gagliardi says of the archrival that St. John's has now beaten 10 consecutive times. "They've always got talent. They're a good team; they always are."


The school is home to perhaps the best game-day atmosphere in Division III football, with fans ringing the sideline five or six people deep and sitting on the natural bowl hillside as well as in the 7,500 seats. The Johnnies have averaged 9,923 fans at their five home games this season after leading Division III in average attendance six of the previous 11 seasons.


Gagliardi has won four national championships at St. John's, two in the NAIA and two in Division III, the last in 2003. That season, Gagliardi passed legendary Grambling State coach Eddie Robinson's 408 career wins and the Johnnies went on to upset Mount Union in the Stagg Bowl, the only Stagg Bowl Larry Kehres' Purple Raiders have lost in 10 trips.


Does this St. John's team have that type of magic? Gagliardi says magic isn't exactly something he can detect when the season is going on.


"All of the national championship teams are special," says Gagliardi, "because other than Kehres, who is going to win a national championship? It's nuts. He's the only guy dead or alive to do what he's done. That's better than John Wooden."


After 583 games, it would seem reasonable that every scenario has come and gone. But a new situation presented itself to the Johnnies in the fourth quarter. After St. Thomas snapped the ball over its punter's head, resulting in a safety, St. John's failed to field the punt-style free kick, which St. Thomas recovered.


"Every time I think I've seen everything, I know that I haven't," Gagliardi said. His receiver signaled for a fair catch, which isn't permitted on a free kick. St. Thomas took its second life and cut the lead to 44-34 but failed on the two-point conversion and didn't score again.


St. John's struggled on Saturday in the secondary, as St. Thomas quarterback David Sauer threw for 334 yards and four touchdowns, picking on both Johnnie cornerbacks. P.J. Theisen caught nine passes for 124 yards. But afterward, Gagliardi wasn't interested in looking back.


"I don't know if I'm that analytic," he said. "Once we get past a game, we start looking at the next one because it's gone and done."


He continued later: "I don't think it's any different than you guys. You write a column, you write something really great and after two or three days or two weeks I bet you don't even remember what the hell you wrote because you're so busy with the next one. That's exactly what happens here. You might've had a masterpiece, but hell, a lot of good it does you when you have to do it again, every time."


But with all of the wins, there's one that can't be put aside: "The first one, because coaching out at Carroll College, your first college game, that's kind of important. My biggest fear when I was a young coach was to have an all-losing season. It happens to people. I don't know if I could endure it. I can hardly survive one or two losses."


Gagliardi seems like the type who will coach until he dies. It's only what he's been doing for 65 of his 81 years.


"Sometimes I wonder, `why the hell am I still doing this?' he says. "But I'm not bored, see, that's the thing, I'm afraid of being bored because I don't have any hobbies. This has been my hobby.


"Who would come and talk to me if I were retired?"