Easy Does It

Times Staff Writer

It wasn't easy, it wasn't pretty and it definitely wasn't warm, but college football history was made here Saturday by a 77-year-old nonconformist coach, on a field carved out of the clay by the Benedictine monks.

Rocky Top Tennessee this was not.

With members of the national media packed into Division III writing quarters and press box phones ringing off the hook with news services seeking minute-by-minute updates, St. John's rallied to defeat Bethel, 29-26, making John Gagliardi the winningest coach in college football history.

Gagliardi's 409th victory pushed him past former Grambling Coach Eddie Robinson on the all-time win list and sent an overflow and bone-chilled crowd of 13,007 spilling onto the field at Clemens Stadium.

Gagliardi, as self-effacing as he is successful, apologized afterward for the weather, which was 18 degrees at kickoff.

"I'm not so sure I'd be here if I didn't have to be," Gagliardi quipped during an on-field ceremony.

The monumental victory was in doubt until the final minutes of the final quarter, when St. John's marched down the field and scored the game-winning touchdown, a five-yard pass from Ryan Keating to Josh Nelson with 2:03 remaining.

Gagliardi, old enough to remember Jack Dempsey, said he never forgot what Dempsey said once when someone asked the boxer what it took to be heavyweight champion.

"He said you've got to get off the floor when there's no way you can," Gagliardi said.

St. John's got off the floor when it looked as if it couldn't.

Gagliardi's win was not only a victory for a man and a school. It was a victory for an idea that football does not have to play to meat-grinder stereotypes.

Gagliardi's staunch belief that football does not have to be Draconian may put him in the Smithsonian.

He has become the all-time victories leader by abandoning convention with his "Winning With No's" philosophy.

Gagliardi has become the all-time victories leader with no playbook, no cheerleaders, no statistics, no practicing in bad weather, no wind sprints, no meetings, no mandatory weightlifting, no whistles, no tackling and no team captains.

For years, St. John's has had a strict policy of never practicing if there were too many gnats.

While others were constructing powerhouses in divisions large and small, Gagliardi was deconstructing.

Gagliardi came to this no-nonsense notion when he took over his high school team in Colorado after the head coach was called off to World War II. Gagliardi said even the mules in the mines got water when they got tired, so why, he reasoned, should not humans?

He became a complete convert to laissez-faire football after Dick Miller, one of his early St. John's players, was injured during a practice drill called "bull in the ring."

Gagliardi has many times remarked, "Dick was the best player in the conference but the worst at bull in the ring."

So, on Saturday, it was no accident Gagliardi was not carried off the field by his players.

As the game ended, in fact, he stood with his arms folded behind his back.

Gatorade shower?

"You don't ever throw Gatorade on him," defensive tackle Ryan Weinandt said on the field as he soaked up the history. "That's a definite no."

After the game, Gagliardi reminded everyone that his philosophy, which some have criticized, can work.

He noted the team that does not do wind sprints was capable Saturday of making a fourth-quarter drive to victory.

"Obviously, we're all right," he said of his team's conditioning.

Gagliardi's teams are "organized," he says, but not structured. They don't run sprints in practice, they run plays, over and over and over.

"It's so logical," said star receiver Blake Elliott, who finished Saturday with 15 catches for 163 yards and two touchdowns. "It's so smart, so common sense and it's so easy."

Gagliardi's philosophy has now brought him unparalleled success. St. John's is the winningest school in Division III history; Gagliardi has been leading its quiet charge for 51 years.

His lifetime record stands at 409-144-11 ... and counting. His St. John's teams have won three national titles but none since 1976.

Saturday's victory was historic but also important, clinching the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference title and an automatic berth in the Division III playoffs.

The win over Bethel ran the Johnnies' record to 9-0, but it was just as much a relief.

"Oh God yes," said Peggy, who married Gagliardi on Valentine's Day in 1956.

Gagliardi said he was "flabbergasted" at the national attention his march toward 409 received.

He attended 9:15 a.m. Mass on campus and noticed the line already forming outside the stadium for the 1 p.m. game.

All this for him?

"My God," Gagliardi said, "if these people are going to sit in the stands all this time, at least we could play."

Outwardly, the old coach used humor to deflect the moment. He joked that he doubted he would receive a new car for his achievement, because "the monks don't know what a Lexus is."

He also noted Saturday's win probably would not earn him a raise.

"They took a vow of poverty," he said of the monks, "and they think I did too."

Inside, though, Gagliardi's guts had been churning all week.

"He's always nervous as hell," said Jim, his son.

More than 50 relatives descended on tiny Collegeville, about an hour's drive northwest of Minneapolis, for this occasion.

St. John's pulled it out ... if only barely.


Well, it just isn't in the cards.

"Not unless he has a heart attack anytime soon," Jim said.

For Gagliardi, No. 409 is a new launching point.

He says he'll keep coaching as long as he keeps winning.

"If I start losing they'll be like they are with Joe Paterno," he said. "They'll say I'm too old."

Gagliardi wanted to note he was never trying to prove a point with the unusual brand of coaching he started here in 1953 when, at 26, he took over the program from Johnny "Blood" McNally.

Gagliardi could have left this frozen-tundra hamlet. Once, the University of San Diego came calling. Former Minnesota Viking coach Bud Grant, who sent two sons to play at St. John's, offered Gagliardi the chance to coach in the pros.

Gagliardi resisted the urges and stuck to his heart ... and his plan.

His brand of football isn't for everybody.

"We're not looking for converts," he said. "We're not trying to change the world. We've got this little spot in Central Minnesota we're happy with."



John Gagliardi

Profiling college football's all-time winningest coach:

*--* COACHING WINS Coach Victories Years John Gagliardi* 409 55 Eddie Robinson 408 55 Bobby Bowden* 340 38 Joe Paterno* 338 38 Bear Bryant 323 38 Pop Warner 319 44 Roy Kidd 315 39 Amos Alonzo Stagg 314 57 Frosty Westering 304 41 Tubby Raymond 300 36 *active



* Selected national coach of the year seven times, including in 2002 by American Football Monthly. Also was cited in 1963, 1965, 1976, 1991, 1993 and 2000. Has a trophy named after him; since 1993, the Gagliardi Trophy has gone annually to the outstanding NCAA Division III football player.


* Carroll College (1949-1952), 24-6-1; St. John's University (1953-present), 384-106-10.


* Three national titles (1963, 1965, 1976) and 25 conference titles -- three at Carroll College, 22 at St. John's.


* 1976 NCAA Division III, 1965 NAIA, 1963 NAIA


* 2000 NCAA Division III


* 2002, 2001, 2000, 1994, 1993, 1991, 1989, 1976, 1965, 1963


* 2003, 2002, 2001, 2000, 1999, 1998, 1996, 1994, 1993, 1991, 1989, 1987, 1985, 1982, 1977, 1976, 1969, 1965, 1963


2003, 2002, 2001, 1999, 1998, 1996, 1995, 1994, 1993, 1991, 1989, 1985, 1982, 1979, 1977, 1976, 1975, 1974, 1971, 1965, 1963, 1962, 1953

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