Tuesday, December 23, 2003


By Syd Russell
Special to the Football Gazette

At, an age when most senior citizens have long since been put out to pasture (or are buried under it), 77-year-old John Gagliardi reached another milestone in a career that has made him a living legend.

On Nov. 8, 2003, Gagliardi (pronounced Gah-LAR-dee) became college football’s winningest coach with 409 victories when Saint John’s clinched its 27th Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference title by defeating Bethel, Minn., 29-26. A week before that game, Gagliardi tied the previous record holder, Eddie Robinson, who was at Louisiana’s Grambling State for 55 years (1941-42, 45-97), and a week after it, the undefeated Johnnies tuned up for the NCAA Division III playoffs by routing Crown, their 10th and last regular season opponent, 50-0.

Saint John’s earned its fourth national championship on Dec. 20 via a 24-6 upset victory over Ohio’s Mount Union in the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl – an outcome ended the Purple Raiders’ NCAA-record 55-game winning streak. The Johnnies’ trophy triumph was preceded by their playoff wins over Saint Norbert of De Pere, Wi. (second round), 38-13; Linfield, Or. (quarterfinal), 31-25; and Rensselaer, N.Y.(semifinal), 38-10.

Of the more than 25,000 head coaches in the history of college football, only Gagliardi (414) and Robinson (408) have won more than 400 games. They’re followed by Florida State’s Bobby Bowden (342), Penn State’s Joe Paterno (339) and Alabama’s Paul “Bear” Bryant (323).

Gagliardi, who’s robust health for a septuagenarian, has no thoughts of retiring. He’s been at the Collegeville, Minn., university since 1953, and if the Roman ruler reigns there through 2005, he’ll equal the record for most years as a head football coach. It’s held by Amos Alonzo Stagg, who spent 57 of his 102 years at The School for Christian Workers in Springfield, Mass., 1890-91; University of Chicago, 1892-1932; and College of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif., 1933-46.

Gagliardi began his illustrious career in 1943 with the historic distinction of being the youngest high school football coach of all time. Because of his exceptional leadership as captain of Trinidad (Colo.) Catholic’s eleven, the 16-year-old halfback succeeded its coach when the latter was drafted into World Was II. He held that position for four years, one as a Trinidad Catholic senior, and three as a Trinidad Junior College student. In the order listed, his prep teams had these won-lost numbers: 5-3, 5-3, 5-3 and 7-2.

In 1947 and ’48, while attending Colorado College, Gagliardi continued coaching at the high school level, for Saint Mary’s in Colorado Springs, where he continued winning with two more 5-3 seasons.

A letter of recommendation from University coach Frank Leahy was his ticket to Carroll College in Helena, Mont. When Gagliardi arrived in 1949, its football was in disarray and on the verge of being disbanded. He prevented that from happening by guiding the Saints to three Frontier Conference titles and a four year 24-6-1 record.

That success took Gagliardi to a larger liberal arts school, Saint John’s where he replaced retiring coach John “Blood” McNally, a charter member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame and high octane Johnnie halfback in the early 1920’s.

When Gagliardi signed on at SJU, which was founded in 1957 by Benedictine monks, the football program was far removed from its only MIAC trophy years, 1932, ’35, ’36 and ’38. McNally’s three teams 13 of 22 games, but were distant also-rans in final conference standing.

Galiardi’s majestic tenure in Collegeville began with this mandate from university president Father Arno Gustin: “Make the Johnnies great again, like they were in the thirties.” The Johnny-come-lately met that challenge in his maiden season by producing their fifth MIAC championship – a title the monks had been praying for for 15 years.

His 51-year record at Saint John’s is 390-108-10, including four undefeated teams that were NAIA champions in 1963 and ’65, and NCAA D-III titleholders in 1976 and 2003. Gagliardi’s overall record at Carroll and SJU is 414-114-11. Only two of his 55 teams had a losing season … by a total of two games.

Former wunderkind Gagliardi is a one of a kind grid guru, an iconoclast whose unorthodox coaching methods are founded on a “Win With Nos” formula that has the following exclusions:
Ø No athletic scholarships.
Ø No spring training.
Ø No Freshmen of Junior-Varsity teams.
Ø No compulsory weight program.
Ø No water of rest denied when players want it.
Ø No classroom failures.
Ø No playbooks.
Ø No yelling at players by coaches.
Ø No cheerleaders.
Ø No Gatorade celebrations.

The team’s practice sessions, which never exceed 90 minutes, are loaded with noes, i.e., no wind sprints, no tackling, no running laps, no blocking and no agility drills. Most workouts are devoted to the perfection of offensive plays and defensive modes.

Because the “Win With Nos” Johnnies do that with the frequency of a chorus girl’s smile, their master mentor has been profiled in countless newspaper and magazine articles and two books, THE SWEET SEASON by Austin Murphy, senior Sports Illustrated writer, and GAGLIARDI OF SAINT JOHN’S by Don Riley, St. Paul (Minn.) Pioneer Press columnist.

The future College Football Hall of Fame inductee is as unpretentious as he is unconventional. Gagliardi eschews the adulation his celebrity evokes; prefers to be called John, rather than Coach, by his players; and lets his quarterbacks, whom he describes as “A heck of a lot smarter than I am,” call all plays.

Much of SJU’s success can be attributed to defensive coordinator Jerry Haugen, the senior member of Gagliardi’s coaching staff. In prison parlance, he’s a “lifer” who’s been Xing and Oing at his alma mater for 28 years.

Another strong link in the program’s chain of command is Gagliardi’s son Jim, an assistant since 1992 and its offensive coordinator during the past four years. Jim and his brother John Jr. starred as a wide receiver and quarterback, respectively, when they were catching and throwing passes for the Johnnies in the 1980’s. John Jr. is a research specialist at the mammoth 3-M Company in Saint Paul, Minn.

Every Gagliardi player who graduated from SJU can make this claim to fame: “I was the captain of its football team.” The coach gives that appellation to all seniors because, to hear him tell it, “It’ll look good on the resumes they submit to prospective employers>”

Gagliardi, who’s moulded 53 Johnnies into first-team All-Americans, is the namesake for Division III’s Player of the Year trophy. Inaugurated on 1993, it’s sponsored by Josten’s, America’s leading producer of athletic awards, and the university’s J-Club for alumni lettermen. The trophy features foot-high bronze figurines of Gagliardi and a player, who are depicted having a sideline consultation. It has a thick walnut base and weighs 64 pounds.

Following a one-year courtship, Gagliardi married the former Mary Margaret “Peggy” Daugherty on Valentine’s Day in 1956. They met when she was a student at Saint Cloud (Minn.) School of Nursing.

The Gagliardi’s have four children, all of whom earned a master’s degree in an academic parade that covered these courses:

Business Administration – for Jim, at Saint Cloud (Minn.) University; Chemical Engineering – for John Jr., at University of North Dakota; Computer software – for Nancy, at University of Minnesota; and Secondary Education – for Gina, at Saint Tomas in Saint Paul, Minn.

Both daughters graduated from College of Saint Benedict, which is a stone’s throw from Saint John’s campus.