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Mr. No-It-All

College football: Gagliardi turns negatives into positives with 350 victories at Division III St. John's.

November 04, 1998|CHRIS DUFRESNE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

COLLEGEVILLE, Minn. — A cold autumn rain pounds the ground outside Coach John Gagliardi's office--a definite threat to wash out Monday's football practice.

What's this? There is never a Monday practice?

OK then, you figure the coach might huddle with his coordinators, go over the playbook, grade film from the big weekend win at Augsburg.

Nice thought, except there are no coordinators, no playbook, no film-grading.

How about a quick check of the bulletin board for the latest football statistics?

There's a board, sure as the rain, but no stats are posted. No newspaper articles regarding the team, no cheerleader-painted "Kill Bethel" banners to solicit interest in next weekend's home game.

Kip Knippel, a senior tailback, pokes his head into the office to see if Gagliardi might provide a reference for his application to Harvard Law School.

"Hi, John," Kip says.

"Hi, Kip," John says.

No calling the coach "Coach."

A once-over at the practice field reveals no blocking sleds, no tackling dummies--not one football-related apparatus.

There are no players running in the new field house because, well, running is not in the curriculum.

What's more: no laps, no wind sprints, no tackling in practice, no practice pants--any old pair of sweats will suffice--no practice if there are too many gnats.

"Who can stand that?" Gagliardi says of his gnat policy. "I don't think anyone would argue with that."

At St. John's, a Division III football Alice in Wonderland, they always take no for an answer.

You wonder how the coach lasted 45 minutes here, let alone 45 years but, the truth is, John Gagliardi is the winningest active coach in college football.

Gagliardi, who turned 72 Sunday, has won 350 games and exhibits no signs of stopping until he topples former Grambling coach Eddie Robinson's all-division record of 408.

How long can Gagliardi go on?

"Death will bring an end to it," son Jim says of his dad's career.

Gagliardi is more than football's winningest active coach; he is its winningest active anti-coach.

St. John's is a tad different.

Frank Kush, the former Arizona State taskmaster, would set foot here and start bulldozers roaring.

Former Nebraska coach Tom Osborne might hang a "condemned" sign on the weight room.

Notre Dame operatives would find plenty of religious solitude and monks, but no Touchdown Jesus or NBC television package.

Yet, St. John's has never had an ineligible player in Gagliardi's tenure or, to the coach's best recollection, a player who did not graduate.

Former Miami coach Howard Schnellenberger recently penned Gagliardi a note that basically asked, "How are you doing this?"

Quite simple, really.

"I eliminate the unnecessary," Gagliardi says, relaxing with his shoes off on a day when he will be home early for dinner. "And I think almost everything is unnecessary."

So, where has this guy been hiding all these years? In some remote outpost in central Minnesota on the same latitudinal plane as Krasnodar, Russia?

The sort of place where they sometimes have to call in tractors to move the snow off the field to play a game?

Well, yes.

"I remember poor La Verne (Calif.) showed up here in late November," Gagliardi says. "Poor guys didn't want to get off the bus. Hey, it's no picnic out there. It's different, let's face it."

And so is John Gagliardi.

He acts the part of coach as much as Madonna acts like a spinster.

But all Gagliardi does is win: three national championships, 21 Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference titles. He has been named national coach of the year five times.

Gagliardi has won more football games than Bear Bryant, Joe Paterno, Pop Warner or Bobby Bowden.

Gagliardi is such a Division III legend they've already named the player-of-the-year award in his honor.

"A guy should have the decency to be dead," Gagliardi says of that.

Gagliardi won the first of his three national titles in 1963, defeating Prairie View A&M.

Prairie View had St. John's outnumbered, 44 scholarship players to none, and boasted two future NFL stars in Otis Taylor and Jim Kearny.

St. John's prepared for the Panthers with 45-minute practices.

"I think there are a lot of ways to do things," Gagliardi says.

In fact, the first "no" on his fabled tablet of "Winning with No's" is "No one way to coach."

Says senior tailback Paul Trobec, "John says, 'We get ordinary guys to do ordinary things extraordinarily well.' "

St. John's hasn't produced an NFL player you could name.

Trobec says he isn't sure the St. John's system would work anywhere else.

But it has worked here since 1953.

The Kid Coach

Gagliardi stumbled onto his philosophy by chance.

In 1943, the football coach at Trinidad Catholic High in southern Colorado was called off to World War II. When the school principal decided to cancel the season, 16-year-old halfback John Gagliardi stepped in and pleaded that the players be allowed to finish the year.

The principal relented.

Gagliardi took over operations and quickly amended the heretofore warlike approach to football.

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