Where on earth was he shuffling off to, this bespectacled,
septuagenarian Wrong Way Riegels? John Gagliardi had just become
the second member of an elite club and was so excited about it
that he wanted to take a nap. His team, St. John's of
Collegeville, Minn., had just beaten Linfield, of McMinnville,
Ore., 21--14 on Linfield's home turf, giving Gagliardi his 400th
collegiate win. Nine coaches have won 300 or more games in
college football. Until last Saturday only Eddie Robinson, who
won 408 times with Grambling from 1941 to '97, had cracked the
While he seemed relieved about the win, which propelled the
Johnnies into the Division III semifinals for the third straight
season (they'll play at Trinity College in San Antonio on
Saturday), Gagliardi appeared less than euphoric about achieving
the milestone. "What I really need," said the 76-year-old as he
walked off the field, "is a chair." Behind him his players formed
a human promenade, at the end of which two Johnnies held up a
banner commemorating the 400th win. Close by was St. John's vice
president of student development, Gar Kellom, who had a plaque
and a speech to deliver.
Unaware of the fuss, footsore and drained after surviving a
furious rally by the second-highest-scoring squad in Division
III, Gagliardi made his way toward the team buses, whose
upholstered seats called out to him. They would have to wait.
After being called back to the field to allow himself to be
feted, he endured questions from reporters, then posed one to
himself: "Someone asked me last week if I remembered the last
time we played Linfield," he said. (A 33--0 victory over the
Wildcats in 1965 gave Gagliardi the second of his three national
titles.) "I can't even remember what I had for breakfast."
Senior quarterback Ross Denne smiled at his coach's shtick. "He's
dumb as a fox," Denne said. "He knows exactly what's going on in
this program." At Grambling, Robinson seemed to lose his touch in
his final years. His teams struggled, and the legend was nudged
into retirement. Gagliardi, remarkably, gets better with age. His
teams have won 125 games in his last dozen seasons and become a
December 16, 2002
It's all a testament to the system he has molded in Collegeville,
where he has coached the Johnnies for the last 50 years.
Gagliardi's storied List of No's--including no blocking sleds, no
whistles, no playbooks, no tackling or cut-blocking during
practice, ever--makes his players the opposite of the Junction
Boys, even as those players, in turn, have made him football's
winningest active coach. Linfield came into Saturday with a
16-game winning streak and a motto, LEAVE NO DOUBT, that seemed
to have been plastered all over campus. "I don't believe in
mottoes," said Gagliardi on the eve of the game. "I believe in
execution and in keeping your quarterback healthy."
The word is out in Minnesota: If you want to have fun and
regularly contend for a national title, go to St. John's. The
result has been that Gagliardi, who seldom leaves campus to
recruit, reels in a disproportionate number of the state's most
talented players. The current glaring example is wideout and kick
returner Blake Elliott, a dazzling playmaker who has 19 receiving
touchdowns this season and 47 in his career. The 6-foot, 212-pound
junior from Melrose has been scouted by the Denver Broncos and is
a finalist for the trophy bestowed annually on the best player in
DIII--named, of course, for Gagliardi.
The coach is at work by 8:30 a.m., sitting at his video monitor,
scrutinizing opponents for the slightest vulnerability. During
these sessions he leaves his office door open about an inch. That
crack tells would-be visitors "This better be about football,"
says his son and offensive coordinator, Jim. "And even then
you're taking a chance."
The question is no longer, Will Gagliardi pass Robinson? (That
should happen late next season.) The question is now, How far
behind will he leave him? Don't be surprised, eight or nine years
down the road, to be reading about Gagliardi's 500th win. Don't
be surprised if after that one, the old man walks straight to the
These are the five active football coaches with the most wins at
four-year colleges (including bowl and playoff games; numbers
through Dec. 7).
COACH, SCHOOL WINS
1. John Gagliardi, St. John's (Minn.) 400
2. Joe Paterno, Penn State 336
3. Bobby Bowden, Florida State 332
4. Frosty Westering, Pacific Lutheran 299
5. Lou Holtz, South Carolina 238
Note: Roy Kidd of Eastern Kentucky retired at the end of the 2002
season with 315 wins.