Just Don't Call Him Coach The unorthodox leader of the nation's most unusual college football program sets the alltime record for wins. (His players call him John)

November 17, 2003

He was fine with the crush of out-of-town reporters. The truth
was, John Gagliardi seemed to enjoy trying out some of his old
material on people who hadn't heard it before. I don't think
about retirement. After losses, however, I have thought about
suicide. What Gagliardi, the football coach at St. John's of
Minnesota, never quite got used to was his bodyguard. Sure, guys
like Bobby Bowden and Joe Paterno need them. But here in Division
III, you don't see a lot of bodyguards. When a burly officer from
the Stearns County sheriff's office glommed onto Gagliardi, the
77-year-old inquired, "Do you know something I don't know?" The
cop explained that he'd been assigned to shadow Gagliardi just to
be on the safe side. With such a large crowd on hand, you
couldn't be too careful. ¶ And what a vast ocean of humanity it
was--more than 13,000 people!--jammed into Clemens Stadium in
Collegeville last Saturday to witness history in the making. The
Johnnies' faithful were not disappointed. With a come-from-behind
29-26 victory over Bethel, his team's Minnesota Intercollegiate
Athletic Conference rival, Gagliardi eclipsed Grambling's Eddie
Robinson as college football's alltime winningest coach. The
409th win of Gagliardi's 55-year career clinched his 23rd MIAC
title and a berth in the Division III playoffs.

It also triggered a raucous lovefest in the standing-room-only
crowd. Even as the sun dipped below the swayed pines lording over
the stadium, dragging the temperature into the teens, Johnnies
fans stuck around for the postgame ceremony. Brother Dietrich
Reinhart, the black-beret-sporting president of this Benedictine
university, cited Gagliardi's "unorthodox coaching style" and
"extraordinary innovation," then draped a medal around his neck.

Gagliardi is the closest thing we have to a football mystic.
Since taking over his own high school team in Trinidad, Colo., at
age 16--the squad's coach was called to war--Gagliardi has
operated far outside his sport's mainstream. His teams don't
tackle except in games. (He loathes losing players to injury
during practice.) He abides no apparatuses, like blocking sleds
or dummies or even whistles. His renowned List of No's includes
no playbooks, no Gatorade showers, no calling him Coach--the
players call him John--and none of those idiotic traditional
football warmups so many teams still do. The Johnnies'
calisthenics are a parody of calisthenics. Saturday's included
two sublimely silly Mary Catherine Gallagher Superstar Lunges
(wavelike fashion, left to right) and one Deep Breath with Bruce
Lee Exhale.

Among the captains leading these exercises was senior wideout
Blake Elliott, the latest in a long line of athletes gifted
enough to play at a higher level but too enamored of Gagliardi's
program to pass it by. Elliott's slashing 50-yard kickoff return
set up the Johnnies' game-winning touchdown drive; the final two
of his 15 catches (for 163 yards and two touchdowns) kept it

Milestone achieved, Gagliardi removed the Kenny-from-South Park
hood he had worn throughout the bitingly cold afternoon, then
thanked the fans for braving the elements. "I'm not so sure I'd
be here if I didn't have to be," he deadpanned.

Many of his former players stuck their heads into his
office--crawling though it was with a goodly portion of
Gagliardi's 18 grandchildren--in the two hours after the game.
There was Bernie Beckman, silver-haired now but still trim, the
MVP of the 1963 Camellia Bowl in Sacramento, which pitted the
Johnnies against Prairie View A&M in college football's first
matchup of an all-white team and an all-black one. The Panthers
were quarterbacked by Jim Kearney, who would play nine seasons as
a defensive back for the Kansas City Chiefs. Kearney's offensive
line included two future NFLers. His go-to receiver was rangy
junior Otis Taylor, the future Chiefs great. On defense Prairie
View featured sophomore Kenny Houston, a 1986 inductee into the
Pro Football Hall of Fame. "Vince Lombardi would end up
double-teaming Taylor," says Gagliardi, "and we're out there
covering him with Bernie Beckman."

Playing both ways in that game, the 5'7", 170-pound Beckman
rushed for 51 yards, ran for one TD, threw for another and had a
dozen tackles. He epitomized what Gagliardi has asked of his
athletes for five-plus decades. The Johnnies, he is fond of
saying, are "ordinary people doing ordinary things
extraordinarily well."

St. John's beat Prairie View 33-27, giving Gagliardi the first of
his three national championships, the most recent of which came
in 1976. Mike Grant, a tight end on the '76 team, dropped by
after win number 409 to shake hands with his former coach. Grant
is now the coach at Eden Prairie (Minn.) High, where his teams
have won four 5-A state championships. It's revealing to note
that in winning those titles, he has followed Gagliardi's
philosophy rather than that of his father, Bud Grant, who also
did some coaching in Minnesota.

While Bowden has heard murmurings of discontent in recent years
and Paterno suffers through the worst season of his career,
Gagliardi's touch has never been more deft. Since 1990 he has
gone 141-24-2. The Johnnies have been to the D-III semifinals in
each of the past three years. He's never been happier on the
sideline, and given his energy, it seems Gagliardi could coach
for 10 more years, putting the record so far out of reach that
the guy who breaks it will have to start coaching in utero. "His
biggest fear in life," says his daughter Nancy, "was that he
would get old and start losing. In the last couple years he's
realized that's not gonna happen. I think after all these years
he's finally having fun."

Not all the time. Not in the waning moments against Bethel, when
the Royals took over on their own 28 needing just a field goal to
send the game into overtime.

On the next snap Johnnies defensive lineman Jeremy Hood sacked
the Bethel QB, forcing a fumble. Linemate Ryan Weinandt recovered
the ball. St. John's ran out the clock, and a red-clad horde
flowed onto the field. The nation's most unusual coach was now
officially its most successful.

B/W PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY ST. JOHN'S UNIVERSITY JOHNNIES BE GOOD Six decades after his first coaching gig, Gagliardi (in the early '70s, above) has 409 wins and three national titles at St. John's. B/W PHOTO: ANN HEISENFELT/AP [See caption above] B/W PHOTO: COURTESY ST. JOHN'S UNIVERSITY OLD SCHOOL Since coaching at Montana's Carroll College from 1949 to '53, Gagliardi has ditched his whistle--and blocking sleds and pregame calisthenics.

To avoid injury his teams DON'T TACKLE except in games.