The house Gagliardi built
Coolest venue I've ever seen? I'm going off the board, Alex Trebek, up to Collegeville, Minn. -- Lake Wobegon is somewhere close by, I'm told -- to the house John Gagliardi built. Sitting on a converted cranberry bog (the Benedectine monks who run this place are nothing if not resourceful), Clemens Stadium, a.k.a. The Natural Bowl, is an eye-pleasing amphitheater that is home to St. John's University, where you will find the most magical football program in the country.
Now entering his 60th season as a college head coach, John -- he insists his players call him "John," not "Coach" -- is college football's winningest head man, with 453 victories. It's fitting that that the bulk of those wins should have taken place in this charming park. Clemens Stadium is sheltered by a cordon of swayed pines, and lies in the shadow of the pierced concrete Bell Banner lording over the abbey church -- a reminder of whom runs this place. (St. John's is run by the Benedictine monks who live in its abbey, and at whose pleasure Gagliardi serves.) On Johnnie football Saturdays the bleachers fill with sweatshirted alums, "Bennies" from nearby, all-female St. Benedicts, and Benedictines, some of them still rocking the old-school black robes, all of them, in my experience, equipped with strong opinions on whether or not Gagliardi made the right call on a crucial fourth and short.
As kickoff nears and 7,500-plus fans fill Clemens, the heavenly aroma of Johnny Bread fills the air. Baked by monks that morning, it is sold at the stadium entrance. Then come the Johnnies themselves, whose calisthenics belie their coach's profound mistrust of football's more hidebound traditions. The last time I saw a game there, the captains started the team off with something called "Mary Catherine Gallagher Superstar Lunges, wave-like fashion, left-to-right."
I was one of the 13,000-plus souls crowding the old bowl that day -- Nov. 8, 2003 -- watching Gagliardi scratch out his record-setting 409th victory, a cardiac-arresting, 29-26 triumph over an excellent Bethel team. Two games later the Johnnies came from behind to beat dynastic Mount Union in the D-III title game. Gagliardi's third national championship was one of the best football games I've ever seen, diminished only a tiny jot by the fact that it took place in the Stagg Bowl and not the Natural Bowl.
2. Notre Dame Stadium
3. Lambeau Field, Green Bay
4. Jordan-Hare Stadium, Auburn, Ala.
5. Three Rivers Stadium, Pittsburgh