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 400 barrier.
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 tides.) "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 playoff fixture.
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 play-maker 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 D-III—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 bus.
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