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 alive.
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 tides, 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.