Walking onto the field last Friday for his final practice of the season, and possibly the last of his 63-year coaching career, John Gagliardi stopped on the goal line to torture himself.
"Right about here they threw one up for grabs," said the man who until Nov. 9 was one of two active, bespectacled, octogenarian Italian-American football coaches with 400-plus wins.
Gagliardi is the head coach at St. John's of Minnesota, a Division III powerhouse that was playing out the string in a disappointing season. Last Friday, as the late-afternoon sun angled through the Scotch pines over Clemens Stadium, he stood where an Augsburg College receiver snared the last-second touchdown pass that beat the Johnnies 32--31 on Sept. 24. "That was a dagger in the heart," says the 85-year-old, whose backside remained chapped, six weeks later, by the fact that, on the play preceding that TD, "our own timekeeper stopped the clock with point-six seconds" left.
Joe Paterno is renowned for the Grand Experiment—his determination to win with true student-athletes. But nothing about Paterno's program, or anyone's, was more audacious than the philosophy Gagliardi used to win 484 games (the most in NCAA history), 27 Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference championships and four national titles. In 1943 his coach at Holy Trinity Catholic High in Trinidad, Colo., went off to World War II. Rather than cancel the season, school officials let the players coach themselves. Left on their own, Gagliardi and his teammates scrapped calisthenics (leg lifts, duck walks) that had no application to football. When they were thirsty—and this was a radical departure at the time—they drank water. They practiced the plays, over and over. They won the league title.
That experience laid the foundation for Gagliardi's Winning with No's, a list of proscriptions including no whistles, no blocking sleds, no calling him coach ("Call me John"), no profane language, no tackling or cut-blocking in practice. His unparalleled success is a radical, whimsical rebuttal to many of the hidebound assumptions of this sport. To see the Johnnies laugh their way through their faux "calisthenics" preceding their season-ending 61--0 rout of Hamline last Saturday in St. Paul (a Beautiful Day Drill, the Stanky Leg and the Bernie) was to be reminded of this.
Interesting paradox: While his players have more fun than any team in the country, Gagliardi is a worrywart only slightly less miserable in victory than in defeat. This season, as his team suffered through its first three-game losing streak in 28 years—the Johnnies finished 6--4—Gagliardi's wretchedness reached new lows: He told his friends and assistant coaches that he couldn't bear to go on.
While the grim tidings out of State College last week saddened Gagliardi, they also served to put the disappointment of the season in perspective. "We've won a lot of games," he said. "We've had our day in the sun."
Is the winningest coach in NCAA history about to ride off into the sunset? While Gagliardi's daughter Gina said after the Hamline game that she "can't see him coming back," her father isn't saying and probably hasn't decided. The Johnnies finished the season with four straight wins, restoring a spring to his step.
True, he takes occasional rests on the sideline by sitting on a cooler. But he still has plenty of zip. "He's still out there yelling at the refs," says running back Harry Awe. "He doesn't want to be up in the press box. Unless, you know, it's minus-30."
The mere possibility that Gagliardi may pack it in is reason enough to celebrate the career of a man who has coached in eight decades. After four years at Carroll College in Helena, Mont., he took over at St. John's in 1953. A decade later, in the NAIA national championship, the Johnnies beat Prairie View A&M 33--27 in one of the greatest, least heralded upsets in college football history. More than a dozen players from that Panthers team would be drafted or receive NFL tryouts. Gagliardi watched two of their game tapes and decided not to show them to his team. "I mean, those guys were good," he says.