Legendary coach uses unique approach

This is the third in a five-part series on college football. This week provides a glimpse at a college with a Division III football program.

COLLEGEVILLE, Minn.—The rout was almost over. After the St. John's defense picked off its fourth pass of the day, the Johnnies' offensive reserves jogged on to the field leading 56-7 with just under four minutes to play Saturday. On the first play the back-up quarterback was sacked, fumbled the ball, recovered it and was tackled in the end zone for a safety.

After a momentary pause (the time it takes to pull frozen hands out of parka pockets) the Augsburg faithful, who had made the 80-mile trip from Minneapolis, broke into cowbell clanging hysteria. This was not mocking praise, but sincere celebration. The Augsburg fans were proud that their team scored and only lost 56-16 to the Johnnies, then the fifth-ranked team in the www.d3football.com poll.

From the student section, located at the opposite end of the field, it was impossible to tell which quarterback had suffered the hit. After all, there are seven quarterbacks on St. John's 174-man roster. Head coach John Gagliardi, the winningest coach in college football history with a lifetime mark of 429-117-11, refuses to cut anyone who tries out for the team. This results in a very congested sideline and a number of players with the same oversized white number stitched onto the front and back of their red jersey.

Long ago Gagliardi, who has been the St. John's head coach for the last 53 years and is coaching his 57th season overall, developed a unique approach to coaching. No mandatory off-season weightlifting. No tackling in practice. No special dormitory. No recruiting off campus. No signs in dressing rooms. This unorthodox coaching philosophy has resulted in unprecedented success. St. John's, which has won four national titles (2003, 1976, 1965 and 1963), is the winningest football program in the NCAA Division III history and is vying for its 12th Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference title in the past 17 years.

The opportunity to be a part of this legendary program attracts athletes who could play at a higher level and loads of fans. The pre-game procession of cars exiting Interstate 94 at exit 156 is a small-scale, daytime recreation of the closing credits of "Field of Dreams."

Over the weekend 8,192 fans filled the cozy confines of Clemens Stadium, which has a listed capacity of 7,000. The extra fans stretched out their blankets and set out their folding chairs on the gently-sloping tree-lined hills on both sides of the field, and it was easy to see why Sports Illustrated named it one of college football's "Dream Destinations."

Students congregated in the temporary bleachers directly behind the north end zone and were so close to the action that the extra point attempts often landed in the 15th row. The students at the all-male school took full advantage of the proximity. Anytime the Auggies were trapped deep in their own end, everyone repeatedly yelled "Hut," generating a offense-disrupting sound that echoed the noise created by a flock of Canada geese.

By the third quarter the geese calls had dissipated because many of the students had left. But there were still plenty of hearty and faithful alumni that stuck around for the intermittent snow flurries and 4:15 p.m. mass at the abbey chapel immediately after the game. They had much to be thankful for.

This article was published in The Marquette Tribune on October 25, 2005.