COLLEGEVILLE, Minn. -- Winning at St. John's is predictable,
just like John Gagliardi's attempts to downplay his success.
Sure enough, the 77-year-old Gagliardi became college football's
career victory leader Saturday and tried to convince everyone it
was no big deal.
"I guess it's better than being at the bottom," he said.
Gagliardi got win No. 409 when the Johnnies rallied to beat
Bethel 29-26. In his 55th season and 51st at St. John's, Gagliardi
passed Eddie Robinson -- who retired in 1997 after winning 408 games
with Division I-AA Grambling State.
"I have never thought about retiring," Gagliardi said after a
lengthy ceremony in his honor on the home field of the Division III
liberal arts school in central Minnesota.
Ryan Keating's fourth touchdown pass, a 10-yard toss to Josh
Nelson, gave the Johnnies the lead with 2:03 remaining. St. John's
(9-0, 8-0) also clinched the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic
Conference title, its 10th in the last 13 years.
"We dodged another bullet," Gagliardi said. "That's the way
we always feel. When things looked very bleak, the guys came
Quarterback Scott Kirchoff's 4-yard touchdown run with 4:57 left
gave Bethel a 26-22 lead. Kirchoff, however, cracked his sternum on
the collision and was taken away in an ambulance.
Blake Elliott, who had 15 receptions for 163 yards and two
touchdowns, returned the kickoff 50 yards to the Royals 40 to set
up the winning score.
"I've been here for five years now," Elliott said. "Once you
get to know the man, he makes you play hard. I'm glad I can say I
was on this team."
Keating completed 32 of 45 passes for 315 yards and four
touchdowns for the Johnnies. Kirchoff was 10-of-16 for 137 yards
and two touchdowns for the Royals (9-1, 7-1) -- who finished second
in the MIAC.
"John's a legend -- he has stood the test of time brilliantly,"
said Bethel coach Steve Johnson, who was asked if he thought about
trying to catch Gagliardi on the all-time list.
"No chance," said Johnson, who has 100 wins.
St. John's has been showered with attention in recent weeks. But
the team followed Gagliardi's lead, staying focused on the
conference championship and another trip to the postseason.
"We have never once talked about that record," Keating said.
Said Elliott: "I've never heard 409 come out of that guy,
unless you're talking about cleaning supplies or something."
An estimated 13,107 fans clogged the stands and surrounding
snow-covered hills at Clemens Stadium, the largest crowd to see a
St. John's game.
Gagliardi, wearing a maroon parka with a huge hood pulled over
his head to keep warm on an 18-degree afternoon, was mobbed by
well-wishers as he walked to the center of the field after the game
By small-school standards, this game was hyped like no other.
When Gagliardi took his team to morning mass about four hours
before kickoff, he saw scores of fans who were already waiting in
line for tickets.
"These people are going to sit there in the cold -- the least we
could do was go play," Gagliardi said. "I guarantee I wouldn't
have been here if I didn't have to be."
Gagliardi has won three national titles at St. John's. The
Johnnies gained an automatic bid to the NCAA playoffs, their sixth
Gagliardi, a native of Trinidad, Colo., who began his coaching
career at Carroll College in Montana in 1949, has received plenty
of national attention as he's neared Robinson's record.
Several times, he's been asked what the milestone meant to him.
"I still don't know," Gagliardi said, a wry smile visible on
his weathered face. "I think maybe my wife likes me a little
better. ... But I bet Peggy will still make me take out the
Gagliardi is probably best known for his unique philosophy,
which eschews many of football's sometimes-sadistic traditions. His
program is based on a list of "nos" -- a list of things he hated
as a player that he vowed to never make one of his own players
endure. Practices are short and devoid of tackling, conditioning
and yelling. Nobody gets cut, either.
"We hope nobody does it the way we do," Gagliardi said.
"We're happy with what we're doing. We're not looking for
converts, not looking to change the world. We've got this little
spot here, and we like it."