COLLEGEVILLE, MINN. - The winningest coach in college football history, looking every bit his 85 years, sagged in his office chair and talked of his health, his fading prospects of reaching 500 career victories and the physical toll taken as St. John's University stares at its first losing season since 1967.
The downturn of what had been a perennial NCAA Division III national powerhouse has led to the inevitable questions of whether John Gagliardi might soon end his legendary career at St. John's. The coach was alternately feisty and reflective Wednesday as he talked of a season gone awry and a future that looks increasingly uncertain.
"I don't know how much I've slipped -- obviously, who hasn't slipped?" said Gagliardi, who will be 86 in three weeks. "I'm not exactly as young as I used to be."
Gagliardi's team this year has been dogged by key injuries and after a 2-0 start has dropped four consecutive games to conference opponents, losing by 31 points last Saturday to Augsburg. The Johnnies will have to win three of their remaining four games to avoid their first losing season since Lyndon Johnson was president.
"We've never had one of these years," the coach said before bundling up in a hooded parka to slowly make his way out to a practice on a gray, chilly October afternoon. Gagliardi rides a golf cart the short distance to St. John's idyllic football field, and a school spokesman confirmed that the coach has spent several games this year watching from the press box as opposed to the sidelines.
Two months after talking of coaching until he has 500 wins -- he sits at 486 -- Gagliardi said his comments were meant more as a joke, as opposed to a real goal.
He also said some may be relishing his team's losing record, and what might come next. "I suppose they'll be smiling when I die. I'm sure there will be people like that," he said. "I don't think everybody in the world loves me."
Coach will make the call
Down the hallway from Gagliardi's office, Athletic director Tom Stock said it will be up to the coach to tell him when he is done, and that the school has privately put a plan in place to conduct a national search for a successor.
"I think the losses really take their toll," Stock said. "He's won four out of [every] five games in his 60-year coaching career. He's an ultracompetitive person.
"The losses really, in a sport as visible as football, sap the energy and strength out of him," and everyone else, Stock said.
In an indication of how rapidly speculation is spreading that an announcement may be imminent, Stock, who spent Thursday in meetings in the Twin Cities, said he called Gagliardi to make sure the coach had not had "a change of heart" and was now considering making a decision before the season ends. Gagliardi, he said, told him no.
Stock was also asked whether the school would ever formally approach Gagliardi about retiring, rather than waiting for Gagliardi to make the first move. "I hope we never have to go there," he said.
The coach -- like most of the school's employees -- gets a one-year contract that begins on July 1. Stock said the conversation with Gagliardi about the next year typically takes place after the season. Last year, Stock said Gagliardi simply told him, "If I have my health, if I have the energy, I want to coach another year."
In many ways, this is uncharted territory for a school that has been synonymous with winning football.
"It would surprise me" if Gagliardi announced this was his last year, Bobby Fischer, a senior cornerback from Plymouth, said before a weekday practice. "At the same time, I wouldn't be overly shocked because of the situation."
Gagliardi was the first active head coach in the College Football Hall of Fame. He passed former Grambling State coach Eddie Robinson as the winningest college football coach in 2003, the year Gagliardi led the Johnnies to a 14-0 season and an NCAA Division III championship.
His teams, however, have slipped in the past three years. After winning the MIAC four out of five years ending in 2009, the Johnnies finished 7-3 in 2010 and 6-4 last year -- good for fourth place. Gagliardi's teams last made it out of the postseason's first round in 2007.
Eden Prairie High School coach Mike Grant, who has built a perennial state title contender and is the son of legendary Vikings coach Bud Grant, has long been rumored to be the leading candidate to succeed Gagliardi. Stock on Wednesday called Grant "a great alum" but added that Grant has not talked to him about the job. "Mike, like all the internal candidates and others who may be interested, would be welcome to apply," he said.
This year's losses likely mean that Gagliardi, who entered the season needing 16 wins to reach 500, will be hard-pressed to reach the milestone in 2013. Coming back for still another season in 2014 would mean Gagliardi would be coaching on his 88th birthday.
On Wednesday, Gagliardi downplayed his desire to get to 500 and said that, before the season, he also joked that it would take eight years to reach the goal if he won just two games a year. "I was just horsing around," he said.
There is speculation that has Gagliardi announcing his retirement next week -- a bye week for the team -- and then the school honoring its iconic coach at the year's last home game against Gustavus Adolphus on Oct. 27.
"I haven't been privy to any of that," said Gagliardi's son, Jim, who has been the team's offensive coordinator since the early 1990s. "If it's been talked about, it's been between him and someone else."
But Jim Gagliardi said it is difficult to ignore the impact the season has already had. "It seems like everything's snowballing on us," he said. He said he and his father usually postpone discussions of how long Gagliardi will coach until "at the end of season and summers when we can sit off on the lake, something like that, and more or less reminisce.
"He's 86. It's not going to be 10 years from now, that's for sure," said his son.
Standing outside the locker room, senior running back Stephen Johnson said the mood has been somber. "No one takes the losses harder than John," he said of his coach. "It's obviously not where we wanted to be, or expected to be."
Back in his office, Gagliardi watched game film of his next opponent, Carleton, and cursed as he had trouble getting the computer software to cooperate. He also read an e-mail from a supporter who reminded him that "this too shall pass."
Then he turned feisty. "You want me to say I'm thinking of retirement? I'm not thinking about retirement. I'm thinking about this [next] game," he said.
Mike Kaszuba 651-222-1673