Gary Fasching assembled his team at midfield after a recent practice, again hitting on the major theme of the first St. John’s fall camp in 60 years without John Gagliardi as head coach. ¶ “There’s only one way to play the game — it’s an emotional game,” Fasching told his players. After a couple more comments, Fasching ended by saying: “I like what I saw today. Great intensity. Great emotion.”

 

Fasching maintains he’s “not trying to re-invent the wheel” as he leads the Johnnies into a new era that begins Friday night at Wisconsin-River Falls. His players suggest he already has altered the program with his emphasis on emotion and enthusiasm.

As successful as Gagliardi was — four national titles, more victories (489) than any coach in college football history — the Johnnies went 6-4 and 5-5 in each of his final two seasons, equaling their most losses under Gagliardi in any previous two-year span. The true seniors on this team are in a position none of them thought possible — none of them has played in a postseason game, nor played in a victory over archrival St. Thomas.

Players are careful not to criticize Gagliardi. But when asked the differences between this season and last, the answers are telling. Senior center Kevin Battis, leader of a veteran offensive line, said practices are noticeably more intense and up-tempo.

“That’s been a definite emphasis that we haven’t had around here,” said Battis, a returning All-MIAC first-teamer. “We’re kind of known for lackadaisical [practices]. … Personally, just because I played in John’s twilight, I see Gary as being a lot more upbeat, a lot more connected with the players.”

Senior running back Colin Moynihan said there’s “really a go-getting attitude, something we kind of lacked before. We’d come out in practice [in previous years] and it was a little lackluster. Now, we make it a daily job to come out and have high-intensity practices. It’s much more intense.”

Some things remain virtually unchanged. Fasching has told his players that the program will retain the basic philosophy established by Gagliardi, including no tackling in practice. But there are significant changes, many of which speak volumes about the importance of football to this Catholic college, located 80 miles northwest of Minneapolis.

Former St. John’s quarterback and Carleton head coach Kurt Ramler, one of three finalists to replace Gagliardi, is the new associate head coach/offensive coordinator. Ramler, who had Arizona contacts from his days at Carleton, has helped St. John’s expand its recruiting base; the roster includes 20 players from California and Arizona, 12 of them new to the program this fall. The staff includes a new strength and conditioning coach, Justin Rost, a position the program lacked. And Fasching calls his freshman class “maybe the most talented class since I’ve been here,” which spans 17 years as an assistant to Gagliardi.

Fasching said his single goal is to get the program back to the top to its familiar place atop the MIAC. Now.

“We’re going to be disappointed if we’re not conference champs and go to the playoffs,” he said when asked what was realistic this season. “At St. John’s, that has to be our goal every year.”

The meeting

Although Gagliardi’s departure was officially termed a retirement, his exit wasn’t completely amicable. School officials admit numerous discussions were needed before Gagliardi decided to step aside, and once he did, the legendary coach was upset by the decision to form a search committee, which gave no consideration to replacing him with his son, Jim Gagliardi, the offensive coordinator of last year’s team.

Gagliardi’s ire increased after Fasching got the job and demoted Jim to wide receivers coach and coordinator of football operations, a fancy title that meant he handled most of the mundane off-the-field matters.

The potential for infighting surfaced almost immediately during an early staff meeting. Ramler, according to several coaches, announced his intention to redo the offensive numbering system. Jim Gagliardi voiced his dissent, believing a drastic change would create needless confusion among players.

There was, coaches say, an uneasy silence in the moments that followed. When Ramler broke the silence, it was to say that Jim was correct, and the Johnnies would keep the basic numbering of plays intact.

“I wouldn’t even say we compromised — I would say I listened to Jim,” Ramler said.

Asked if that was an important moment for the staff, Ramler said: “It’s important for any staff, right? We work together. I don’t think I’m doing my job right if I don’t listen to the guys that have valuable input.”

Fasching said the staff chemistry has been outstanding, and he praised Jim for his desire to fit in. The new head coach already has expanded Jim Gagliardi’s coaching duties, putting him in charge of the special teams.

John Gagliardi has kept his large office — Fasching has remained in the office he had as an assistant a couple doors down the hall. John stops by his office periodically, but has kept his distance from the football field.

“I wish he’d come around more often,” Fasching said.

Fasching appears confident in his new position, showing no sign of insecurity from being the school’s second choice to replace Gagliardi. Eden Prairie High School coach Mike Grant, a legend in his own right with a record eight state championships, was offered the job, then withdrew.

That left many alums disenchanted, believing Grant was not receiving the backing from school officials that he had been seeking, which Grant has publicly denied.

Fasching never has apologized for being the second choice, and his openness and unassuming style appears to be winning over the once-critical Grant partisans.

“I think there was a little shock at first [when Grant didn’t become the coach], but Gary handled that, and showed a lot of professionalism and poise,” said SJU alum Todd Fultz, a close friend of Grant’s. “I’m really happy with Gary, and I know he’s got the support [of SJU alumni]. I think Gary’s enthusiasm, and the way he’s running the program, is really first class.”

The talent

The pressing question is whether the Johnnies possess the talent to compete with the likes of St. Thomas, which reached the Division III title game a year ago and is ranked No. 2 nationally in preseason polls, and Bethel, a consensus top-10 national team.

The Johnnies will unveil Ramler’s pistol offense — a fast-paced, West Coast-type scheme — manned by returning quarterbacks Nick Martin, a sophomore who led Wayzata to a state title as a prep, and Connor Bruns, a senior who started last year but suffered a shoulder injury before midseason. The biggest question, Fasching says, is how quick a defense that ranked near the bottom of the MIAC a year ago comes along. The Johnnies have 16 freshmen who played in their state’s high school all-star game as seniors, including 10 Minnesotans. It’s almost certain freshmen linebackers such as Jack Pietruszewski (South St. Paul) and Carter Hanson (Blue Earth) will see immediate duty.

“I like what I see,” senior defensive back Dylan Graves said. “[The linebackers] will definitely be younger guys. But everyone is hard-nosed, everyone’s working hard.”

Fasching might have the team’s sights set on a conference title, but he’s not naive enough to think there are clear answers to all the question marks. In addition to improving the defense, he said his team needs to “develop an identity. I don’t know exactly what to call it, but in the past when a St. John’s team walked on the field, they didn’t think they could get beat,” he said. “I think we didn’t have that the last couple of years, partly because of the makeup of our team. This year, I think we have some great leaders.”

Fasching knows this much: passionate football followers of St. John’s will be focused on the new leader at the top.

“You always hear people talking about replacing a legend,” Fasching said. “Well, this is really replacing a legend.”