Reusse: Gagliardi decision will have to wait

  • Article by: PATRICK REUSSE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 11, 2012 - 9:40 AM

Will legendary coach John Gagliardi, 86, be back for a 61st season at St. John's? No word yet.

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St. John's onside kick with 11 seconds remaining did not travel 10 yards, allowing Bethel to retain possession. One kneel-down finished the 27-22 victory for the Royals, and then players and coaches started drifting off the sidelines for the postgame handshakes and conversations.

John Gagliardi did this for the 639th time as a college coach, now at age 86, making his way slowly toward midfield. A dozen or so Bethel players sought out the St. John's legend and offered handshakes and brief comments, including this one:

"Sir, it was an honor to play against you."

Gagliardi nodded appreciation and continued on his way, as reporters and photographers and Johnnies fans trailed his journey. He noticed Steve Johnson, Bethel's coach, several yards away.

"Steve," he said, and then Gag stepped over, shook hands and said: "You've got our number."

Johnson smiled and said: "John, there were those 20-plus years before this stretch."

Gagliardi and St. John's started this Bethel rivalry with 20 consecutive victories from 1978 through 1998, and then won five of the next seven. Johnson's first season as Bethel's head coach was 1989, and he was 2-14 vs. St. John's through 2005.

Now, the Royals have won six of seven, and what they did with Saturday's victory was push St. John's to 3-5 in the MIAC -- the first losing season in the conference for Gagliardi since 1973.

There are many unfamiliar numbers for St. John's over these past two seasons. Combine that with John reaching 86 on Nov. 1, and the new MIAC dynasty that is being built by archrival St. Thomas, and the rumbling has been that this 60th season at St. John's will be his last.

The attention on this subject has irritated Gagliardi, and that was clear when the media surrounded him on the field.

Any announcement? "Oh, yeah, I'm going to make a big announcement right now," John said. "Why wouldn't I do that?"

He looked at the collection of media and said: "We haven't had this many reporters around since we won the national championship."

The overall record of 5-5 -- the Johnnies' first season of .500 or less since 1986 -- was mentioned to Gagliardi.

"I don't keep track of that," he said. "I try to forget that kind of thing."

Eventually, Gagliardi was asked if he had a "plan" -- meaning for his coaching future to be addressed.

"A plan? Let me think," he said. "The plan is to get home, pull out the recliner, sit down ... and who knows what happens after that?"

You can still talk to people close to the Johnnies who insist that it's up to Gagliardi to make a decision. There are more people who say the decision has been made and John's retirement will be announced in the next couple of weeks.

The players received no hint either way from Gagliardi in the run-up to the season finale.

Josh Bungum, an outstanding freshman receiver, said: "It's something that is completely out of our control. We'll just wait to find out if he's going to step down. My guess would be that he will stay."

Bobby Fischer, a senior cornerback and All-America in 2011, said there was no difference in Gagliardi than with any previous game week.

"John doesn't put his personal life -- his personal situation -- out there," Fischer said. "All he ever talks about is the next game. I know that St. John's is his life, and he's going to do what he believes is right."

Gagliardi's record as college football's all-time winning coach stands at 489-138-11, with 465 of those victories in 60 seasons at Collegeville. The first 24 of those victories came at Carroll College in Montana from 1949 to 1952.

Ron Guy was a halfback for Carroll in 1950 and 1951. He was visiting his daughter's family in Maple Grove this week, heard the speculation on Gagliardi's future and decided to take in this possible last game for his long-ago coach.

"We were scrimmaging one day and John wasn't happy," Guy said. "He kept saying, 'Finish the play, finish the play,' so I went through the hole, ran to the end zone, ran across the road, and kept running into a field.

"I have a picture that John gave me that's signed, 'He ran, and he ran, and he ran.'"

That's what John Gagliardi did for 64 seasons, through 639 games, 489 victories, 30 conference titles, and four national championships; he ran, and he ran, and he ran, and we now wait to discover if the race is over.

Patrick Reusse can be heard noon-4 weekdays on 1500-AM. • preusse@startribune.com

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