Johnnies on the spot

  • Article by: RACHEL BLOUNT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 2, 2011 - 6:57 AM

St. John's is used to being No. 1 in football, so two seasons of mediocrity have fans on red alert.

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In his 59th season, John Gagliardi still walks the sidelines as the Johnnies head football coach.

Photo: Tom Wallace, Star Tribune

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Deep in their hearts, most of the St. John's faithful understand that a disappointing football season is perfectly normal, something even the best college teams experience from time to time. But when a school hasn't had a losing season since 1967, logic can't overcome the widespread angst set off by the 4-4 record the Johnnies have compiled this fall.

Though it still can finish above .500 with victories in its final two games, St. John's will not make the NCAA Division III playoffs for the second year in a row, and it is assured of its worst record since 1997. In Collegeville, that qualifies as a full-blown catastrophe. "Most teams would be happy to go 6-4," said Tom Linnemann, a former Johnnies quarterback. "At St. John's, you've got monks jumping off the bell tower."

Things haven't gotten quite that dire yet. Still, a sub-par season happens here about as often as asteroids threaten the Earth, and it has triggered the same kind of reaction: calm analysis in some quarters, apocalyptic panic in others. While the St. John's coaches, administrators and many alumni fall into the first camp, there are suggestions that coach John Gagliardi--whose 482 victories created this mindset -- should retire.

Gagliardi, who turned 85 on Tuesday, brushes off that criticism. His many fierce defenders find it outrageous. Athletic director Tom Stock said he is confident the Johnnies' shortcomings can be fixed quickly, and he promised that Gagliardi will remain coach as long as he wishes. Gary Fasching, an assistant coach and the Johnnies' recruiting coordinator, echoed Stock, saying that youth -- and not a dearth of talent -- has been the biggest issue.

But even those who are not climbing the bell-tower steps are agonizing. During his 59-year run in Collegeville, Gagliardi has woven winning so tightly into the campus fabric that it has become a major part of the St. John's identity. All sides agree that makes it imperative for the Johnnies to get back to the top of the increasingly competitive Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC), with no time to lose.

"It's critical that we right this in a hurry," Stock said. "I'm not concerned at this point, but if we had a few [poor seasons], I'd be very concerned. We won't sleep until we get this squared around."

Linnemann, who chose St. John's after seeing its loaded trophy case, said that no Johnnie will.

"We absolutely have unrealistic expectations, but we wouldn't have it any other way," he said. "It's not like we're going to say, 'We had a good run for 55 years, let's let it go.' This is going to be a wake-up call. I don't see St. John's ever having a mediocre football program, because the reason you play football there is to win."

Part of the culture

The Johnnies have lifted a little of the gloom with two consecutive victories, including a 47-14 whipping of Carleton last Saturday. But they started the season 2-4, losing three games in a row for the first time since 1983, and their three home losses are the most since 1978.

The defense is at or near the bottom of the MIAC in most categories, including points surrendered (29.2 per game, eighth in the nine-team league) and total defense (393.6 yards allowed per game, last in the league). The team has used three quarterbacks, with none clearly rising to the top. Their rushing offense is eighth in the league, averaging just 123 yards per game.

"I wish I knew what was wrong," said Gagliardi, the winningest coach in college football history. "[The players] are all fighting hard and doing their best, and that's all you can hope for. Nobody is happy with this. But we're all in this together, win or lose, and we're all working hard to try and solve it."

Fasching pointed to the team's youth. The Johnnies returned only three starters on defense from last year's 7-3 team, have two freshmen starters and are the only MIAC school to break in a new quarterback this season.

But those explanations don't ease the consternation among a fan base that is one of the largest and most demanding in Division III. Stock said while he is hearing from plenty of unhappy supporters, they are questioning the assistant coaches and administration rather than Gagliardi. Linnemann, however, said he has heard some people say it is time for Gagliardi to retire, an opinion he called "asinine."

"I spent time with John this summer, and he was as spry and ready to go as ever," said Linnemann, who believes the Johnnies' main problem is a lack of star-quality players. "There's been a rush to judgment, people saying he's too old or the game has passed him by. This has nothing to do with John."

University President Fr. Bob Koopmann lent Gagliardi his full support, crediting him with building a program that inspires such passion. Football became part of the St. John's identity because it reflects the university's Catholic Benedictine ideals, Koopmann said, and because the school's athletic-minded alumni take such pride in its history of success.

According to Fr. Doug Mullin, vice president for student development, about 90 percent of students participate in varsity or intramural sports, and football has been a valuable public-relations tool for the university. The Johnnies have led NCAA Division III in attendance every year since 2001, broadcast their games over a statewide radio network and get 8 million hits a year on their website.

Mullin said the football team's struggles have been a hot topic on campus, but not one that is causing despair.

"People have been talking about what's happening, wondering what's going on, because this is something we're not accustomed to," he said. "And football is certainly part of the culture that attracts people here."

Investing in athletics

Stock said this is the toughest experience of his 11-year career with Johnnies athletics. He becomes visibly angered when discussing the criticism of Gagliardi, and he and Mullin said part of what makes this season so painful is seeing the coach they love hurt so deeply by the losses.

Should those losses continue, Stock said, it could impact the athletic department's finances. Football generates significant revenue from ticket sales and sponsorships. Though attendance has fallen this season to an average of 8,213 -- the second-lowest figure since 2005, but still second best in Division III -- Stock said he is confident that a swift turnaround will prevent any more erosion.

He's convinced that will happen, too, and not because of blind faith. Stock pointed out that the Johnnies have a history of bouncing back after disappointing seasons, including a run from 1985-2009 in which they never missed the playoffs two years in a row.

"John has really spoiled all of us," Stock said. "He is safe because he's the winningest coach in the history of the game. He knows what he's doing.

"We'll figure this out. We'll find new ways of doing things that are better, we'll recruit harder, and we'll be motivated."

They will have to be, given the competition. Led by St. Thomas and its new $52 million athletic facility, many MIAC schools are putting more money into their sports programs, including football.

Fasching said the league has become more balanced and better overall, as good coaches are aggressively recruiting the kind of player the Johnnies covet. He also noted there are schools devoting more resources to football than St. John's is, a factor critical to continued success.

Former football player Joe Mucha is helping raise money to give several Johnnies sports what they need, including new turf in Clemens Stadium and a domed facility that can be used by everyone.

"Other schools in the MIAC have upped their game, and you have to invest in things if you want to stay on top," Mucha said. "At St. John's, we want to win the right way, in the context of our Benedictine values. But winning is important."

The Johnnies could soothe their fans' anxiety further on Saturday, when they play No. 24 St. Olaf at home.

Gagliardi said he is not feeling any pressure, nor is he hearing from his critics. That does not mean he is not irked by the suggestion that he should retire.

"They've been saying that for many years," he barked. "I don't worry about them. I've weathered storms before."

Mullin, an alumnus and longtime fan, is among those looking for the skies to clear quickly. While there might be lessons to be found in losing, he isn't eager to look for them.

"I suppose it's a good thing for our humility," he said. "But I hope we don't have to go through it very often."

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