COLLEGEVILLE, MINN. – Brandon Novak thinks the season was 2006. St. John’s lost the regular-season finale to Bethel to share the MIAC title at 7-1, and then won a couple of road playoff games before losing in the NCAA Division III quarterfinals at Wisconsin-Whitewater.
It was during a practice for one of those big games that it happened: Out of nowhere, John Gagliardi delivered a waist-high punch to air and exclaimed to his players, “Are we ready!’’
Novak was an outstanding player for the Johnnies from 1997 through 2000, and then became an assistant coach. And for him, that remains an amazing moment in his time with Gagliardi.
“John almost shouted,’’ Novak said. “All of us who had been around John for a while — coaches, older players — looked at each other, smiling, with the same thought: ‘What was that? John is fired up.’
“John never did that. He only got loud to tell you what you did wrong or right.’’
If ever there was a time for an over-the-top, emotional football speech, it would be this Saturday in the Johnnies’ locker room, as they get ready to take on St. Thomas — the mighty Tommies, the archrivals — six days after the death of Gagliardi, 91, and with 60 of those years spent as the St. John’s football coach.
One problem for coach Gary Fasching, in his sixth season as Gagliardi’s successor:
There would be nothing less-Gagliardi than a vociferous, do-it-for-John speech to these Johnnies before they charge into the underdog role vs. another Glenn Caruso collection of tremendous Tommies.
Kickoff was 48 hours away when Fasching was asked in his office about the possibility of a win-one-for-John speech?
“That wouldn’t be John’s style,’’ Fasching said. “He was never a rah-rah guy.’’
Then, he smiled and said: “But I might mention it.’’
Actually, Fasching and his coaches let out the emotions at the team meeting on Monday. There were 11 coaches at the meeting and nine played for Gagliardi, including Fasching. Plus, Jim Mader was brought on by Gagliardi 15 years ago, after Mader’s outstanding run at Albany High School.
“There’s no one left on the team that played for John,’’ Fasching said. “They all know the legend of John, of course. We made it a little more personal — what John did for us in our lives, what he always will mean to St. John’s.’’
Fasching paused and said, “Jerry’s words to the team about John. Those were powerful for all of us.’’
Jerry Haugen was a four-year starter at defensive back for Gagliardi. He graduated from St. John’s in 1976 and enrolled in grad school at St. Cloud State. Gagliardi offered him a few bucks to work as a defensive assistant.
The Johnnies advanced to the Division III national championship vs. Towson State in Phenix City, Ala. There was a dinner that week in which the coaching staffs were introduced.
“Towson had eight or nine coaches, all wearing matching blazers,’’ Haugen said, “We had John and two young guys, Dave Arnold and me, dressed with whatever sport coat we had.’’
The Johnnies led 28-0, Towson State rallied for a 28-28 tie, and then Jeff Norman, the terrific quarterback in Gagliardi’s newfangled “quadruple option,’’ kicked a game-winning field goal — 31-28, Johnnies.
Haugen was with Gagliardi until his retirement after the 2012 season. He’s now co-defensive coordinator with Novak, as well as in his 41st season as St. John’s baseball coach.
Asked about the Gagliardi pregame speeches in those 37 years that he coached with him, Haugen said:
“We had a plan for every game that was worked on all week. John would review that for a couple of minutes, say, ‘Everybody knows their assignments,’ announce the starting lineups, we’d say an ‘Our Father’ and that was it. Let’s play.’’
Admittedly, performing the assignments vs. St. Thomas has gotten much tougher since Caruso came down the street from Macalester in 2008 and embarked on turning the Tommies into a national contender.
The Tommies have won 30 in a row in the MIAC, plus a playoff victory over St. John’s in 2015. Fasching defeated St. Thomas in the first two meetings, 2013 and 2014, and now the Johnnies have lost four in a row.
“I think this is his best team,’’ Fasching said. “They have terrific playmakers on offense, but on defense … they are so fast and athletic now. Nobody has moved the ball on ‘em at all. That’s why the St. Thomas scores are so one-sided. Teams are either punting after three plays or turning it over.’’
All the emotion and rah-rah in the world isn’t going to change a result if your team can’t move the ball. Fasching knows that. He learned from John Gagliardi, the master of football reality.