Husky Stadium on the campus of St. Cloud State and Clemens Stadium at St. John's University in Collegeville are separated by 20 miles. St. Cloud State is Division I in hockey, Division II in other sports and has 11,000 undergraduates. St. John's is Division III in athletics and has 1,750 male undergraduates.
No matter the disparities in size and classification, the Huskies mostly have been the poor cousins to the Johnnies when it comes to football interest in the area, and this week, the battle for the hearts and minds of Stearns County fandom came to a decisive conclusion.
St. Cloud State, as it tried and failed to do at the start of this decade, announced Tuesday it was dropping football — effective for the 2020 season. U.S. District Judge John Tunheim had provided a wide opening for this anti-football move by the St. Cloud State administration with his rulings against the university on a Title IX lawsuit.
As this was taking place, coach Gary Fasching, his staff and the Johnnies were 20 minutes away in Collegeville, preparing for the daunting task of traveling to Wisconsin-Whitewater to take on the mighty Warhawks in the national semifinals on Saturday.
I have considerable interest in the final collision of these football programs — one trying to get to the national championship, the other going away — based on my early years as a sportswriter, from May 1966 to September 1968 at the St. Cloud Times.
The Huskies and Johnnies were both NAIA schools. The Johnnies had John Gagliardi, who would stay for 60 seasons and retire as the winningest coach in college football history.
Gagliardi arrived in 1953 and lost his first-ever game 7-0 to St. Cloud State in Collegeville, and then defeated the Huskies in the next nine games.
It was so bad in three games from 1960 through 1963 — a combined 126-6 — that St. Cloud State decided to take a break in the series. The teams didn't play again until the season opener on Sept. 16, 1967, in Collegeville.
Gagliardi had won the NAIA national title in 1963 in stunning fashion over Prairie View A&M 33-27, and then another by clobbering Linfield (Ore.) 33-0 in 1965.
I covered the Huskies for the Times and my boss, Mike Augustin, covered the Johnnies. The lines were blurred on these beats. Sometimes, they were extra-blurred after time spent at the Legion club, with its open door policy, and as a gathering spot for a mostly Huskies crowd (including coaches) and also Times-men.
The need for the Huskies to pour a cold beverage on the Gagliardi legend was mentioned often in those gatherings. And the tension felt by Rod Anfenson, the third-year Huskies coach, in the run-up to his first meeting with Gagliardi in the 1967 opener was unmistakable.
There are prints of the Times' pages with pregame and postgame coverage sitting on the floor next to me. We covered the Johnnies-Huskies matchup as if Penn State was coming to Minneapolis to play the Gophers in a battle of unbeatens.
The Huskies pulled it off, winning 10-0 for their first victory over St. John's since 1953. John Hovanetz, referred to as a "stumpy junior from Minneapolis West,'' put the game away with a 26-yard, broken-field touchdown run in the fourth quarter.
Anfenson had the usual praise for the opponent after the game, but happy? If coaches had been aware of such things 52 years ago, he might have player-surfed in the winning locker room.
St. Cloud State was 8-1 and won the Northern Intercollegiate Conference in 1967. The Huskies shut out St. John's again 7-0 in 1968 at their strange, bare-bones Selke Field, a WPA project surrounded by hundreds of yards of granite for no particular reason.
Then, Gagliardi put together another nine-game winning streak vs. the Huskies from 1971 through 1982. There were two more national titles in NCAA Division III in 1976 and 2003. All-time, Gagliardi was 19-5 vs. St. Cloud State and St. John's was 37-17-1 going back to 1901.
The series ended with the 1983 opener as St. Cloud State prepared to take the leap into Division II and what was then the rugged North Central Conference.
An overflow crowd of 6,500 showed up at Selke Field. The Huskies won 21-14 after trailing 14-0 at halftime. The fans serenaded first-year coach Noel Martin and pummeled the players in delight.
Sept. 10, 1983. The Huskies can continue to say they won the last one against the Johnnies.
Beyond that, the result is in for this Battle of Stearns County:
The Huskies are the behemoth Sonny Liston sitting in the corner, and the Johnnies are the vibrant Muhammad Ali, still prancing.
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