COLLEGEVILLE, MINN. – The building that houses the old gymnasium at St. John’s University dates to 1901 and has a place on the National Register of Historic Places. There is a sign outside that identifies this as Guild Hall.
People who were around when this gym was home to the St. John’s basketball team know better. They understand that it is properly called Rat Hall, in honor of the student fans — “The Rats” — who filled the small gym when MIAC rivals came to the woods of central Minnesota on cold winter nights.
Jim Smith came here as a 30-year-old before the 1964-65 season to take over the Johnnies. He coached in Rat Hall for eight seasons before the Johnnies moved to a new fieldhouse.
“There were three tiny offices: one for the athletic director, one for the football coach and one for the basketball coach,” Smith said. “George Durenberger, John Gagliardi and me … we were it. The rest of the coaches were part-timers, including Benedictine monks.”
Gagliardi was in charge of track and field as well in football. Smith was told to be his assistant.
“The first day there was one kid running around the track,” Smith said. “John looked at me and said, ‘This program is deteriorating before my very eyes.’ ”
That was OK, of course, because Gagliardi was between NAIA football titles — in the falls of 1963 and 1965.
Smith laughed in recollection of that early meeting with Gagliardi. He was walking toward the backstairs of the St. John’s athletic offices this week.
“I got a new hip,” he said, explaining the cane that he was carrying.
Gagliardi had come to St. John’s in 1954 at age 26. When he retired after the 2012 season, he was 86, had won 465 games in 60 seasons with the Johnnies, and a national collegiate record of 489 with his four earlier seasons at Carroll College in Montana.
Smith announced his retirement in mid-March at the conclusion of his 51st season. He is the winningest coach in Minnesota history with 786. He will turn 81 in early June.
Thus, the coaches of the two most prominent athletic programs at St. John’s coached football and basketball for a combined 111 seasons in Collegeville.
What do you think, gents … do you have a chance to equal that?
Football coach Gary Fasching: “I was 54 when I replaced John, so I don’t think I’m going to make six decades. Maybe one.”
Basketball coach Pat McKenzie: “I’m 33 and one piece of advice from veteran coaches was, ‘Never replace a coach who has the court named after him.’ I’m 0-for-1 on that. I just hope they still want me around a year from now.”
This is a dramatic 30-month changing of the guard, and yet it has occurred St. John’s-style, where there’s always attention paid to feeling the heart of the place.
Fasching was a three-year starting linebacker for Gagliardi and a 1981 graduate at St. John’s. He won back-to-back state titles in 1992-93 at St. Cloud Cathedral. Fasching served as a defensive assistant and recruiting coordinator for Gagliardi for 17 years, before being announced as Gag’s replacement on Dec. 28, 2012.
McKenzie’s link to Smith is even deeper. His father Pat was the point guard on Smith’s back-to-back MIAC champions for the 1977-78 and 1978-79 seasons. Then, this Pat was Smith’s point guard during the early 2000s. He returned in 2006 and served as Smith’s assistant for nine seasons, before being named his replacement April 15.
“It was daunting to replace a man who might have been the greatest coach in the history of college football,” Fasching said. “It’s not just the wins. It’s the adjustments that John made. He went from winning big with what he called the ‘quadruple option’ to winning big by throwing the ball all over.”
When Fasching played, the St. John’s weight room was a small area in a corner of the athletic building, with one bench, one set rack and a few dumbbells.
“Mr. Minnesota was going to school here then, and he would bring in some of his equipment,” Fasching said. “That was the best stuff we had.”
The program was modernized under Gagliardi, with more facilities, more assistants. The Johnnies even have a strength coach in Justin Rost these days.
That doesn’t mean St. John’s is going to get crazy about spending money on athletics. There are four full-time assistants, if you count defensive coordinator Jerry Haugen, who is also in his 38th season as the baseball coach.
Jim Gagliardi is the offensive coordinator, Brandon Novak shares defensive coordinator duties, and Damian Dumonceaux is the recruiting coordinator and defensive line coach.
All played for the Johnnies, of course.
“We made a leap a couple of years ago,” Fasching said. “We brought in Kole Heckendorf with a half-time position, and he’s from North Dakota State.”
Fasching is 17-5 in his first two seasons, with a tie for the title and trip to the playoffs in 2014. He’s also 2-0 vs. St. Thomas, a football powerhouse now with coach Glenn Caruso.
Dumonceaux is a recruiting fanatic, and the Johnnies expect more than 80 freshmen and a total of 210 players when practice opens in August.
The Johnnies have been off and on contenders in basketball in recent times. They were third in the MIAC last winter (14-6) and have a strong nucleus returning.
“That’s important,” Smith said. “I didn’t want to quit without leaving a good team to work with.”
McKenzie acknowledged the potential for his first season as head coach, and said: “As you said, not only did I play for Jim; my dad played for him. I’ve been a Johnnie since before I could walk, so this is a little surreal.”