NEW ULM – John Gagliardi won more football games than any college coach in history. He was at St. John’s for 60 seasons and, through them all, John was persistent in attempting to attach underdog status to the Johnnies.
Anyone attending a luncheon or dinner at which Gagliardi was the main speaker witnessed this:
John taking out a piece of paper and tearing away portions as he identified all the recruits St. John’s couldn’t get for various reasons — academic, financial, religious, geographical, etc. — until all he was holding was a nub of paper between the thumb and index finger of his right hand.
Mark Stein is in his fourth season as the football coach at Martin Luther College, and he could take that nub of paper left by Gagliardi and keep snipping away until it was a speck in his right hand.
Martin Luther is the primary college for the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod [WELS]. It grants degrees in three areas: pre-seminary studies, education and staff ministry/music.
The Wisconsin synod is very conservative in its tenets and Martin Luther draws nearly all of its undergraduates (currently 763) from the 23 WELS-affiliated high schools around the country.
To attend Martin Luther, the graduates of those high schools must have at least an interest in becoming pastors, teachers or assisting in the ministry. Can you imagine the woe that Gagliardi could have expressed over recruiting?
I had never looked into the history of New Ulm’s Lutheran college (it dates to the 1880s). The two things I knew about MLC football:
One, the Knights seemed to reside near the bottom of the UMAC standings; and two, when Sports Illustrated tried to rate every NCAA football school in the country years ago, Martin Luther was a challenger to now-defunct Owatonna Pillsbury for last place.
“I’ve been here 23 years, and the article was before that,” MLC athletic director Jim Unke said. “I’ve heard a few times that there were 325 schools, maybe a few more, and we were ranked 323.”
[Editor's note: Thanks to @TimTreder on Twitter, we now have the details on where Martin Luther College stood in the aforementioned Sports Illustrated article from 1991.]
Efforts to confirm this through an internet search Thursday were not successful. What I discovered earlier in the day was things are looking up for MLC, based on this item in the Star Tribune:
“Dan Gensmer of Martin Luther College was named to the d3football.com’s team of the week. The junior defensive lineman had three sacks for losses of 27 yards and seven tackles in the Knights’ 49-21 win over St. Scholastica.”
As others worried about a minor item such as which team would regain form in Philadelphia on Sunday, the Vikings or Eagles, I had to get to the bottom of the greater football mystery:
How did poor little Martin Luther put a whuppin’ on St. Scholastica, the power of the UMAC in this decade? Two hours later, I was in Unke’s office, learning this:
“We hadn’t beaten Scholastica since 2010, and they were ahead of us 21-7 early in the second quarter after a long touchdown pass,” he said. “Then, we had a great drive [nine plays, 98 yards], our home crowd got into it, and we wound up scoring 42 straight points.”
St. Scholastica did lose coach Kurt Ramler (32-4 in the UMAC) when he resigned last January, but still — this was 42 points in a row for MLC against a team that won 62-19 the last time it visited New Ulm in 2016.
“That was my second year and we were 0-and-10,” Stein said. “What impressed me in that situation — 0-9, getting ready for the last game — and I was talking with an assistant and we said, ‘Look at these kids. They are still fired up; they still want to play.’
“Zero-and-9 and we were having our best practices of the season. That’s when we knew things were going to get a lot better.”
Two WELS-affiliated high schools that have had a lot of football success — Wisconsin Lutheran in Milwaukee and St. Croix Lutheran in the Twin Cities — have been major sources of talent for MLC.
Josh Arndt and Harrison Hochmuth are receivers. They played at St. Croix Lutheran, the powerhouse program that won the Class 3A title in 2013, the last Prep Bowl played in the Metrodome.
“We run the veer, so we get to do a lot of blocking,” Hochmuth said. “And that’s fine, because our sophomore quarterback, Zach Bloomquist, runs it great.”
Arndt was one of the players still enthused in practice at the end of the winless 2016, and now will make the admission as a senior on a 3-1 Knights team:
“Winning is always going to be more fun.”
And another early reward in the 2018 season: Stein has arranged, through the kindness of the Iowa Hawkeyes, to have a one-hour practice at Kinnick Stadium on Friday on the way to Saturday’s game at Iowa Wesleyan.