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The winningest coach
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St. John's players celebrate at the end of their game, giving their coach the record for wins by a college football coach. (MPR Photo/Annie Baxter)
St. John's football coach John Gagliardi did something so special, it doesn't even sound like proper English. On Saturday, he became the winningest coach in college football history. Gagliardi snatched the title when the Johnnies beat Bethel College 29-to-26. Gagliardi passed Eddie Robinson from Grambling State. It was Gagliardi's 409th victory. Thirteen-thousand fans were in the stands to watch history happen.

Collegeville, Minn. — Fans came wearing bulky parkas and even hunting gear, whatever it took to keep warm. Their red and camouflage- green jackets filled the bleachers of Clemens Stadium and the snowy hill just beyond.

Many of the stands were filled with former graduates, like Kathy Moe of Willmar. "I was a student here in 1976 when St. John's won the championship," Moe says."It's kind of like deja vu."

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Image More than a coach

It's more than a few victories that keep the "Johnnies" pride going so strong. Gagliardi has won three national championships, eight regional titles, and 27 conference championships.

Those victories have brought him national attention. But Kathy Moe says it doesn't matter what people think outside this stadium.

"We don't care if other people in the rest of the world know we're on the map or not. We've got a great thing going here," Moe says.

Former Johnnies' football player Matt Bohlman agrees. He says the bond between former players is especially tight.

"We sit around and talk Johnnie football," Bohlman says. "John's just that connection that we have where we all talk and we all understand each other. It just makes St. John's feel that much more like home."

For many alumni, John Gagliardi, 77, has been considered more than just a coach.

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Image A Collegeville celebration

Frank Rajkowski, a sports reporter with the St. Cloud Times, has covered Johnnie's football for four years, and he's writing book on Gagliardi. He says Gagliardi's players know to trust his wisdom.

"People know he's been around so they trust what he's telling them and they know that he knows the game," Rajkowski says. "And so they know when he tells them something, it seems like a simple thing, but it's to listen to your coach and to follow that advice and follow that when you're on the field. Players at St. John's have that natural trust in what John's telling them."

Rajkowski says Gagliardi's coaching style is somewhat unorthodox. He doesn't have his players tackle during practice. But it's a style that is wrought from years of experience: 51 seasons at St. John's.

"This is a guy who started coaching in the day of leather helmets; in the days when the NFL really wasn't that prominent of a national phenomenon," Rajkowski says. "It's just amazing the changes he's seen in the game through the course of his career and the fact that he's been able pretty much to adjust to them."

Gagliardi brings a storied history to his coaching. But on Saturday, many regarded him as a history maker.

John Ellenbecker, the mayor of St. Cloud and a former Johnnie, was especially floored by the occasion. "History's being made; it's a wonderful occasion. This is a very special place, John' s a very special man," Ellenbecker says.

And St. John's president, Brother Dietrich Reinhart, honored Gagliardi officially after the game.

"You have been a source of inspiration and determination to many, both near and far," Reinhart said. "You will be long remembered as a coaching legend, a football icon. St. John's honors you as the most victorious football coach of all time."

At a press conference afterwards, Gagliardi said his new title as the winningest coach won't change him much, especially as far as his wife is concerned.

"I bet Peggy will still make me take out the garbage," Gagliardi joked.

But in spite of his apparent modesty, Gagliardi hinted at a bigger vision.

"We're happy with what we're doing. We're not looking for converts. We're not trying to do anything. We're not trying to change the world. We've got this little spot here in central Minnesota we're happy with," Gagliardi said. "From here to Melrose, and maybe down to Southern Minnesota..."

Perhaps without intending to, Gagliardi did change the world. This little spot in Central Minnesota is now home to a new sports legend.

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