For Gagliardi, winning is an age-old tradition

St. John's (Minn.) coach is 77, and is the sport's career win leader with 409

National notebook

College Football

November 14, 2003|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

John Gagliardi looks at what's happening to Joe Paterno this season at Penn State and what happened to Bobby Bowden at Florida State last year from the distance - not to mention the perspective - of another college football universe.

Theirs might be worlds apart from the one Gagliardi has occupied for the past 51 seasons at tiny St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn., but there is at least one common theme: Even a legend has to win enough games to satisfy alumni, fans and the media.

"They're all saying the same things - no imagination or the game's passed them by," Gagliardi, 77, said about the Penn State fans who want the 76-year-old Paterno to retire.

The question of whether Paterno or Bowden, 74, is too old to be coaching is simply an excuse for not winning. Gagliardi points to the four Division I-A coaches who were fired in midseason this year, most recently Mike Kruczek at Central Florida.

"It wasn't a matter of age for them," Gagliardi said. "How did Paterno and Bowden avoid that for so long? I guess they won. It [age] is an issue everywhere, and it's the wrong issue."

The only thing Gagliardi passed by this season is a legendary name in the record book. Last week, Gagliardi overtook former Grambling coach Eddie Robinson as the sport's all-time leader with 409 career victories.

Age might become an issue for Gagliardi, but not yet. With a 9-0 record going into tomorrow's game against Crown College, St. John's should be in the hunt for Gagliardi's fourth national championship and first since 1976.

Gagliardi laughs at those who think they might be able to flex enough muscle to force Paterno out after 38 years as coach of the Nittany Lions.

"Have any of them done more for Penn State than Joe Paterno?" said Gagliardi, who has never met Paterno. "Even if he hadn't won all those games, he gave something like $3 million to the school. Do they think they can get rid of someone who's given $3 million? They're idiots. They're wasting their time."

When Gagliardi arrived at St. John's in 1951, its former coach thought that Gagliardi was wasting his time. NFL Hall of Famer Johnny "Blood" McNally said after his three-year coaching career ended there, "Nobody could ever win at St. John's."

Gagliardi has had two losing seasons, the last in 1967. The only time he seriously thought about leaving the all-male school of 1,800 students that is 90 miles outside Minneapolis was when his close friend, Bud Grant, came out of retirement for a second stint as coach of the Minnesota Vikings.

"I thought he wouldn't stay long and he didn't," recalled Gagliardi, who had coached Grant's two sons as well as his own two. "I don't think I would have liked it much up there. I'm not a big-time guy."

There are 18 sons of former St. John's players on the current roster. The atmosphere is much the same as it has been, except in the weeks leading up to Gagliardi's record-setting victory. Gagliardi is glad the TV trucks and reporters have left town.

"After those two weeks, it's nice and peaceful again," Gagliardi said.

Rudy redux

Growing up near South Bend, Ind., D.J. Fitzpatrick knew all about the legend of Rudy Ruettiger. But after kicking the game-winning field goal last week against Navy, some are comparing Fitzpatrick to the Fighting Irish's most famous walk-on.

"It's the same situation, but it's different," Fitzpatrick, a junior walk-on, said earlier this week. "It's not like I'm molding my life after his."

Unlike the original Rudy, whose one series against Georgia Tech was turned into a movie and later a career as a motivational speaker for Ruettiger, Fitzpatrick just hopes to use the 40-yard kick that wobbled over the goal post to finish the season strong for the Irish.

Currently 6-for-11 after replacing the injured Nicholas Setta against Pittsburgh, Fitzpatrick knows that his first game-winning field goal since his freshman year in high school is no guarantee that he might get a scholarship someday.

Since Fitzpatrick played his high school ball in nearby Mishawaka, Ind., many around South Bend recalled his last game-winner. It came when Marion High's regular kicker, a senior, broke his leg after being tackled on a 56-yard field-goal attempt to win on Homecoming.

A penalty - and an ambulance - were called.

"It took about a half hour to clear the field," Fitzpatrick recalled.

Fitzpatrick used that kick, and the one he had made minutes before against the Midshipmen, to walk onto the field with confidence.

"When I came out Saturday, I knew I had been in that situation before," Fitzpatrick said. "The magnitude was just a little bigger this time."

Family ties

Rose Bowl CEO Mitch Dorger is not playing his hand, but there could be a non-traditional matchup in this year's game if LSU holds its position of No. 3 in the national rankings and No. 4 in the Bowl Championship Series standings.

At least one member of Dorger's family is rooting for the Tigers to head to Pasadena for New Year's.

"My daughter-in-law graduated from LSU law school," Dorger said in an interview this week with the Baton Rouge Advocate. "Before the season ever started, she came up with a scenario that would put LSU in the Rose Bowl."

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