COLLEGEVILLE, Minn. — Ask John Gagliardi why he has spent almost his entire adult life at Saint John's University, and the 82-year-old football coach gives a mischievous smile.
"I think it must be the water," he says of the 1,900-student Catholic men's school in the empty spaces of west-central Minnesota. "That or the weather."
Gagliardi came to Saint John's in 1953 and has won more games — 468 — than anyone in any division in college football history. He has won two NCAA Division III national championships and two NAIA titles and in 2006 became the first active coach inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. The Division III player of the year award carries his name.
But while Gagliardi is the most decorated of SJU's coaches, his longevity is the rule and not the exception when it comes to athletic tenure. Coaches tend to come to Collegeville and never leave.
•Basketball coach Jim Smith ended his 45th season Monday with 699 career victories, coaching the final weeks from a wheelchair after slipping and breaking his leg Feb. 7.
•Jerry Haugen began his 32nd year as baseball coach Wednesday and could reach 600 victories before season's end.
•Soccer coach Pat Haws has won 336 matches in 31 seasons.
•Track/cross country coach Tim Miles has been on the job for 30 years, working with the indoor and outdoor teams.
Beyond these five, Bob Alpers has coached the Johnnies golf team for 17 years and will be going for a third consecutive NCAA title in May. John Harrington, a member of the 1980 U.S. Olympic gold-medal hockey team, spent 15 years at Saint John's before leaving last year to coach a pro team in Switzerland. Of the university's 13 coaches, 10 have the longest tenure in their sport in the nine-school Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.
Smith was an assistant at Marquette when he was recruited to become head coach at Saint John's in 1964, arriving on campus by train and taxi.
"I thought anything west of Milwaukee was wilderness," Smith says. "But from the first day I visited I thought Saint John's was a unique place."
As Smith and his wife, Adrienne, considered Saint John's offer, they had a lot more reasons to say no than yes. They came anyway, raised seven children in nearby St. Cloud and have never given a thought to leaving.
"There was just something about this place that made it unlike anywhere I had ever been," Smith says. "I think it all goes back to the monastery and the values and the ethics of the monks that are all around you. It is and always has been an inspiring place to work."
Monks make difference
Saint John's University is Collegeville, Minn. There is no surrounding town, no accompanying infrastructure of restaurants, apartments and shops. There is simply the school, which sits 70 miles northwest of Minneapolis and 150 miles southeast of Fargo, N.D. St. Cloud is 10 miles east.
The campus lies just off Interstate 94 on County Road 159, close enough that the school's arching bell tower is visible from the highway. Bordered on two sides by lakes and surrounded by 2,700 acres of woodlands, the school has prospered since being founded in 1857 by five Benedictine monks.
Saint John's sister school, the College of Saint Benedict, is 6 miles away in the town of St. Joseph's. The schools have separate administrations, ministries and athletic departments but share academics. Students take courses on both campuses, and classes are co-educational.
The university has grown around the Benedictine monastery that endures as a central part of the school and is home to the 150 monks of Saint John's Abbey. These Benedictine fathers and brothers have taken vows of stability, poverty, chastity and obedience and will live out their lives on the campus and be buried in the campus cemetery.
The monks serve as academic instructors, administrators and craftsmen. One lives on every floor of every dormitory as an adviser.
"Somewhere on this campus there is always a light on and a door unlocked," says the Rev. Timothy Backous, who served as athletics director from 2003 to 2006 and now is the headmaster of Saint John's prep school. "I think that resonates with men like John Gagliardi."
The number of monks is dwindling — there were more than 400 in the 1950s — but their presence and the continuity they provide help explain the strong generational ties reflected in the school's enrollment.
Roughly 45% of Saint John's students have followed parents, siblings or other relatives to SJU or CSB, according to Saint John's admissions office. The 2003 national championship football team featured 18 players whose fathers played at Saint John's, three of them on the 1976 title team.
Coaches at the Division III level often wear more than one hat, serving as assistants in other sports or holding administrative posts. Saint John's takes that to another level.
At one time, Gagliardi also was the track and hockey coach and athletics director. Smith served two stretches as AD, and Haugen, a 1976 graduate, began as the hockey coach before taking over baseball. He also was a basketball assistant and still doubles as football's defensive coordinator.
Even coaches who retire find some way to remain. John Elton, a 1980 graduate, was inducted into the NCAA Division III wrestling coaches' hall of fame in 2007. Elton, who is a master gardener, stepped down in 2004 after 23 seasons to become Saint John's landscape manager.
"I've been here 30 years, and I'm still talking with brothers who taught me as a student and running into sons of men I coached," Elton says. "The longevity of Saint John's isn't just athletics, you see it in all aspects of this community.
"This is a place you almost have to experience to understand. It's like coming home; it's a feeling you're part of something good and that what you're doing makes a difference."
Community truly close
More than one-third of Saint John's students participate in intercollegiate athletics; that number jumps to 90% when club sports and intramurals are included. Although the school does not have its own hockey rink — it plays home games at St. Cloud State — its athletic facilities are first-rate, especially in football.
Surrounded by trees and nestled in a natural bowl, Clemens Stadium becomes its own little city on football Saturdays. Although there are seats for 7,500, standing room routinely lifts crowds to 13,000, attracting students, alumni and fans from a 100-mile radius. Despite a stretch of rotten weather on game days last fall, Saint John's led the 231 schools that play Division III football in attendance (7,694 a game) for the 12th time in the past 16 years.
This atmosphere was one of the reasons Brett Saladin set aside opportunities to play football and baseball at the Division I level and came to Saint John's, where he finished this past fall as one of the most productive tight ends in school history.
"I had zero ties to Saint John's before coming here, but I knew from the day I visited that this was my place," says Saladin, who grew up 60 miles outside Chicago. "People talk about community wherever you go and how close people are, but it's really true here."
Almost 90% of the SJU and CSB student bodies graduate in four years, and 98% receive some sort of financial aid to help cover the $36,000 annual cost for room, board and tuition (Division III schools do not award athletic scholarships).
Senior hockey player Lance Wheeler was impressed by the way coaches made room for academics. "At Saint John's, you are a student-athlete in that order," he says.
Wheeler and his twin, Vince, joined retired priest Bryan Hayes every day for lunch in the campus dining hall last summer while taking classes.
"We had discussions on everything from the presidential race to his life in the monastery to man's place in the world," says Vince, who is not Catholic. "You experience things here that you just wouldn't experience anywhere else."
You experience people such as soccer coach Haws. He graduated from Saint John's in 1972, a year before his father, the Johnnies' wrestling coach, died of a heart attack while guiding SJU at the national Catholic championships. He returned to campus that year to start the SJU swim program and added soccer duties in 1978, coaching both programs for 20 years.
"I met my wife when I was a student here, and my son is now my assistant," Haws says. "He graduated in 1999, almost 100 years to the day after my wife's grandfather graduated.
"This is more than our home; it's our life. I don't care what sport I'm coaching, this is where I want to be. My wife and I bought a plot (in the Saint John's cemetery). I'm here for eternity." USA Today