MIAC Friday Feature: Succeeding a legend at Saint John's

MIAC Friday Feature: Succeeding a legend at Saint John's

COLLEGEVILLE, Minn. -- Faced with the unimaginable task of replacing a living legend, pressure and stress would seem to be unavoidable occupational hazards for the new head football coach at Saint John's University. But rather than struggle with the shadow cast by John Gagliardi and his college-football record 489 victories, the Hall of Famer's successor is basking in the glow of the opportunity to continue a storied tradition.

One thing is clear observing the Johnnies' new head coach - Gary Fasching is having fun.

With countless watchful eyes focused on a landmark year of transition for the Saint John's University football team, Fasching doesn't appear to feel any weight that would seemingly accompany his new, magnanimous task.

"Somebody has to follow him," Fasching said of Gagliardi. "Why not me?"

Why not indeed. Fasching was selected to lead the program forward following an open search in December, and his demeanor, passion, confidence and deep Saint John's roots stand out as his leading qualifications. Fasching enters his promotion with the difficult task of melding the things that worked so well for Gagliardi for 60 seasons  - often referred to as: "The Johnnie Way" - with some of his own philosophies. After playing for Gagliardi and working as one of his assistants for 17 seasons, Fasching comes qualified for the difficult task.

"Gary is certainly a disciple of John Gagliardi," said Tom Stock, Saint John's Athletic Director. "A lot of the things that he thought worked well with John we're keeping, and yet, he's the head coach. He's wanted to change a few things."

That fresh approach to time-honored traditions was evident throughout preseason camp. To an outsider, unaware of the program's history, it wouldn't appear like the team was embarking on  a monumental season of transition. Practice was certainly structured and purposeful, but extremely upbeat. A genuine sense of joy, comfort and relaxation accompanies the team's desire to prepare and improve. All the while, Fasching stands front and center, wearing a smile as if it comes standard with his red-and-white Johnnie gear.

SJU's Dylan Graves interceps a pass
during an August preseason practice.
(Photo by Matt Higgins, MIAC) 

On this late-August day, the final two-a-day session of camp, the whole Johnnie football family was having fun. From spirited calisthenics - a game-day tradition that has been incorporated into practices - through individual drills and scrimmaging, the players and coaches were genuinely enjoying both their work and their time together, starting at the top and permeating throughout the squad.

"It's a lot of fun," said SJU Associate Head Coach and Offensive Coordinator Kurt Ramler. "[Gary's] a great guy. He's a real player's coach. The players really respect him and like him. He listens to everybody on the staff and it's a real testament to his character that he's been able to come in and do that."

The Johnnies enter their new era fresh off a 5-5 season in Gagliardi's final season. At some schools, .500 is a cause for celebration. In Collegeville, anything short of championship contention means the sky is falling, thanks to Gagliardi's incomparable tenure. Hence the desire to both preserve tradition, while looking for meaningful adjustments that can get Saint John's back on par with top-10 nationally-ranked Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) foes St. Thomas (No. 2) and Bethel (No. 6). That creates an interesting balancing act for SJU's new leader.

"John has set the bar very, very high here; we all know that," Fasching said. "I think the big thing is, between myself and the rest of my staff, we understand the job that we have to do here, and we're moving forward and excited about it and looking forward to it."

Gagliardi's tenure will forever be synonymous with Saint John's largely because of the unbelievable numbers associated with his career. 489 career wins, 81 more than anyone in history. 64 total seasons, with 60 at SJU. 27 MIAC championships. Four national championships. 44 straight seasons at .500 or better. The numbers - and the accompanying bar Gagliardi set - are staggering.

"[John] won 75 percent of his games," Stock said. "He cannot be replaced. Nobody's going to come in here and win 75 percent of them for the next 60 years, and if we think that's going to happen, Gary's going to be something like 115 or 120 years old.

"John's an aberration and we're so grateful for him."

"It was definitely an honor, getting to play for a coach like him," added senior Kevin Battis of Gagliardi. "He's the winningest coach in college football - it doesn't get any better than that. I respected every single word that came out of the man's mouth."

However, as impressive as the stats are, Gagliardi's impact at Saint John's went beyond the football field, and further than even the 489 victories.

"I think every coach on this staff would say [John] is our hero," said Ramler. "We try to emulate what he's done and how he did things, how he cares about the kids as people and was willing to be unconventional and do things that work."

Staying inside the Johnnie football community to find Gagliardi's successor wasn't a requirement during the coaching search, but it certainly makes sense considering some of the unique traditions weaved into the program's fabric. Gagliardi was famous for several coaching methods that defy typical football mentality. His "Winning with Nos" philosophy included no blocking sleds or dummies, no compulsory weightlifting program, no whistles, no "coach" (players called him John), no long practices (90 minutes or less) and, most famously, no tackling in practice.

During his tenure as a player and assistant coach under Gagliardi, Fasching recognized how these philosophies contributed to the Johnnies' success on the field, and the culture they created to foster the development of student-athletes as individuals. As a result, he's keeping many of the tenets in place.

He's also keeping them because six decades of victorious evidence make a pretty compelling argument.

SJU Associate Head Coach and Offensive
Coordinaor Kurt Ramler works with the
Johnnie offense during practice.
(Photo by Matt Higgins, MIAC) 

"We went in saying we wanted to keep a lot of the traditions that everyone knows Saint John's by," Fasching said. "It's worked so why would you change them? The no hitting thing, the no contact was one of the first things we wanted to keep, and just our whole approach to football. Obviously football is very, very important, but there's other things - the kids' education, the things John always preached, those are important things for us.

"I think if you watch the way we practice, it's probably not a whole lot different than it was under John. We kept a lot of the things that everyone knows Saint John's football for."

"The structure has been very, very similar," added Battis, an offensive lineman, who was an All-MIAC selection in 2012 and received Preseason All-America accolades this season. "[Gary's] not trying to re-invent the wheel. John had a great system and there's no real reason to redefine it."

To further ease the transition, Fasching is using the important things he learned from Gagliardi throughout their tenure together. He said his two biggest takeaways from working with a legend day-in and day-out were the way Gagliardi prepared, and how he focused on getting the little things right.

"John was probably the most well-prepared coach going into a game," Fasching said. "He probably watched more film than anybody. Preparation is a big thing. The other thing I learned is you have to do the little things. A lot of times people get stuck looking at the big picture, but it's the little things that get you to the big picture."

The combination of Gagliardi's famous philosophies and his keys to success as a coach have certainly helped Fasching lead the team into a new era. Those consistencies ensure that the current student-athletes, alums and passionate fans can still celebrate "The Johnnie Way" as they came to know it throughout Gagliardi's historic reign.

"'The Johnnie Way' is something we really believe in," said Ramler, "and I don't think it's a coincidence that it's also 'The John Way.'"

"[Gagliardi's] a great, great figure and he's still definitely - you can feel him around here - and that's great," added Battis.

While the concerted effort to continue Gagliardi's traditions is obvious, everyone involved with the program admits things are different this season. "It's a little more up-tempo," said Stock. "It's a little more intense. [Fasching] is just so full of energy right now."

Fasching maintains that any changes he's made as head coach have been subtle, especially in scheme. He said the Johnnies will look very similar, stylistically, to the teams of the past, but there have been some tweaks on both sides of the ball.

The offensive alterations come with the addition of Ramler. The former SJU star quarterback who recently coached against Gagliardi as the head coach of MIAC foe Carleton College, Ramler was one of three finalists, along with Fasching and Eden Prairie High School Coach and SJU alum Mike Grant, throughout the search process. However, SJU pulled a coup by landing two of its top targets, with Ramler returning to his alma mater as Fasching's top assistant and architect of the first post-Gagliardi Johnnie offense.

"I'd certainly like to think I've brought a few different ideas to the staff," said Ramler. "The fun part has been 'Johnnie-fying' all of those making sure they fit Saint John's. We don't plan to reinvent the wheel because we don't need to, but if there's a way we can improve how we prepare and how we do things, we'll do it.

Ramler's offense aims to be both high-powered and fun to watch, but he stressed that their focus would be on attention to detail. He added that fans can expect, "Hopefully some excitement, hopefully we'll be really good at the simple things, hopefully we'll throw in a little flavor."

Gary Fasching emphasizes individual instruction.
(Photo by Matt Higgins, MIAC) 

However, Fasching has identified the other side of the ball as an area that required his immediate attention. A year ago Saint John's ranked fifth in the conference in total defense (365.5 yards allowed per game) and sixth in points allowed (26.3 per game). Fasching said restoring the defensive side of the ball would be a big step towards turning that 5-5 record into a much more favorable mark.

"One of the main things we wanted to do was become better defensively," Fasching said. "We weren't very good the last couple of years and it was an area we had to get better at. Throughout the spring and what we've done so far this fall, the sense I get is that we've become better defensively ... I think we're a lot quicker on defense than we have been in the past, and I think that's going to be beneficial to us."

While coaches often get the glory and tactics and schemes are often lauded, one undeniable fact of football is that talented players are required to win. In college football, there are two ways to field a roster full of capable talent - recruiting and development. Both of those are key focuses for Fasching and his staff at the dawn of the post-Gagliardi era, and they're already pleased with their progress.

"We had our best recruiting year ever," Stock said. "We ended up with 10 Minnesota All-Staters and five out-of-state All-Staters. We're thrilled with our freshman class."

To help with the recruiting and player development, Fasching will benefit from a bigger staff than Gagliardi had at his disposal. In addition to Ramler, Linebackers Coach John Gans and Wide Receivers/Tight Ends Coach Kole Heckendorf are new to the staff, and Defensive Backs Coach Michael Orts is in his second season. Those additions, along with Defensive Coordinator Jerry Haugen, Coordinator of Football Operations/Wide Receivers Coach Jim Gagliardi (John's son), Co-Defensive Coordinator Brandon Novak, Recruiting Coordinator/Defensive Line Coach Damien Dumonceaux, Offensive Line Coach Jim Mader and Video Coordinator/Running Backs Coach Charlie Welsh, give Fasching a deep pool of coaches on the recruiting trail, and for hands-on instruction in practice.

Fasching said the increased attention to individual instruction has been his single biggest change as head coach, and he plans to continue it throughout the season to help his players - and his team - improve.

"We talked about player development," Fasching said, "and that was one of the things we felt we needed to do a better job of. We're doing more individual work in practice and plan to do that throughout the whole season."

Battis said that approach has been a benefit to the players, and has also been a smart way for the team to adjust to having a new head coach.

"It's definitely personal," Battis said of playing for Fasching. "He's very hands-on. He likes to give guys tips on technique. That stuff is wonderful and very helpful. He's very understanding, but he also expects a lot out of us. He understands that we all have expectations and we need to live up to them. If you're anything short of that, it's not going to cut it."

Now that it's clear Fasching is mixing in a few of his philosophies with ones he adopted from Gagliardi, where does that leave the state of Johnnie football? In the final years of the legendary coach's tenure, the team was trending downward. The team was 10-1 and MIAC champions in 2009, but since went 7-3, 6-4 and 5-5 in order. Stock maintained that - due to the program's stature - that pattern needs to reverse in a hurry.

"We certainly want to trend in a favorable direction; 5-5 is not acceptable at Saint John's," Stock said. "Our bar is awfully high. Probably, in some ways, unrealistically high. And yet, that bar is right where it's supposed to be. It should be right to the clouds. That's what makes these jobs tough, but it's also what makes these jobs so much fun."

Gary Fasching addresses his team after practice.
(Photo by Matt Higgins, MIAC) 

Fasching said another Gagliardi tradition he'll continue is the terminology associated with the program's aspirations, and what those aspirations strive to accomplish. "John always said, 'We don't have goals, we have expectations,'" Fasching said. "The expectations here at Saint John's are that you win the conference and you go into the playoffs."

Saint John's was 5-5 overall and 3-5 in MIAC play a year ago. The conference not only featured top-10 St. Thomas and Bethel, but also Concordia, Augsburg and St. Olaf with genuine postseason hopes. But none of that deters Fasching or his team. The new head coach has accomplished the first task: getting everyone on the same page, which was clear after all involved with the program echoed the same consistent expectations.

"Everyone around here, we all have the expectation of a conference championship and to move on in the Playoffs," Battis said. "We all expect that. Everyone attached to the program expects that. It's what we need to live up to."

The Fasching era started Friday, Sept. 6, in unforgettable fashion. The team appeared destined to start with an ominous loss at UW-River Falls until the game's final minute, when destiny did a u-turn. The Johnnies rallied for 10 points in the game's final 55 seconds to steal a 17-14 victory, with the winning margin coming via a 40-yard field goal from freshman kicker Alexi Johnson with two seconds left. In one sudden minute, Fasching earned his first win, and the team took its first step towards meeting its high expectations.

That win looks even better this week, as the same UW-River Falls team was extremely competitive against second-ranked St. Thomas Thursday night. The Tommies won, 25-7, but the Falcons proved to be a tough test for the MIAC favorite and national championship hopeful.

Fasching will coach his first game at SJU's Clemens Stadium Saturday as the Johnnies host UW-Eau Claire at 1 p.m., and then a week later will open his MIAC career with an interesting twist from the scheduling Gods. Saint John's will face St. Thomas in both an intense rivalry game, and a tantalizing measuring stick for how attainable the Johnnies' expectations actually are.

Though it seemed unthinkable for so long, there is football life after Gagliardi at Saint John's. The program marches on with Fasching at the helm, flush with optimism, intensity and a continuing desire to meet the sky-high expectations left behind by their legendary former coach.

"Can we attain those expectations?" Fasching asked himself. Proving his commitment to preparation, he was quick with a definitive answer. "That's our job. And that's the job of the players," he said. " I'm very confident. We have a great staff. I like our players."

However, with Gagliardi's retirement, some uncertainty surrounding the transition is unavoidable. But even though the Johnnies still don't tackle in practice, Fasching ready to barrel head-on into the enormous challenge of succeeding a legend.

"We gotta figure it out," Fasching said, "and go after it."

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