Last week's MIAC Friday Feature took an in-depth look at Saint John's University football as it enters the post-John Gagliardi era. As a former journalist, I really enjoyed this assignment because it let me get back to my reporter roots. I spent a day at Saint John's this summer speaking to players, coaches and Athletic Director Tom Stock. I attended the Johnnies' practice that day, and collected photos and videos as well.
The feature had a lot of substance, thanks to all the great stuff I got from everyone I spoke with at SJU. It's a pretty detailed report about the dawning of a new era at SJU. Amazingly, I had a lot of material that I didn't use so the blog was a perfect spot to share some unused items of particular interest.
Because of the nature of the story, one aspect I didn't delve into was the much-publicized coaching search to hire Gagliardi's replacement. New Head Coach Gary Fasching and new Associate Head Coach/Offensive Coordinator Kurt Ramler were two of the finalists along with Saint John's alum Mike Grant, who has a built a prep dynasty at Eden Prairie High School, in addition to his famous football lineage as the son of legendary Minnesota Vikings former coach Bud Grant.
|Mike Grant decided to stay at EPHS, and Gary Fasching and|
Kurt Ramler (center) took over the Johnnie football program.
Grant had a lot of supporters throughout his interview process, and when he withdrew from consideration, there were a lot of different things written and said as to why. During my interview with Stock, he gave me some great information regarding the search process and specifically, how things played out with Grant. I was fascinated by some of the details and grateful for Stock 's transparency. I hadn't seen some of this information in other reports, and I immediately knew that many MIAC football and Johnnie fans would share my interest in the AD's assessment of the process.
"It's one of those things with an open search," Stock said, "a lot of people were happy with an open search, some were unhappy. Many were very happy with Gary because he's recruited our student-athletes here the last 18 years and they're really happy with him. But I think when your football team is 5-5 and the bar is where it is at Saint John's in football, others have felt like it was time to go outside the organization and have a change.
"It came down - and it's no secret - Mike Grant was a finalist; Gary was a finalist. Finally, Mike Grant withdrew his name and it had nothing to do with Saint John's not honoring his wishes. His demands were very reasonable. He just loves where he's at and what he's built. He's built a wonderful program at Eden Prairie and I think in his career he's looking to spend more time at the cabin, more time with his father, more time with his family. He's looking to unwind rather than wind it up, which is what it would have been. Here he'd have to recruit and start rebuilding our program. By hiring somebody on the inside I think we've really made great strides and made them in a hurry under Gary."
With Grant out of the process, things worked out quite well for Saint John's. Fasching got the head job, and Ramler was also brought into the mix as the Associate Head Coach/Offensive Coordinator. Fasching also gave me some great material on the start of his tenure and how crucial it is at Saint John's to connect with the very large, incredibly passionate community of alums, fans and former players.
"I think any time there's a change there are going to be people that have a favorite candidate or stuff like that," Fasching said. "But really once the decision was made, the alumni have been very, very supportive. I couldn't have asked for more. They've reached out to me in a lot of different ways and I couldn't be more grateful for our alumni here. I think it's what makes us unique in all of college football is that we do have a passionate alumni here; it's evidenced by the crowds that we get. They're connected, they're engaged to what's going on here. It's been really good. I've been really pleased with the outpouring I've gotten from the alumni."
Another interesting nugget I didn't work into the feature was regarding Saint John's foreign trip to Canada, which no doubt helped the team acclimate to the coaching change. It also led to the Johnnies hosting a spring football game, which was a thrill for the tradition-rich program, and likely an important step in moving on after bidding adieu to college football's all-time wins leader.
"It was one of the things - when I got hired - we talked about it right away," Fasching said of the trip to Canada. "And then with Kurt coming on and implementing his stuff on offense, I brought it up to the staff. I said, 'What do you guys think about making an international trip to Canada?' We were all in favor of it. It made a huge difference - having those 10 extra practices. We didn't use all 10; I think we used eight of them. Having those practices really helped our kids out a lot. Just from a terminology standpoint and knowing where to line up and things like that. It was very beneficial, it was one of the better things we've done so far."
Finally, the reverence everyone in Collegeville holds for Gagliardi is still palpable. It certainly isn't surprising after six decades of excellence, but it certainly was made clear in each of my interviews.
"I want to start by saying I want to thank John Gagliardi to Saint John's University," Stock began our conversation. "He leaves as the winningest coach in college football. He coached 64 years as a head coach, 60 of those right here at our great University. He won 75 percent of his games over that time span. he cannot be replaced. Thank you John. Nobody's gonna 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. It's not going to happen. John's an aberration and we're so grateful for him."
"I think No. 1 - people will come into a program after they're named the head coach and they'll decide that they're going to change everything and do it their way," said Fasching. "That's certainly not something that we needed to do here. I think the situation I came into was a lot different than other people. A lot of people come into a place and it's probably because the coach got fired and the program's in shambles, that certainly is not the case here."
Perhaps Johnnie senior Kevin Battis said it best. "[Gagliardi is] a great, great figure and he's still definitely - you can feel him around here - and that's great," said the All-MIAC lineman.
He's right ... Gagliardi's presence is still everywhere, and after six decades of stability and success, moving forward is quite a task. That task resulted in a fun story for me to report, and all these leftover tidbits that didn't make the final cut, but couldn't stay on the cutting room floor.
Wednesday was a fun Twitter day in the MIAC. With ESPN College GameDay coming to nearby Fargo, N.D., to broadcast from the North Dakota State campus, Concordia SID Jim Cella (@CobberSID) sent a tweet to host Chris Fowler to let him know that the Cobbers and St. Olaf would play their annual game for "The Troll" in the vicinity of the broadcast Saturday. Fowler responded, and is interested in giving the unusual trophy some air time on Saturday. We followed with a tweet this afternoon to Fowler to offer our support, so I'll have my DVR set Saturday to see what transpires. The power of social media just continues to amaze me, and kudos to Jim for his enterprising nature to get Concordia and the MIAC a few seconds in the national spotlight!
-Congrats to Bethel's J.D. Mehlhorn on his selection tothe Allstate AFCA Good Works Team. J.D. is one of just 22 players selected for the incredible honor in all of college football. It seems like it's become pretty trendy to bash on college athletics, specifically college football, so kudos to J.D. for reminding us about everything that's right with college athletics.
-We've publicized the MIAC's 7-0 and 12-1 start to the 2013 football season, but it's really been an amazing fall thus far for all MIAC team sports. In addition to football's 12-1 collective record, volleyball entered MIAC play a combined 94-50, men's soccer started the conference slate with a 32-19-8 combined record, and women's soccer started its MIAC season a collective 26-22-8. Combined, the MIAC's four team sports are 164-92-16. MIAC teams have won 64 percent of games against nonconference competitions. 33 of the MIAC's 44 football, volleyball and soccer teams are .500 or better in nonconference play. We couldn't be prouder of our teams' accomplishments on the field thus far this fall. Thanks for representing our league in such outstanding fashion.
-How 'bout the St. Thomas women's golf team? The Tommies have three first-place finishes in three tournament appearances, and star Doyle O'Brien (two) and Erin Dingmann (one) have claimed the conference's first three Athlete-of-the-Week awards. Outstanding.
-Will any of our schools have a cooler special event than Saint Mary's getting a visit from the Stanley Cup? Chicago Blackhawks President/CEO John McDonough is an alum of SMU, and he brought the cup to his alma mater to share its glory with the school and Winona. Read more and see photos here. Just awesome. Congrats to John on his immense success, thanks for representing Saint Mary's and the MIAC with such distinction, and thanks especially for giving one of our campuses a day they'll never forget.
-If you have any questions for the blog or the MIACWeekly Podcast, email me! I'd love to make this more interactive. Chances are, I might not be able to answer all questions, but I know people.
-MIAC play started yesterday for volleyball and soccer and continues today with full slates for those sports. Football's MIAC season starts Saturday. This is when it REALLY gets fun! If you're at a game this week or this weekend, email me your pics, or send to the MIAC on Facebook and Twitter. Let's see that school spirit! Good luck to all the athletes this week, and we're excited to see the conference standings start to shake up.