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Small-college coach trumps Paterno

This never would happen at Penn State:

Call St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn., ask for the football office, and the head coach will answer.

John Gagliardi, 84, speaks softly these days, making it difficult for him to bark out orders at practice. But his health remains otherwise strong, and the all-time leader in victories by a college football coach has improved his total to 476 this season — 77 more than Penn State's Joe Paterno.

After exchanging greetings, Gagliardi proudly declared to the caller that he is "one month older than Joe." He celebrated a birthday Monday.

St. John's, an all-male Division III school with an enrollment of 1,906, is 5-3 in Gagliardi's 58th season, with the team losing three games by a total of seven points. "Two in overtime," he said.

Gagliardi has been on a football sideline every year since 1949, when he was hired at Carroll College in Helena, Mont. That was the year Paterno was a senior quarterback at Brown University.

Gagliardi (476-129-11) met Paterno once, at the 2009 American Football Coaches Association convention in Nashville, Tenn.

"I admired him for years," Gagliardi said. "We don't travel in the same circles. I didn't know if he even knew I existed.

"The nice thing about Joe and Eddie (Robinson, former Grambling coach with 408 victories) and all these guys, everytime they get to a milestone I get a little attention."

Asked if he believes he can reach 500 victories, Gagliardi laughs, "Don't hold your breath. I don't know that I will get to 477."

But success has been the hallmark of his career, with four national championships — two in NAIA (1963 and '65) and two in NCAA Division III (1977 and 2003) — and five undefeated seasons. Gagliardi's '03 team defeated Mt. Union, 24-6, in the NAIA championship game, snapping the latter's 55-game winning streak.

He has coached only one player who became a pro: offensive tackle John McDowell, who played in 1963 and later for three teams in the NFL and one in the Canadian Football League.

Gagliardi said there is no secret to winning in college football.

"The answer is good players," he said. "You are depending on a bunch of young guys to make you look good. For the most part, that is what we have had."

Like Paterno, Gagliardi doesn't think much about the future.

"All I know is," he told a reporter Tuesday during an interview, "I have a better chance to be 85 than you have."

He remains humble, however, surprised by his own success.

"When a newspaper guy informed me I had reached the 200-win club, I was stunned. When Eddie Robinson reached 320, I said, 'My God, that is a staggering number.' I never thought I would reach 200 or 300 or 400, but if you stay in the game long enough, as I did, and you win at a decent rate, it adds up."

The other similarity between the two octogenarians: Neither likes talking about themselves.

"Every year, we graduate irreplaceable guys and every year irreplaceable guys take their place," Gagliardi said, "which shows that we are all replaceable."

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