by Mark Lauer
What if you were picked to take over for someone who was so honored, so well-respected, that the very thought of being that person’s “replacement” seemed out of the question? And that no one, no matter how qualified, could ever fill those shoes again?
Welcome to Gary Fasching’s world.
Last November, St. John’s University’s football coach, John Gagliardi, announced his retirement after spending 60 years at the school.
Just say that to yourself once. Sixty years. Who stays at a job, any job, for 60 years? And during that time, plus four earlier seasons at Montana’s Carroll College (1949-52), Gagliardi established himself as the winningest college football coach of all time, compiling a record of 489-138-11 with 30 conference titles (27 of them at SJU), plus four national championships. And in 2006, he was also named to the NCAA College Football Hall of Fame while still an active coach.
That is one large pair of shoes.
Late last year, Fasching was chosen to be the next head football coach at St. John’s after spending the past 17 seasons as a defensive assistant. His appointment ended a month-long replacement search.
The last time a new head coach was hired at SJU, the president of the United States was named Eisenhower. Gagliardi’s tenure and his teams’ accomplishments would become the stuff of legend.
Fasching was one of 25 original applicants for the head coaching job. In mid-December he made the list of three finalists, chosen by the 10-member selection committee. The other two finalists, also Johnnie graduates, were Mike Grant and Kurt Ramler. Both Grant and Ramler have achieved coaching success of their own, at the high school and college levels. Fasching expressed his admiration for his fellow finalists.
“I have a ton of respect for both of those guys,” he said. “I was going to trust whatever the committee decided. No matter who they selected, St. John’s was going to get an excellent coach.”
Fasching knows only too well what a tough act Gagliardi is to follow. He credits his former mentor for being “the best in the business.”
“We’re never going to see another John Gagliardi,” he said. “He let his assistants do a lot of the coaching. What I have to do is work hard to be ready, and to make sure my team is ready for this season.”
It would come as no surprise to hear Fasching express his willingness to work hard. He was raised on his parents’ dairy farm in Winsted, Minn. (about 15 miles northeast of Hutchinson) as one of 15 children, working to help with the daily chores. Anyone who comes from a family of 15 knows a little something about working to get what you want. And the experience also taught Fasching something about what he wanted, or didn’t want, out of life.
“I could tell that it (dairy farming) was never going to be my passion,” he says. “My dad was the hardest worker I’ve ever known. But it wasn’t going to be in my plans.”
Fasching was a product of the Winsted parochial school system, and graduated from Winsted Holy Trinity in 1977. He was recruited by Gagliardi, and eventually made a visit to the Collegeville campus, with the encouragement of his high school coaches.
“They thought that St. John’s would be a good spot for me,” Fasching recalls. “They (St. John’s) had just come off a national championship season in 1976. When I first came up here to make a campus visit, the people were all so welcoming and made me feel comfortable. That sort of stuck in my mind.”
Then there was the Gagliardi method, his well-documented set of standards and policies for just how a college football team should conduct itself, on and off the field. No hitting or tackling in practice. No goals, just high expectations. No traditional captains; all seniors share this honor. No lengthy calisthenics. No trash talking. No rules, except the Golden Rule. It goes on and on, Gagliardi’s List of Nos.
“That (Gagliardi’s method) was intriguing to me, also,” Fasching said. “It took some getting used to, because when I first came up here, I was like a lot of the other guys. I wanted to do some hitting. But when I saw how they went about things here, and the fact they did the things they did and won like they did, I accepted it.”
Fasching played four seasons under Gagliardi, the last three as a starting linebacker. After graduating in 1981, he eventually became the head football coach at St. Cloud Cathedral in 1986, where he led the Crusaders to State Class B championships in 1992 and 1993.
Soon thereafter, Fasching returned to St. John’s in 1995, coaching the defensive line. When he took the job, he felt reasonably certain his chance to be a head coach would come eventually. After all, by this time Gagliardi had been at SJU for more than 40 years, and was nearly 69 years old. At that age, most men are kept busy by playing golf, going fishing or working as Wal-Mart greeters. Not coaching football.
“I thought John might stay around for another 10 years,” Fasching said. “I’m a pretty patient man.”
He needed to be. That chance wouldn’t come for almost 20 years.
Fasching was hired last spring, which is a busy time of year for any college football coach, as they work on recruitment tasks for the next season. Days are long, and a lot of contacts are made. Fasching worked to put together his coaching staff was contacting his current players and letting them know what to expect in 2013.
St. John’s has missed the NCAA Division III football playoffs the past three seasons, something which hasn’t happened since the late-’70s. In recent years, arch-rival St. Thomas has risen to the top of the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. Fasching knows the St. John’s alumni, well known for its fierce loyalty and passion for their alma mater, are very anxious to see the Johnnies return to their former standing. He’s received an outpouring of congratulatory wishes from SJU alumni and supporters, but those wishes also contain the hope St. John’s will soon return to prominence in the MIAC.
“It’s not going to happen overnight,” Fasching warns. “But I feel good about getting things back on track, and getting the right people in place. Most times, when you’re hired as a new coach, that means the previous coach was fired, and the program is in shambles. But that was not the case here.
“John didn’t leave the cupboard bare,” Fasching said.