10/17/2010 10:15 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

For college football's winningest coach, defeat is still like a death in the family

By Albert Eisele

Collegeville, Minn. - He may be the all-time winningest coach in college football, but John Gagliardi is definitely not a happy camper these days.

Gagliardi - that's "gal-AR-dee" - has won 474 games during a 62-year college coaching career, 450 of them since he arrived at Saint John's University in 1953. Overall, he's lost only 129 games with 11 ties.

That's 65 more victories than Grambling's Eddie Robinson, whom he passed in 2003, and more than any of the more than 25,000 head coaches in college football history, only ten of whom have won more than 300 games. This includes such legends as Amos Alonzo Stagg, Pop Warner, Knute Rockne, Bernie Bierman, Bud Wilkinson, Bear Bryant and Joe Paterno, the only one still active, with 398 wins.

Gagliardi was only 16 when he filled in as player-coach after his high school coach in Trinidad, Colo., was drafted in World War II, and only 22 when hired by Carroll College in Helena, Mont. He's a still-vigorous 83 now, but often directs his team from the press box instead of from the sidelines.

But the wins are harder to come by these days for Gagliardi, now in his 58th season at this Catholic men's college in rural Minnesota with an enrollment of 1,915 students -- who share classes with 2,105 women students at the nearby sister school, the College of Saint Benedict.

After 52 winning seasons that include four small college national championships - the first in 1963 and the last in 2003 - along with 27 Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) titles and three conference titles at Carroll - Gagliardi's Johnnies are struggling this year with a 3-3 record and little hope of another MIAC title or an NCAA Division III playoff bid.

Even though his team is only seven points and a few lucky breaks from being undefeated - two of the losses were in overtime - Gagliardi looks on the defeats as though they were a death in the family. As he told the author of a new book about his coaching philosophy - the fifth such book written about him - winning produces a nice high, but the lows following a loss "seem to go off the board; you can't go any lower. And it is still that way with me."

I caught Gagliardi at one of his low points last week while I was at Saint John's to attend the funeral of a former abbot of the Benedictine monastery that operates the university.

He was nursing a cold and his voice was so hoarse I could hardly hear him. He was as down in the dumps as I've ever seen him, and I've known him since I enrolled at Saint John's in 1954, one year after he succeeded Johnny "Blood" McNally, a charter member of the NFL Hall of Fame, who told him, "Nobody could ever win at St. John's" because of the monks' frugality.

Clearly, he was still feeling the sting of a 27-26 overtime loss to archrival St. Thomas University - the first to the Tommies since 1997 - before an NCAA Division III record homecoming crowd of 16,421 when the tying extra point attempt hit the left goalpost, and a 27-24 loss to Bethel, which the Johnnies out-gained by 128 yards but had four crucial turnovers. It was the first time his teams have had back-to-back MIAC losses since 1983.

"Tonight, when you go to bed, I want you to get down on your knees and thank God you never went into coaching," he tells me as we ride a golf cart from his office to the pine-fringed playing field where his son Jim, the quarterback coach, and other assistant coaches are putting the 160 players who suit up for every home game through their paces.

It was vintage Gagliardi, who combines sardonic humor and a fierce determination to succeed inherited from his Italian immigrant parents with an exquisite sense of how to exploit an opponent's weaknesses, even while describing every future opponent as the collegiate version of the Green Bay Packers.

I try to cheer him up by suggesting that his narrow losses to three highly-rated opponents could still earn the Johnnies a post-season playoff bid, but he said there's no chance. And when I tell him there's always next year, he bemoans the fact that he'll lose his star quarterback and doesn't know how he'll replace him.

The late U.S. Senator Eugene McCarthy, a 1935 graduate of Saint John's, once quipped that the Benedictine motto of "Keep death daily before your eyes" was a good motto for politicians. I didn't feel it was necessary to tell Gagliardi that it's probably a good motto for football coaches as well.

Gagliardi likes to tell the story that shortly after coming to Saint John's, he asked the college president if the monks would still love him if he had a losing season. "We'll still love you John," he said the president replied, "but we'll miss you."

But even with his present travails, Gagliardi is in no danger of losing his job, and almost certainly will have another winning season as Saint John's finishes against four lesser-ranked MIAC opponents.

And not even Father Time appears likely to send Gagliardi to the sidelines any time soon, even though some of his friends are wondering how much longer he can go on now that he's the first person to coach more than 600 collegiate games.

When I dared ask him when he plans to retire, he made it clear that he views retirement the same way he views defeats. "What am I going to do," he said, "sit on a park bench and play checkers with guys who can't hear me?"