HELENA – Mike Van Diest knew the coaching history of Carroll College’s football program when he accepted the head coaching job in 1999.
Names like Wilber Eaton, Reverends Raymond and Jack Hunthausen, as well as Bob Petrino Sr. racked up wins and conference titles throughout the program’s illustrious history. But there was one name in particular that stood out to Van Diest — the 14th coach in Carroll’s history, John Gagliardi.
“He was an old-time coach with a different way of doing things, but very unique, very successful. He was a wonderful gentleman,” said Van Diest.
Gagliardi passed away over the weekend at the age of 91, leaving behind a legacy that may never be matched. After compiling a 25-5-1 record at Carroll College, Gagliardi’s first coaching stop from 1949 to 1952, he spent the next 59 years at Saint John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota, winning 465 more games before retiring in 2012 with a career record of 489 wins, 138 losses and 11 ties, surpassing Grambling’s Eddie Robinson as college football’s all-time winningest coach.
“It was him, Eddie Robinson, Joe Paterno and Bobby Bowden, guys with longevity. Bear Bryant. Certainly at a Division III school he didn’t get the accolades or front page stuff until it was all said and done, but I don’t care where you coach at, 489 wins is 489 wins,” said Van Diest. “They can say what they want, I don’t care. He won four national championships. He had an outstanding record here. He was 31-7 as a hockey coach back there, won a couple conference titles as a basketball coach. I don’t think anyone has done what he’s done.”
Van Diest, Carroll’s all-time winningest coach at 201 wins, had numerous encounters with Gagliardi – national conventions and conferences, awards banquets and one weekend in Helena that Van Diest says is among his fondest memories.
“That was a special day. Joe (Glenn) and I were great friends and we knew all about Coach Gagliardi, we had each met him a couple times and spent time with him. That was probably the one time I got to spend a lot of time with him and Joe, just sitting down for lunch, getting our picture taken was pretty special,” Van Diest said. “Those are just people that are legends. Joe is a legend, Coach Gagliardi is a legend and for me as a young coach, first-time head coach, to be starting at the school where he started at, that was pretty special.”
Winners of a combined 10 national championships – four for Gagliardi at Saint John’s (1963, 1965, 1976 and 2003) and six for Van Diest at Carroll (four straight from 2002-2005, 2007 and 2010) – the hall of fame coaches had talks of scheduling a game between Gagliardi’s Johnnies and Van Diest’s Saints, though the Carroll head coach laughs at Gagliardi’s initial reaction.
“’Mike, we don’t give scholarships. You guys give scholarships. It wouldn’t be fair.’ I go, ‘Coach, you have more money, you have 180 kids on your team,’” recalled Van Diest, who says he wanted to give his players an opportunity to meet the legendary Gagliardi.
Van Diest also recalled a recent trip back east, where he was able to spend time with the 1973 Carroll College Hall of Fame inductee and College Football Hall of Fame member, discussing anything and everything, with the exception of football. A family man and mentor to thousands of young men Van Diest’s greatest conversations with Gagliardi consisted of little football, if any at all.
“He had a lot of them, but one of my favorite lines that they asked him at a convention one year was, they asked him, ‘You’ve been doing this for 59 or 60 years,’ I think it was maybe right after he retired,” said Van Diest, “but they said, ‘Why did you do it this long?’ He says, ‘I figured I could do it as long until I started forgetting things.’ They asked him, ‘What’s the sign of that? What gives you an indication?’ He says, ‘No. 1, if I go to the bathroom and I come out and forget to zip up. That’s something everyone worries about.’ Then they asked him, ‘What’s No. 2?’ He said, ‘Well No. 2 is when you go to the bathroom and forget to zip down.’ They asked him, ‘What’s the third thing?’ He tells them, ‘I don’t think I can remember that.’ He was just so mundane with his presentation of the line and he had that little giggle, it just cracked you up.”
A similar giggle comes from Van Diest, recalling the dozens of moments the coaching legends shared. He points first to the photo in the corner of his office, the one of his younger self, Glenn and Gagliardi, then motions toward the frame right next to his desk, inside it a magazine cover reading “100 years of Carroll College,” another prized possession
“It’s awesome. When we had our 100th year celebration at Carroll College, they did a poster and on it was Coach Gagliardi, Raymond Hunthausen, Coach (Bob) Petrino and myself,” said Van Diest. “I have that up and there will be a lot of things, I don’t know that all will be keepsakes for me, but that will be one I’ll keep forever.”