It is not easy to replace a living legend. Aaron Rodgers replaced Brett Favre in Green Bay. Mike Woodson replaced Phil Jackson for the Lakers. Mike Matheny took over as manager of the St. Louis Cardinals from Tony LaRussa. Sometimes, like Rodgers and Matheny, the person doing the replacing will have great success, while other times the replacement will struggle mightily and find that they do not last in the job for very long (Woodson). St. John’s Head Coach Gary Fasching has been proving that he has the stuff to replace a living legend for the Johnnies football program, and the school is reaping the benefits for having put their confidence in him.
Two years ago legendary Coach John Gagliardi decided to step down as head coach of the Johnnies program after 60 years as the team’s leader. He had 489 career wins, an NCAA record, to go along with four national championships. He was an institution at a school that was setting the standard for how a college football program should be run, and had created a tradition of winning football at St. John’s that set incredibly high expectations for the team each year.
Coach Gagliardi stepping down meant that the school had to look for a head coach, a task they had not had to perform for six decades. This may have been a daunting task to replace such a stalwart as Coach Gagliardi, but the school had the perfect replacement – Gary Fasching.
Coach Fasching had been an assistant for the team for 17 years, and already had the respect of players, coaches, parents and alumi alike. He was a natural fit. Being a graduate of the university, he understood the expectations of coaching the Johnnies. “There are high expectations here at St. John’s each year. A lot of places you can go 7-3 and everyone is happy, but not here. They expect to win each year, and that makes it a challenge for any coach to keep the team on top.”
The new Johnnies coach had some immediate challenges. St. John’s had gone 10-1 in 2009, but then had seen a steady decline, going 7-3 in 2010, 6-4 in 2011 and 5-5 in 2012. Winning 18 games in three seasons would be a great record at most schools, but as Coach Fasching pointed out, that doesn’t do it in Collegeville, MN.
In 2013 he led the team to a 7-3 record. While this was an outstanding record, where the results were the most noticeable was in the defense. Jerry Haugen has been the defensive coordinator for the team for 38 years, but in the last two years the defense has really stepped up under the cooperative effort of Coach Haugen and Coach Fasching. In 2012, the Johnnies were sixth in the conference, allowing 26.3 points per game. In Coach Fasching’s first season, 2013, the points per game average dropped to 17.6. This season they have shaved that by four points, dropping their points per game to 13.6, ranking them first in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC). St. John’s has given up just 10 points in their last two games.
The Johnnies defense has been an opportunistic one. While giving up the lowest amount of points in the conference, they rank just fifth in yards allowed per game. This is a team that is willing to give up a lot of yards, but they don’t get scored upon. That is a strategy that is perfectly fine with Coach Fasching. “We are more concerned about the number of points opponents score, not the number of yards they get.”
What makes this team so good is that they take advantage of the other team’s mistakes. The Johnnies lead the conference in both interceptions and fumble recoveries. On top of that they are third in sacks, and when teams get close to their end zone, these Johnnies dig in and make plays to get the ball back. “Coach Haugen has done an incredible job of teaching our defense how to read plays and get the ball away. We create opportunities here.”
This season the Johnnies are 7-1, 4-1 in the conference. The record is second in the MIAC, and this weekend they will face the Bethel Royals with the conference title on the line. The game will be a real challenge for St. John’s. “Bethel is very well coached, and they are the best team we have seen to this point. Defensively they are very talented, very fast and very experienced. They are a physical team, and if you don’t stand up to them physically they will run you into the ground.”
Physical is what the Johnnies are. They have a bruising back in Sam Sura, who leads the conference in rushing yards. They have one of the most physical lines in the MIAC and their fullback is a tough, bone-crunching force as well. As Coach Fasching is fond of saying, “If you are going to be a good football team you have to be able to run the football, and secondly you have to stop the run. We have a very good running attack, and have gone to that as a result. We can throw the football as well, but we have a great offensive line and a great fullback, and we will definitely control the game with our running attack.”
That was no more prevalent than this last weekend against Augsburg, where St. John’s threw the ball just six times in a 24-7 win. The Johnnies ran the ball 59 times for 282 yards. Good teams can run the ball well, the Johnnies Coach explained, and clearly his team has proven to be a good team.
While a strong defense and a dominating rushing attack are playing a part in the team’s accomplishments, one of the biggest keys to the team’s success has been the steadying influence of the Johnnies Coach. Gary Fasching is a man who knows what he wants from his team and know what his strengths are. He came in understanding that he was replacing a legend and so he wasn’t going to stomp on 60 years of ideas that worked. However, he had ideas of his own and it was time for him to make his own mark. “In my first season there was a little bit of learning each other,” the coach explains of the learning curve that occurred with him and his players. “I run things a little differently, and so they had to learn what to expect from me. Now they know what things are going like around here, and so things are running smoothly.”
There is no doubt that taking over for a coach who holds the NCAA record for career wins comes with some pressure, but Coach Fasching doesn’t see it that way. In fact he calls the pressure more “self-inflicted” than anything else. His focus is on helping his team to become better players; better men. He isn’t concerned about what is behind him, but is focused on what is going on now, and right now he has a MIAC title to win.
The Johnnies lost their first conference game of the season, a loss that could have had irreparable repercussions on many teams, but not on Coach Fasching’s team. They responded to the Concordia loss by going to St. Thomas and winning 24-14. They have not lost since. “Beating St. Thomas allowed our players to start gaining confidence in themselves. I don’t think we have played our best game yet, but we have proven that even if we aren’t playing our best we can still win, and that is helping us grow and have greater confidence.”
Confidence is the trademark of what Coach Fasching is developing at St. John’s. This is a coach who has the ultimate confidence and faith in his ability to lead and teach, his players’ ability to deliver and learn, and his coaches to plan and instruct. He knows that what is needed is all there. However, this is not arrogance by any stretch of the imagination. No one is going to find Coach Fasching yelling at the top of his lungs what a great coach he is or posting a blog on the greatness of himself. That is not his character at all. Instead this is a man whose personal joy comes from seeing the success of those he has had a chance to influence.
“When the kids leave here I want them to have had a great experience in football, that they have received a great education, that they have got to meet a lot of great young men like themselves and that we have given them some experiences and lessons that they can take into life; that can propel them to greater success later in life. When I come across graduates and hear how well they are doing and how they are reaching their goals that is how I measure success.”
Many coaches talk about the success of their players as the chief motivator for themselves, but there is no doubt that this is the genuine feeling of the Johnnies Coach. He loves his players and when they reach their goals, whether on the field, in the class or in life, he is ecstatic for them. “There are not too many occupations where you can spend the day with 18-22 year old kids. They keep you young, they keep you engaged. This is a great profession because you get to influence young men, and in return they have a heavy influence on us.”
There are many brilliant minded coaches in football. Many can inspire, many can plan, many can gain the confidence of their players. However, it is a rare breed of coach that can do all those and do them so seamlessly that most are completely unaware that there were really any challenges at all. That is what Coach Gary Fasching has done at St. John’s for this Johnnies football program. He has taken the extraordinary challenges and made them look routine, because that is the greatest part of his brilliance.
Replacing a living legend is tough to do. Can anyone remember who replaced Vince Lombardi in Green Bay? George Halas in Chicago? Chuck Knoll in Pittsburgh? It is one of the most difficult things to do, but Coach Gary Fasching has proven that he is the exception to the rule. When the St. John’s Johnnies take the field on Saturday they will be fighting for a conference title and for a chance to stake their own legacies to the program. Win or lose one thing is for sure; their Head Coach may never win 489 games, but to his players, their parents and the university there is no greater leader of men than Coach Gary Fasching.
By Robert Pannier