HELENA — Mike Van Diest’s legendary coaching tenure still has no expiration date.
The 66-year-old and six-time national championship coach has no timetable for when he’ll retire. With 198 wins (and an .804 winning percentage), the most by far in Carroll College football team history, Van Diest has made a tremendous mark with the program, and even a trio of 4-6 seasons hasn’t worn him down.
In fact, he jokes about his status.
“Tomorrow,” he kidded when asked about retirement. “I know we better win or I may not be coaching long if we don’t start winning.”
His health is good. He still enjoys coaching. And a recent recruiting trip out to Minnesota offered him a fresh dose of inspiration.
Van Diest shared an hour with John Gagliardi, the all-time winningest college football coach. Gagliardi coached at Carroll for four years before 60 years at the helm of St. Johns where he posted a 465-132-10 record and won four national championships.
“I’m sure I’m in the twilight of my career,” Van Diest said, “but there’s Gagliardi at 91 and he coached until he was 86. I told him I’m not coaching until I’m 86. You can rest assured of that.”
The success at St. John’s – “everything on campus is named after him,” Van Diest said -- a clean bill of health and the relationships Gagliardi built contributed to his legendary career. Gagliardi had offers to go to bigger schools and even had contact with a job with the Minnesota Vikings at one point. Gagliardi stayed put and built something at St. John’s from 1953-2012.
“It will never happen again,” Van Diest said of Gagliardi’s run. “It was great to be in coach’s presence. I’ve known him for a lot of years. Coach Gagliardi has been good to me over the years. It was awesome to have an opportunity to go see him.”
Van Diest knows he has to turn the Saints around, too. Even with the accolades, the gaudy record, the national championships, the 14 Frontier Conference Titles, the four NAIA Coach of the Year awards, Van Diest knows support can change if the L-column becomes heavier than the W.
“We gotta win,” Van Diest said. “We have to turn this program back around.”
With a third 4-6 season, Van Diest found points of encouragement. His team stared down a 1-5 record, a point that left many wondering if the Saints could falter further to a 1-9 season. His team responded and went 3-1 over the next five games, losing only in overtime in the final game of the season.
“We enjoyed this football team a lot,” Van Diest said. “This team showed great leadership. Guys like Joel Kramer on offense, Major Ali on offense, Eric Dawson. You look on defense, (Alec) Basterrechea, (David) Anderson and Tucker Johnson were unbelievable.
“They had great years and I couldn’t be more proud of how they played and how they finished.”
In a down year, Van Diest coached two all-Americans. Johnson and Emter were named Associated Football Coaches of America All-Americans. Emter also landed on the Associated Press NAIA All-American list.
Johnson is a finalist for the Cliff Harris Award, given to the top small college defensive player. In addition, eight Saints also landed on the all-conference list.
As a team, the Saints finished No. 1 in total defense (giving up 359 yards per game) and No. 2 in total rushing offense with 2,098 yards on the season. Those marks felt like a foundation to the one of the most successful coaches in college football.
“I know sometimes I say statistics are for losers, but those are positive things,” Van Diest said. “We’re going to take those and go forth with it and build on it.”
He knows it’s hard to say how many of those positives will carry over into next season. The Saints graduated the majority of their offensive line. Some of the best portions of their defense are also graduated and moving on.
Carroll does return first team all-conference running back Major Ali and tight end Eric Dawson. Freshman wide receiver and kick returner Shane Sipes garnered a special teams first-team award and is back, too.
“There’s going to be some new faces and it’s going to be a new team and there has to be a new attitude,” Van Diest said. “There are positives to take away. And there’s unknowns until we go through spring football.”
At least this much is known: Van Diest is back.