“John [Gagliardi] is the glue that holds the St. John’s community together.”
Football Family Values
COLLEGEVILLE, Minn.– He should have thought of a “No bobblehead doll” rule, too.
It’s not the likeness, mind you, that St. John’s University football coach John Gagliardi isn’t sure about. The likeness is just fine, or as fine as any bobblehead doll can be. It’s just the whole concept of a bobblehead doll. For one thing, Gags has never liked them in general, the way they bob their heads up and down as if they’re agreeing “Yes, yes, yes” without thinking things over first. Gagliardi would never do that, unless he was listening to his wife, Peg.
And then to have a bobblehead of him? Why, isn’t that just a little much? Besides, who would buy such a dang thing, Gags wonders, aside from his wife and children?
But who can blame this outstanding little liberal arts college near the Mississippi River for marketing its most famous employee? Gagliardi has been coaching at St. John’s for half a century, piling up a .770 winning percentage, three national championships and 22 conference championship with an unorthodox style that includes a series of “Winning With Nos.”
No scholarships, no tackling during practice, no spring football, no whistles, no blocking sled, etc. Sheesh, Bill Parcells wouldn’t last an hour here.
With 400 career wins, Gagliardi enters this season eight victories shy of Eddie Robinson’s collegiate coaching record. The school is marketing the approaching record so aggressively that it is already taking orders for “Gagliardi 409” merchandise. The season even has an official logo, an official theme (March to History) and an official sponsor (Pepsi). It has all but scheduled the record win, writing in the official school magazine, “If all goes according to plan … Coach Gagliardi will tie Robinson’s record on Sunday, Nov. 1 at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. The following week Gagliardi could break the record in Collegeville on Saturday, Nov. 8 … ”
In other words, the school is pretty much assuming that St. John’s will begin the season 9-0.
And you thought there wasn’t any pressure in small-college, Division III football.
I began reading and hearing stories about Gagliardi more than a decade ago when I was covering the Twins for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, but I had never had the pleasure of meeting the wise old coach. So when my tour from one end of the Mississippi to the other took me by the little Minnesota town of Collegeville, I eagerly turned off the highway and drove onto the lovely campus founded by Benedictine monks almost 150 year ago.
Miles: 170 (Lake Itasca to Collegeville), total miles 170, moving violations 0, hours driving 2 ½ hours. Diet Pepsi, 3 units. Price of gas: $1.70 per gallon. Huckleberry Finn tape: Huck escapes from his alcoholic father, Jim runs away from Miss Watson and the two begin rafting down the Mississippi in search of mutual freedom. Miles to go, 2,300 (approximate).
I phoned ahead, and said I only needed a few minutes with Gagliardi. We ended up talking an hour and a half, which is how long St. John’s football practices last.
College football would be a lot better if all programs were run like St. John’s, where football is still a game and just one small part of the overall college experience.
“Playing there was the best four years of my entire life, and it will be no matter what happens to me from here on out — with apologies to my future wife,” says Tom Linnemann, who was St. John’s starting quarterback for 30 games from 1996-2000. “Every day was special. When I first stepped on campus when I was three years old, it’s where I wanted to be, because that was where John was. I always wanted to play for him.”
Gagliardi, 76, began his coaching career at age 16 when his high school coach left to serve in World War II. With no one else available, Gagliardi took over the team and guided it to its first conference championship. A couple years later, he was coaching at Carroll College in Montana. He interviewed for the job at St. John’s in 1953.
“They asked me if we needed scholarships to win. I had never had them, so I said, ‘No, I don’t think so’,” Gagliardi says. “Well, I could see the reaction of the 10 priests in the room and I could tell by their faces that I had the job then and there.
“Then one monk says, ‘I have one more question. Can you beat St. Thomas and St. Augustine without scholarships?’ I had never heard of either team, but I said, ‘Sure, I don’t see why not’.”
Athletic scholarships aren’t allowed in Division III sports, so Gagliardi is nothing special there. It’s his own rules that separates him from everyone else. When he took over as coach in high school, he did away with every rule that seemed stupid or unpleasant — “We even drank water during practice” — and he’s been adding to them ever since. The list of ‘no’s is over 100 by now.
In addition to the no-tackling-during-practice rule, there are no coaches’ whistles and no playbooks. No roster cuts. No mandatory weight-lifting. No use of words such as “kill,” “hit” or “Coach” (players call him John). There are no long practices. There are no calisthenics. Well, there arecalisthenics, but they include such drills as laying on the ground, looking up at the sky and saying, “It’s a nice day.”
“It’s different, but it makes a lot of sense,” Linnemann says. “You go there from a traditional school, and you’re used to tackling dummies and all these crazy slogans like ‘Hit! Hit! Hit!’ But John doesn’t believe in that stuff. I mean, they always run tire drills at other places; and when you stop to think about it, it doesn’t make sense. We wouldn’t do that stuff. We would run plays over and over in practice; and that worked because, oddly, we ran those plays in the games.
“If Goodyear dropped a supply of tires on the field, they would beat us. But that never happened when I was there.”
The way Gagliardi sees it, everyone knows how to tackle by the time they get to him, so where is the sense in beating players up during the week and then sending them out to play on Saturday? He studies his share of game films, but he doesn’t believe in making football complicated.
“The military has been plucking kids off farms for years and teaching them to drive tanks and fly planes, so teaching them to play football shouldn’t be that hard,” he says. “I look at things differently, I guess.”
With such a refreshing attitude, small wonder that so many students turn out for the team — this year, there are 173 players. That’s out of a student body of around 1,800. If Jim Tressel inspired similar participation at Ohio State, the Buckeye would have nearly 5,000 players on the team. And if the Buckeyes marching band attracted the same percentage of the student body, it could spell out “Script Ohio State University.” With letters to spare.
“When we run onto the field, there’s this amazing sea of red (the school color); and it just keeps going and going and going for minutes,” Linnemann says. “And the other team is on the field doing jumping jacks and doing their chants — which really help them during the game, by the way — and we just keep coming out. It must be pretty intimidating.”
The thing is, it all works. St. John’s hasn’t had a losing season in 35 years.
Gagliardi’s success has gained him limited national attention and acclaim. Sports Illustrated reporter Austin Murphy wrote a piece on Gagliardi in 1992 and enjoyed the experience so much that he moved his family to Collegeville for a season to write a book, “The Sweet Season,” about the coach and the St. John’s method. A local sports columnist also wrote a biography titled “Gagliardi of St. John’s.”
“This is the best book about me, though,” he says, handing me a 15-year-old volume titled, “All About My Success Coaching Football by John Gagliardi.” The book is filled with nothing but blank pages.
“I’m thinking of coming out with an update,” he says.
Whether it happens on Nov. 8 or next season, Gagliardi is going to win his 409th game and pass Robinson, barring illness. He will be the winningest coach in the long history of college football. And then, someday, he also will leave the sidelines. And someday, someone will pass him, too.
“It won’t be long before they don’t know who I am,” Gagliardi says. “We had Johnny Blood here, and he’s enshrined in the Football Hall of Fame. And I don’t think there’s a single student on campus who knows who he is. Well, maybe one.
“Eventually, they all forget you. It’s not like you’re Abraham Lincoln or anything.”
He’s right about so many things, so he’s probably right about that, too. But it’s going to be a long, long time before anyone forgets this coach. After all, players like Linnemann are only in their 20s, and they’ll be telling their grandkids for decades about playing for Gagliardi.
“Playing for St. John’s transcends just when you’re there,” Linnemann says. “It goes all the way back. It’s almost like you’re teammates with guys from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. It’s like we all had the same experiences, and we all still go back to the games.
“John is the glue that holds the St. John’s community together.”
There will be no problem selling the bobbleheads.
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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Football family values
By Jim Caple
Page 2 columnist
September 9, 2003