No Whistles, No Tackling and No End in Sight for St. John’s Coach

Topics: John Gagliardi

(NY Times) COLLEGEVILLE, Minn. — The black-and-yellow-golf cart that St. John’s University Coach John Gagliardi drives during his team’s football practices is rarely idle.

Gagliardi, 82, uses it to shuttle around Clemens Stadium to watch his assistants instruct his team’s 160 players. He observes from a distance and occasionally offers his insight before retreating to his cart and speeding off to watch another group.

The WorkHorse model name of the cart is fitting for college’s football’s career leader in wins (463), who on Saturday will become the first man to have coached 600 games in college in this, his 61st season.

This is his 57th season at St. John’s, a picturesque Benedictine Catholic men’s university with 1,877 students and a monastery 70 miles northwest of Minneapolis, where Gagliardi is revered as something akin to a modern-day saint. Using unconventional coaching methods and without the aid of scholarships, he has led the Johnnies to four national championships at what is now an N.C.A.A. Division III university that costs about $40,000 per academic year.

Elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 2006, Gagliardi has been honored at the White House. The N.C.A.A. Division III player of the year award is named after him.

His .782 winning percentage puts him ahead of active coaches like Penn State’s Joe Paterno and Florida State’s Bobby Bowden as well as former coaches like Bear Bryant and Pop Warner.

“John is what the coaching profession is all about,” Paterno said in a telephone interview. “He’s loyal to his institution. He’s loyal to his players. He’s had a tremendous influence on not only the people that have played for him, but the people who have played against him. He’s been a wonderful example.”

He is coaching the grandchild of a former player, and one of his own grandchildren. He notes, when asked how long he can keep this up, that his mother died at age 99 and that his father lived to be 86 even though he never visited a doctor.

As long as he remains healthy and continues to win, Gagliardi will keep at it. The fear of losing motivates him to go from his on-campus house to his office before 8 a.m. each day to watch video for hours.

“Every year, I think this might be the year,” Gagliardi said. “But every year, we thank God we dodged another bullet. It’s not easy.”

Gagliardi’s coaching is predicated on “Winning with No’s,” and it has created a football utopia at St. John’s, where he has a record of 439-119-10 and has made 23 postseason appearances and won 26 conference titles.

He does not allow tackling in practice, has no playbook and does not require his players to participate in strength and conditioning workouts. There is no yelling, no tackling dummies and no whistles. His quarterbacks call most of the plays.

Gagliardi also insists that everyone call him John instead of Coach.

“We don’t have no mission statements, no big philosophy,” Gagliardi said. “We just do it.”

Gagliardi’s career traces back to Holy Trinity High School, in Trinidad, Colo., where he became the coach of his high school team at age 16 in 1943. A captain, he took over when the team’s coach was drafted into World War II.

Gagliardi quickly eliminated what he disliked as a player, including extensive calisthenics and wind sprints. He also allowed players to drink water during practice.

“Frankly, I didn’t know if I knew what I was doing,” Gagliardi said. “I was trying to do something and what I thought was right. A lot of those things have carried over.”

After a four-year stint as coach of Carroll College in Montana, he was hired at St. John’s in 1953 at a salary of $4,200.

He succeeded Johnny McNally, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame known as Johnny Blood. Frustrated by the lack of scholarships at St. John’s, he had a stern warning for Gagliardi.

“These are a bunch of tight German monks,” Gagliardi said McNally told him. “It’s pretty hard to win here. I don’t know if anyone can win here.”

Gagliardi won his first N.A.I.A. national title in 1963 and another two years later. He also captured N.C.A.A. Division III titles in 1976 and 2003.

Over the years, Gagliardi has had his chances to leave. Before Notre Dame hired Ara Parseghian in 1964, Gagliardi said he was approached by Fighting Irish alumni about the job. He was offered an assistant job by Bud Grant in 1985 during his second stint as coach of the Minnesota Vikings.

The closest Gagliardi ever came to leaving was in the early 1980s when he was offered the coaching job at the University of San Diego. But he turned down more money and sunny weather to remain at St. John’s.

On the bookshelf in Gagliardi’s office is the autobiography of the former Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz, “Wins, Losses, and Lessons.” In it is an inscription from Holtz that reads in part: “You are the best. You would win at Duke or if you were coaching at Notre Dame. Some people play like champions, but you have lived life like a champion every day.”

Gagliardi fetches another book off the shelf, “All I Know About Coaching,” with his photograph and name on the cover, and hands it to a visitor. “That’s everything I know,” Gagliardi said.

The inside of the book is blank, causing Gagliardi to cackle with laughter.

Gagliardi is also a proficient matchmaker responsible for several marriages. In a theory of football class that he teaches each spring, Gagliardi said he told his female students from a nearby sister university, College of Saint Benedict, that the best men on campus were football players, especially the offensive linemen.

“They do all the work and never expect any credit,” he said. “They never get any credit. They do as they’re told. They’re going to be perfect husbands because they’ll never make a squawk. But the only problem is they’ll never make the first move either. Ain’t no way they’re going to ask you on a date.”

With each season, Gagliardi has found it tougher to remember the names of his players. He studies them using the roster and pictures on St. John’s Web site.

“Some names, I think, ‘Geez, I’ve never even heard of this guy,’ ” Gagliardi said.

He said he was less involved than before, but only because he said he wanted his staff to be prepared for when he eventually stopped coaching.

Gagliardi has a successor in mind, though he will not say who.

His son Jim, who is the Johnnies’ offensive coordinator, said, “He’ll do this until he dies.”

Gagliardi sees himself coaching into his 90s and is not worried about dying as an active coach.

“I’d have a nice, big funeral,” Gagliardi said. “All my team would come.”

He wants his tombstone to read, “I’d rather be coaching.”

No Whistles, No Tackling and No End in Sight for St. John’s Coach
Thayer Evans
New York Times
September 18, 2009

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Topics: John Gagliardi

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