John Gagliardi Did It His Way — The Right Way
World War II caused numerous variations in what had been the normal way of doing things, such as finding substitutes for the young men who went off to war.
For example, women filled in at war factory jobs formerly considered men-only occupations. These women were made famous by Rosie the Riveter. Women also joined the Army and Navy for the first time, and boys plowed the fields and harvested the crops.
Senior men served as neighborhood wardens because there were shortages of police.
Make-do became a national culture as everyone pitched in for the war effort.
Sometimes these personnel requirements led to very surprising results, such as when officials at Holy Trinity High School in Trinidad, Colo., had to replace their head football coach, who was drafted into the Army in the summer of 1943.
Since all qualified men for the job in the region had also been called up to serve, and since the Holy Trinity folks were unwilling to drop football for the duration, they appointed a 16-year-old student who was captain of the football team to take over as their head coach just prior to the 1943 campaign.
Thus John Gagliardi began the longest career as a head coach in American football history that ended a couple of weeks ago, when the 86-year-old winningest head coach in college football history announced his retirement after 60 seasons at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn.
But his career totaled 70 years as a head football coach that included six years coaching high school football in Colorado until he was 22 years old and graduated from Colorado College. This was followed by four years as head coach at Carroll College in Helena, Mont., before he took the St. John’s position in 1953 for $4,300 a year.
Amos Alonzo Stagg coached football for 71 years but was an assistant coach for a few of those seasons.
Through all of his successful coaching at the NCAA Division III level, Gagliardi never came close to making the $5.5 million a year that Alabama’s Nick Saban earns as the highest paid head coach in college football.
But then Saban will never come close to winning 489 games, the record number of victories Gagliardi achieved as a college head football coach. And one can be sure Saban does not coach his assortment of highly recruited athletes in the rather unorthodox manner that Gagliardi has employed ever since that first day he was in charge at Holy Trinity High School.
His Method? Just Say ‘No’
Obviously unhappy with some of the harsh practice methods employed by the Army-bound former head coach at his high school, the newly installed and very young head coach, Gagliardi, took a big chance. He eliminated calisthenics and wind sprints and, way ahead of his time, ordered water breaks so players could hydrate during the hot summer preseason practices in that southeastern part of Colorado, just 15 miles north of the New Mexico border.
He maintained this approach to coaching throughout his entire career.
Gagliardi was said to coach by his “no” method: no yelling on the practice field, no whistles, no tackling dummies, no hitting drills, no calls for players to go through conditioning between seasons, no penalties for arriving late at practice because of class requirements, no playbooks.
Also, no one was cut from the roster.
This last “no” resulted in St. John’s University teams as large as 200 in any given season. This year’s team consisted of 186 players.
Division III institutions do not award athletic scholarships the way major football powerhouses such as Alabama, Notre Dame and Ohio State do.
Gagliardi felt those men who came out for his teams really wanted to play football to enjoy it, so he let them enjoy it as much as he could.
Speaking of his beginning as a coach at age 16, Gagliardi said, “Frankly, I didn’t know if I knew what I was doing. I was trying to do what I thought was right. A lot of those things have carried over.”
He must have been doing something right, because he goes off into the sunset of retirement with a record of 489 victories, 138 defeats and 11 ties in the 64 years as a college head coach. His record at St. John’s was 465-132-10 after a 24-6-1 mark at Carroll.
The Johnnies won the NCAA Division III National Championship in 1976 and 2003, and finished runner-up in that title game in 2000. Prior to those championship playoff years in the NCAA, St. John’s competed in the National Intercollegiate Athletic Association (NAIA) and won that group’s national title in 1963 and 1965 under coach Gagliardi.
His 489 victories are more than Joe Paterno’s 409 victories and Bobby Bowden’s 377. The NCAA stripped Paterno of 111 of those victories and Bowden of 12 of his triumphs.
Eddie Robinson, the legendary African-American coach at Grambling State University in Louisiana, set the record of 408 triumphs as a college head coach before Gagliardi replaced him atop the list.
And it isn’t as if Gagliardi was coaching in a patsy league or directing less than outstanding players. A few of his St. John’s players went on to play in the National Football League.
In fact, when Gagliardi took the job as head coach at St. John’s in Minnesota, he succeeded Johnny (Blood) McNally, a former St. John’s halfback who went on to play for six professional teams, 1925-41, including the Green Bay Packers.
McNally is reported to have told Gagliardi that he could never win at St. John’s.
Then, in his first season at St. John’s in 1953, Gagliardi coached the Johnnies to a 6-2 record and their first of 27 Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference titles under his leadership.
A Legacy to Envy
Joe Mucha, a retired executive with General Mills who played on those two NAIA National Championship teams for St. John’s under coach Gagliardi, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune, “I can tell you that I built my career modeled after the things I learned from John — the way he prepped for a game, the way he made you believe in yourself. Very few people you meet in the world affect you that way.”
Blake Elliott, a Division III All-American wide receiver who played on Gagliardi’s last national championship team in 2003, said, “He did it his way, but he did it the right way.”
Elliott went on to say, “John was tremendously successful. But what wasn’t written about is how many lives he touched. Think about what not cutting guys means: 60 years with 190 guys on every team. That’s thousands of people that have had a positive impact by being around John.”
Note that these former players refer to Gagliardi as “John” and not the usual “Coach” accorded by all players to such highly regarded men in that profession.
That was just another of those fascinating and unique characteristics of Gagliardi’s style — sort of another of his “no” things. He did not want to be called “Coach” or “Mr. Gagliardi” or the like. He wanted everyone, including the players he coached, to call him “John.”
Thus a day of St. John’s football practice might start with players saying, “Hi, John,” before the quiet man from Colorado ran them through a series of no-contact drills that moved from one process to another by way of a spoken word instead of a shrill whistle or loud verbal order.
Michael Hemesath, president of St. John’s University, said, “Arguably, John Gagliardi has impacted the lives of as many young men as any individual in the history of St. John’s University. His legacy of educating young men at St. John’s is one that any coach or professor would envy.”
Among those “John” has touched are three of his grandsons who played for him at St. John’s.
Gagliardi’s style involved safety first and attention to the needs of all who came out for his teams. He was a rare coach in a sport where noise and pain are accepted norms.
This very different man said, “It’s always bothered me to see a kid pay such a heavy price for playing football. Hopefully, we kept some injuries away.”
Gordon White served 43 years as a sports reporter for The New York Times. His email is email@example.com.
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