Collegeville, MN — This pleasant town is not the most likely place to find the most remarkable college football coach in America. Except, don’t call John Gagliardi “coach”; just say John or “Gags.”
That advice is only one of many “No’s” that his players learn from the second-winningest active coach (Grambling’s Eddie Robinson is first) in college football. For the past 40 years, the beneficiary of John Gagliardi has been St. John’s University which is composed of some 1700 students located in a bucolic setting one hour from Minneapolis.
Sometime next fall, this team will chalk up its 300th win under his completely contrarian tutelage. Three national championships, holder of the longest winning streak in all of college football and nationally ranked 28 times in the last 31 years might lead one to think that this team is run with machinelike discipline lubricated with massive training rigor taking endless practice hours.
But, consider the list of John Gagliardi’s winning with “No’s” philosophy. Players start with his rule that there is no hitting in practice sessions. That’s right, no blockers colliding, no tackling, no swarming over the quarterback. Why? Gags says that there are fewer injuries that way and the players are ‘fresher and ready to tackle harder during Saturday’s game.
There are about 75 other “No’s”. Some eye-blinking samples are no athletic scholarships, no freshman or JV program, no players cut (anyone can join the team and be suited up at home games), no big staff, no staff meetings, no player meetings, no special diet, no slogans, no playbooks, no agility drills, no lengthy calisthenics, no practice apparatus, no blocking sleds, no laps, no wind sprints, no use of words like “hit, kill”, no whistles, no practice on Sundays or Mondays and no spring practice.
Continuing from the list: no practice in rain, extreme cold, heat or wind, no long practices, no water or rest denied, no statistics posted, no big scenes when we score, no tendency charts, no field phones, no player unplayed in a rout, no spearing allowed, no precision pre-game drills, no grading game films, no “big” games we point to, no computer analysis and no cheerleaders.
Now, the results: no player has not graduated, no discipline problems, no player lost through ineligibility, no small college with better game attendance, no wider point margin in national playoff history, no team has had fewer injuries, no Division III team has as many records, no small college team in history has won more games and no team has won more national championships.
Year after year, the St. John’s Johnnies keep winning because of their spirit, their self-reliance, and their responsibility to keep themselves in shape and in skills. “There is no single way to coach football,” says Gagliardi which means that flexibility is the key strategy.
The other evening, he scored another first in my book. To my knowledge, he is the only college football coach who came.to my lecture, stayed for the entire question period, the subsequent reception and the last cluster of inquiring students. This gave me a chance to ask him why such a sensational record and approach to “coaching” had not won him national media acclaim and television features (apart from a recent Sports. Illustrated article). He replied: “I’m not looking for converts.”
Self-effacing enough. However, more people should be looking at Gagliardi’s ways. Because they may learn about much more than unconventional ways to attain spectacular football success and happy players. They could learn that lots of ways of doing things which experts and long experience tell us are “the” ways may not be the only ways, may not be the best ways and indeed may not be the ways to follow at all.
Some large business corporations are finding out this truth the hard way as new managers shake up their mismanaged-by-the-book companies. Trying to motivate human behavior toward a set of accomplishments is a many-splendored quest and bureaucracy abhors flexibility.
Ancient oriental philosophers have often counseled that more is less and less is more. Just ask the overpressured, hyper-coached teams from much larger schools who regularly fall before the St. John’s Johnnies year after year.