College football's top coach does it different
Monday , September 17, 2012 - 3:44 PM
COLLEGEVILLE, Minn.— Football at St. John’s University stands out. There’s no tackling at practice or lengthy calisthenics. No whistles or wind sprints. No captains either, unless you count the honor shared by the seniors.
And even though the program’s commander, now in his 60th year, has won more games than any other college football coach, there’s no calling John Gagliardi "coach."
It’s just John.
"It has always been my way of doing things and it’s more solidified than ever as the years go by ... because it’s proven to be successful for us, and we think we’ve prevented a lot of injuries," Gagliardi said, modestly adding: "We seem to have won more than our share of games."
Gagliardi, 85, is 486-133-11 in 64 years of coaching, including a 462-127-10 record in his 60 years at St. John’s, making him the nation’s all-time winningest coach. And he’s done the majority of it at a NCAA Division III school, which doesn’t offer athletic scholarships.
"Every one of those games were a great success. Every one of the losses were bitter," Gagliardi said.
His 600th game with St. John’s is Saturday, when the Johnnies host rival St. Thomas.
Gagliardi fell into coaching in 1943 when he was just 16, after his high school coach at Trinidad Catholic in Colorado was drafted for World War II. Gagliardi, then a team captain, took over and wound up coaching there and at St. Mary’s High School in Colorado Springs for six years.
In 1949, he got his first college gig at Carroll College in Helena, Mont., leading the team to three conference titles in four seasons.
He took the reins at St. John’s in 1953, and has since rolled up 27 conference titles and four national championships — 1963, 1965, 1976 and 2003.
Gagliardi was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2006. And since 1993, the outstanding Division III player of the year wins the Gagliardi Trophy.
His coaching methods at this Catholic Benedictine university have evolved into a list of "Nos." Among them: No single way to coach. No goals, just high expectations. No playbooks.
And then there’s the no-tackling rule at practice, the most remarkable to outsiders.
"Right off the bat, I noticed that practices were different," said Ian Goldsmith, a senior strong safety. In place of hitting, Gagliardi stresses repetition, and practices are short: 45 to 90 minutes.
Mike Grant played for Gagliardi in the 1970s, coached under him for two years and now leads one of Minnesota’s most successful high school programs in Eden Prairie. He adopted the no-tackle policy, and said it has worked for him — Eden Prairie has won 95 percent of its games and seven state titles since 1996.
"Our whole thing is, we want our best players to play in the games," Grant said. "I know some coaches say that, but then they go out and hit and hit and pound all week, and really it’s the survivors of the week that play in the game."
Goldsmith said Gagliardi’s success is based on much more. Insisting that he’s called by his first name "really invites you to know the person, and not just the coach," Goldsmith said. "His demeanor, his voice, his tone — it’s all very inviting."
To many on this quiet college campus about 80 miles northwest of Minneapolis, Gagliardi is viewed as a living legend. The bookstore sells T-shirts with pictures of Gagliardi throughout his coaching career and the word "Legend."
But there is no statue of Gagliardi on St. John’s campus, which is nestled amid prairies, lakes and forest and encloses an abbey.
Gagliardi shrugs off questions about legacy, saying he’s just happy "to have been able to survive."
On a recent Friday, Gagliardi meticulously went over game footage in his office. He said it’s nice to be in the record books, but he doesn’t think much about the successes or his longevity in the game — he’s more focused on the next task.
"The one thing I’ve done for all these many years is focused on the next game and forgot the last one. And you can’t think that far ahead," he said, pausing. "That’s my whole life."