By Ken Reed
John Gagliardi, an educator, innovator, and the winningest college football coach of all-time died this past weekend.
For most of his career, Gagliardi was the head coach at NCAA Division III St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota. He retired in 2012 with a record of 489-138-11, including 30 conference titles, and four national titles. He was the first active head coach to be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame (2006).
Nevertheless, Gagliardi is known as much for his unconventional coaching methods as he is his remarkable coaching record. He successfully created an environment that balanced high expectations and fun. His only team rule was the Golden Rule.
Gagliardi’s St. John’s program is the subject of the book, “The Sweet Season,” by Sports Illustrated’s Austin Murphy. It is an entertaining and enlightening read.
Gagliardi’s coaching methods were summarized in a series of “NO’s,” entitled “Winning With No.” His “NO’s” included:
No tackling in practice — players wear shorts or sweats. (Just think about the number of concussions and brain injuries this “No” prevented through the years …)
No long practices – an hour and a half or less.
No compulsory weightlifting program.
No wind sprints or laps.
No blocking sleds or dummies.
No worrying about being different or unique.
No players cut (each year over 150 players turn out to be part of Gagliardi’s program).
No special dormitory or training table – team eats with other students.
No dress code.
No yelling or screaming at players.
No resemblance to a boot camp.
No surviving without plenty of humor.
The following is an interview I conducted with Gagliardi in January of 2012.
Ken Reed: How did you get into coaching John?
John Gagliardi: It was by accident. I had no intention of becoming a coach. I was playing football at Trinidad Catholic High School in Colorado in 1943. World War II was going on and our coach got drafted and went into the service. Without a coach, the school was going to drop football. All the players wanted to keep playing. I was the captain so we talked the school into letting me be a player-coach. We ended up winning the championship that year.
KR: How did your unconventional coaching methods evolve?
JG: Mostly it’s because of the way I started out with that Trinidad team. During that first season, as a player-coach, I approached coaching from a player’s perspective, kind of as an intramural player might. If we didn’t like something our previous coach did we simply didn’t do it anymore. For example, at that time, coaches didn’t allow you to have water during practices. When I took over, we drank as much water as we wanted. We eliminated most of the calisthenics. We just did what worked for us. When I got my first full-time coaching position at Carroll College (Montana), I looked at the things conventional coaches did and if I thought we didn’t need to do something I got rid of it. I’ve never been an assistant coach. I’ve always just done what I like and it seems to work.
KR: Your teams don’t tackle or do traditional scrimmaging in practices. Does this result in fewer injuries than other teams experience?
JG: We think that’s true. We think we lead the world in fewest injuries. We’ve eliminated all-out tackle in practice. So, we’ve eliminated almost all practice injuries.
First, we eliminated tackling in practice. Then we were the first ones to wear shorts for practice. After awhile of not hitting during practices, we started wondering why we kept wearing full uniforms in practice. Then one day a couple players asked if they could wear shorts for practice. We decided to give it a try and we haven’t looked back.
KR: You’re famous for giving your players a lot of autonomy. For example, you give your quarterbacks the final call on what plays your offense will run. Have you ever wanted to take control and call all the plays like most traditional coaches?
JG: No, not really. The players play the game. We send in some plays but we let the quarterback have the privilege of changing the play if they think they have a better one.
KR: Your teams have short practices (an hour and a half or less). What is your thinking on that?
JG: We only practice what we do in games. We try to eliminate the unnecessary. We think there are a lot of unnecessary drills and things in the typical football practice. If you eliminate those things and focus on what’s important – like running plays correctly — practices can be pretty short.
KR: You’ve coached a long time, do you still enjoy it?
JG: Yes, I do. I’ll probably only coach for one or two more … decades that is! (Laughter). There are a few things I don’t really enjoy. Recruiting bothers me some times. I like meeting young men and their families but in the offseason we end up spending more time with potential recruits than we do with the kids already in our program, the kids already on campus. Some times I envy high school coaches who basically have their rosters handed to them and can focus on coaching. But I still enjoy coaching. My philosophy is to enjoy it while you can. You never know what tomorrow might bring.
KR: What changes have you noticed in the world of football through the years?
JG: Well, for one thing, there are fewer authoritarian coaches around. But I think that’s true of society in general. There are fewer authoritarian bosses and parents than when I grew up. Back then, everyone thought being the drill sergeant coach was the way to go. I never thought it was. I never responded to being hollered at. The players like the way we’ve done it through the years and I think the parents have liked it too.
I think the biggest change in the last 20 years is that everyone seems to be making football a year-round sport. And it’s not just football, it’s all sports. I think a lot of these coaches today have gone berserk. Kids are getting pressured to play just one sport. With club sports and travel teams it’s become an arms race.
The best players we’ve had over the years have all played two or three sports. Today, coaches limit how many sports their players can play. We hope our players play other sports besides football but it’s getting harder and harder to do because the seasons overlap more and more.
KR: What advice do you have for young coaches out there?
JG: I think the key is the Golden Rule. Treat kids the way you’d like to be treated. Coach them how you would like to be coached. We want guys to observe the Golden Rule. That will take care of most everything. That’s our only rule. Find kids that don’t need any other rules besides the Golden Rule. Those who need other rules won’t keep them.
Also, it’s important to focus on today, to focus on the next game. You can’t change anything that happened yesterday. All you can do is prepare the best you can for the next game. That applies to life too.
KR: Did you parent the way you coach?
JG: Yes, definitely. I focused on the Golden Rule with our four kids. I never laid a hand on them. I never really told them what time they needed to be home. I basically trusted our kids to do the right thing. It seems to have worked out. Our four children have all turned out great.
KR: You’ll have to do a book on parenting next.
JG: (Laughter) I don’t think so …
KR: Thanks for your time John.
— Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of FansPrint
- League of Fans is a sports reform project founded by Ralph Nader to fight for the higher principles of justice, fair play, equal opportunity and civil rights in sports; and to encourage safety and civic responsibility in sports industry and culture.