A cold autumn rain pounds the ground outside Coach John Gagliardi’s office--a definite threat to wash out Monday’s football practice.
What’s this? There is never a Monday practice?
OK then, you figure the coach might huddle with his coordinators, go over the playbook, grade film from the big weekend win at Augsburg.
Nice thought, except there are no coordinators, no playbook, no film-grading.
How about a quick check of the bulletin board for the latest football statistics?
There’s a board, sure as the rain, but no stats are posted. No newspaper articles regarding the team, no cheerleader-painted “Kill Bethel” banners to solicit interest in next weekend’s home game.
Kip Knippel, a senior tailback, pokes his head into the office to see if Gagliardi might provide a reference for his application to Harvard Law School.
“Hi, John,” Kip says.
“Hi, Kip,” John says.
No calling the coach “Coach.”
A once-over at the practice field reveals no blocking sleds, no tackling dummies--not one football-related apparatus.
There are no players running in the new field house because, well, running is not in the curriculum.
What’s more: no laps, no wind sprints, no tackling in practice, no practice pants--any old pair of sweats will suffice--no practice if there are too many gnats.
“Who can stand that?” Gagliardi says of his gnat policy. “I don’t think anyone would argue with that.”
At St. John’s, a Division III football Alice in Wonderland, they always take no for an answer.
You wonder how the coach lasted 45 minutes here, let alone 45 years but, the truth is, John Gagliardi is the winningest active coach in college football.
Gagliardi, who turned 72 Sunday, has won 350 games and exhibits no signs of stopping until he topples former Grambling coach Eddie Robinson’s all-division record of 408.
How long can Gagliardi go on?
“Death will bring an end to it,” son Jim says of his dad’s career.
Gagliardi is more than football’s winningest active coach; he is its winningest active anti-coach.
St. John’s is a tad different.
Frank Kush, the former Arizona State taskmaster, would set foot here and start bulldozers roaring.
Former Nebraska coach Tom Osborne might hang a “condemned” sign on the weight room.
Notre Dame operatives would find plenty of religious solitude and monks, but no Touchdown Jesus or NBC television package.
Yet, St. John’s has never had an ineligible player in Gagliardi’s tenure or, to the coach’s best recollection, a player who did not graduate.
Former Miami coach Howard Schnellenberger recently penned Gagliardi a note that basically asked, “How are you doing this?”
Quite simple, really.
“I eliminate the unnecessary,” Gagliardi says, relaxing with his shoes off on a day when he will be home early for dinner. “And I think almost everything is unnecessary.”
So, where has this guy been hiding all these years? In some remote outpost in central Minnesota on the same latitudinal plane as Krasnodar, Russia?
The sort of place where they sometimes have to call in tractors to move the snow off the field to play a game?
“I remember poor La Verne (Calif.) showed up here in late November,” Gagliardi says. “Poor guys didn’t want to get off the bus. Hey, it’s no picnic out there. It’s different, let’s face it.”
And so is John Gagliardi.
He acts the part of coach as much as Madonna acts like a spinster.
But all Gagliardi does is win: three national championships, 21 Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference titles. He has been named national coach of the year five times.
Gagliardi has won more football games than Bear Bryant, Joe Paterno, Pop Warner or Bobby Bowden.
Gagliardi is such a Division III legend they’ve already named the player-of-the-year award in his honor.
“A guy should have the decency to be dead,” Gagliardi says of that.
Gagliardi won the first of his three national titles in 1963, defeating Prairie View A&M.;
Prairie View had St. John’s outnumbered, 44 scholarship players to none, and boasted two future NFL stars in Otis Taylor and Jim Kearny.
St. John’s prepared for the Panthers with 45-minute practices.
“I think there are a lot of ways to do things,” Gagliardi says.
In fact, the first “no” on his fabled tablet of “Winning with No’s” is “No one way to coach.”
Says senior tailback Paul Trobec, “John says, ‘We get ordinary guys to do ordinary things extraordinarily well.’ ”
St. John’s hasn’t produced an NFL player you could name.
Trobec says he isn’t sure the St. John’s system would work anywhere else.
But it has worked here since 1953.
The Kid Coach
Gagliardi stumbled onto his philosophy by chance.
In 1943, the football coach at Trinidad Catholic High in southern Colorado was called off to World War II. When the school principal decided to cancel the season, 16-year-old halfback John Gagliardi stepped in and pleaded that the players be allowed to finish the year.
The principal relented.
Gagliardi took over operations and quickly amended the heretofore warlike approach to football.
At his first practice, he asked, “Anyone want to do duck walks?”
The players bellowed a collective “Naaaah.”
No duck walks.
Players also got water breaks whenever they were thirsty.
“No water?” Gagliardi says. “Even the mules in the mines have to have water or they’ll die.”
With Kid Gagliardi leading the charge, Trinidad won the league championship.
After graduating from Colorado College in 1949, Gagliardi took a job at Carroll College in Helena, Mont., where he coached football, basketball and baseball for $2,400 a year.
Employing his “no rules” policy, Carroll won three conference football titles in four years.
In 1953, St. John’s hired Gagliardi to replace Johnny “Blood” McNally, a St. John’s graduate and Green Bay Packer Hall of Famer. McNally left Collegeville convinced that no coach could win there.
Gagliardi, 26, nearly died of boredom at the picturesque but remote Catholic college, more than an hour’s drive northwest of Minneapolis-St. Paul.
The school was founded in the 1857 by Benedictine monks who, between matins and vespers, developed an intense competitive spirit.
“Man, those monks wanted to win,” Gagliardi says.
Fearful that his laissez faire approach would not fly as he moved up the coaching ladder, Gagliardi made periodic stabs at convention.
But he changed his thinking for good in 1957, when his star player, Dick Miller, was injured in a tackling drill known as “bull in the ring.”
“Dick was the best player in the conference but the worst at bull in the ring,” Gagliardi says.
And so began the deconstruction.
Instead of tackling drills, the team concentrated on non-contact techniques, turning practice into cerebral sessions.
“You end up executing plays, and angles of pursuit on defense, things that matter,” says Gary Fasching, a former Johnnie who won two state high school titles coaching with Gagliardi’s philosophy before joining the Johnnies’ staff three years ago.
A visitor is warned that none of this should be confused with anarchy.
“We think we’re very organized,” Gagliardi says. “We’re just not very structured.”
St. John’s spends practice time working on plays that will be run in games.
When it comes to execution, in fact, Gagliardi is a perfectionist.
“John does not tolerate mistakes,” receiver Adam Herbst says.
John also does not tolerate gnats.
“When I first used to say these things they thought I was from Mars,” Gagliardi says.
Winning With No’s
No, St. John’s is not winning the Woody Hayes way.
We offer a sampling of Gagliardi’s tenets, with his explanations:
* No rituals or hazing.
“We want to be the antithesis of hazing.”
* No permanent captains. St. John’s captains are rotated weekly.
“We want them all to have the opportunity to be leaders.”
* No staff meetings.
“They’re all working,” Gagliardi says of his coaches. “They know what to do.”
* No special diets.
“We eat whatever’s on the menu that day. We can’t ask for special favors.”
* No slogans.
“It’s all talk. You’ve got to do more than talk or chant. I said, ‘Just do it!’ long before Nike.”
* No playbooks.
“Certain positions get sheets. One sheet for each offensive lineman. Three sheets for the quarterback. Nothing for the defense.”
* No statistics.
“You find too many guys don’t get credit. How can you be a scoring leader if the offensive line doesn’t block?”
* No calisthenics.
“We just horse around, really.”
Actually, practice begins with one jumping jack. On balmy days, the team breaks into its “nice-day drill,” during which players kick back and soak up the sunshine.
* No blocking sleds.
“I don’t see blocking sleds on game day, I see opponents that move.”
* No tackling in practice.
“We figure, hell, you’re going to make the tackle. Why hurt our good guys? We work hard in practice, but we’ve got to be careful. If you can’t tackle, go play soccer.”
Some of Gagliardi’s methods, such as no hitting during the week, are now commonplace among NFL teams.
* No wind sprints.
“If we practice hard, guys are going to be in shape.”
* No whistles.
“I haaaaate whistles.”
* No long practices.
“We don’t want to risk losing starters. Plus, it’s just humane, for goodness sake. Why keep testing them and risking injury?”
* No requests for water denied.
“That no-water rule is so unbelievably ridiculous. There are a lot of myths connected with football.
* No taunting.
“We will not tolerate that. Trash talk is insulting and degrading.”
* No mandatory weightlifting.
“We encourage them to do it, but some of your best athletes play too many sports and never lift weights.”
* No practice in bad weather.
“I know I was the first coach in history to go inside to a gymnasium to practice.”
How the West Was Lost
Gagliardi almost left St. John’s.
UC San Diego dangled an offer in the early 1980s. After years of brutal winters, Gagliardi’s mind flashed to warm sand and drinks with umbrella stir sticks.
“Hell,” he says, “you don’t know what it’s like here in February.”
Gagliardi calls his flirtation with San Diego “the closest thing I’ve ever had to having an affair.”
In the end, though, Gagliardi decided not to uproot his wife and four school-aged children.
And really, when he thought about it, no house with an ocean view could replace what he had.
As Gagliardi stared out his office window on a rainy Monday, he admitted almost grudgingly, “I like it here.”
Peggy, his wife of 31 years, works down the hall. Jim, his son, is an assistant coach.
John hasn’t recruited in years, reeling in the local talent like walleyed pike from within a 50-mile radius of the campus.
What, start over, with some pencil-pushing boss breathing down his neck?
“I’ve never worked for anybody,” he says. “If I wanted to go get a haircut, God, would I have to ask somebody to leave? If I went out here, I don’t think anybody would know I was gone.”
How do you beat this?
The monks provided Gagliardi an on-campus house perched next to one of Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes, a five-minute walk from his office. The coach’s kids used to ride horses in the backyard in summer and skate on the pond in winter.
“Hell, it was paradise,” he says.
Leave all that?
Gagliardi is St John’s.
Saturday, the Johnnies shut out St. Olaf, 35-0, running their record this year to 8-0 and Gagliardi’s to 350-102-11, which leaves him 58 victories shy of Robinson.
Make no mistake, Gagliardi wants to break that record.
“That’s like asking Sosa if he’d like to beat McGwire,” Gagliardi says. “I don’t know who wouldn’t. But it’s not so easy. And if not, so what? Nothing’s going to change in my life.”
Maybe not his life, but what of the thousands who have passed through this strange-but-hallowed grand football experiment?
“Maybe I don’t realize so much now what I’ve been a part of,” Trobec, the running back, says. “Maybe you have to step away from it. But I can’t imagine playing anywhere else.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Excerpts from John Gagliardi’s “Winning with No’s” pamphlet.
No athletic scholarships
No players cut
No pampering athletes
No newspaper clippings posted
No agility drills
No pre-practice drills
No practice apparatus or gadgets
No practice if mosquitos, gnats, etc., are bad
No practice on Sundays
No practice on Mondays
No insisting underclassmen carry equipment other than their own
No practice under lights
No big deal when we score
No Gatorade celebrations
No trying to ‘kill’ opponent
No trash talk tolerated
No player NOT played in rout.
No spearing allowed
No cheap shots or foul play tolerated
No computer analysis
No study or tutoring program necessary
No special pregame meals
No big games pointed to
No between-season practices or conditioning
Most victories for active college football coaches:
Coach 1st Year Wins Win% John Gagliardi 1953 350 .765 Joe Paterno 1966 304 .794 Bobby Bowden 1959 289 .772 Roy Kidd 1964 283 .723 Tubby Raymond 1966 274 .719