The unique style of John Gagliardi
Sometimes we miss things even before they're gone.
For 60 years, while John Gagliardi was winning more college football games at Division III Saint John's Abbey and University in rural Minnesota than any coach in history on any level , the sport was paying no attention whatsoever to Gagliardi's outrageously sane approach.
Last week, Gagliardi, 86, retired. And with him goes a doctrine, completely foreign to most in his business, that isn't likely to be adopted. Sad to say that -- even in the midst of compiling a 489-138-11 record that blows away the records of Eddie Robinson, Bear Bryant, Amos Alonzo Stagg and Pop Warner -- Gagliardi's style was seen as "not transferable" by a St. John's administrator.
"If it were," said Father Roman Paur, the school's vice president of student affairs and overseer of the athletic department, "it would have been transferred."
Gagliardi had a "No" list that would shock anyone in the football establishment, including the edict that there would be no tackling allowed in practice. "We haven't made a tackle on the practice field since 1958," he said recently.
His operation was based on two-way respect -- he insisted his players call him "John," not "Coach" -- and a sly sense of humor wrapped in a curmudgeonly mien. He was apt to complain about the Minnesota wind and cold that he nevertheless couldn't bring himself to leave when offered a coaching job in San Diego years ago. California weather might be "paradise," he said, "but I'm not ready to die. I'm not ready for heaven yet."
It was 25 years ago that Gagliardi told a Chicago reporter that the "worst thing that could happen is that I'll still be here for another 10 years, maybe 12."
On the contrary.
Opposing coaches marveled at Gagliardi's ability to stay ahead of the curve -- with dominant teams that were built on power in the 1960s, that ran triple options in the '70s and evolved to the pass-heavy spread offense in the '80s.
And listen to some major points in his unconventional manifesto:
No tackling in practice.
"That came to me," he said, "as a young guy who was getting killed in practice."
No agility drills. No lengthy calisthenics. No laps. No pre-practice drills. His players typically did one push-up before practice.
"When I was in high school, we had a coach I learned a lot from -- all negative," Gaglardi said. "He was a fanatic on calisthenics and drills, torturous stuff. And laps, laps, laps.
"We were worn out before we started. My memory of it was that Hell must be like this. Those damn duck walks. I hated them. Years later, everybody was told how bad those duck walks are for your knees. Anyway, then we'd scrimmage. We'd kill each other in practice. I came within a hair of not hanging in there."
His coaching career began at 16, his senior season at Trinidad (Colo.) Catholic High, because that coach with the torturous drills was drafted into the service and the team would have been disbanded had Gagliardi -- the team captain -- not volunteered to coach his teammates.
"We just wanted to play," he said. "First thing I did was throw out all the calisthenics. See, I had noticed all the kids who would go play intramurals never did all the drills and that stuff, and I never saw any ambulances going over to their fields. The ambulances always were coming over to us."
No use of the words "hit, kill," etc. No clippings (of his team or the opponent) posted. No slogans.
"Our coach used to say, 'Hit somebody! Kill somebody!' " Gagliardi said. "But I noticed that I was the guy getting killed. Our coach believed that the answer to everything was drills and conditioning, but the only tragic flaw in his system was that when we lined up, we didn't know what the hell we were doing. I was the tailback -- you know, that old single-wing, Notre Dame box stuff -- and I noticed that when I'd call a play, there would be panic in the linemen's eyes. 'Who do I block?' I thought the first thing we ought to do is figure out who to block."
His high school team won the state title that year, reinforcing Gagliardi's belief that there was no single way to do anything, no player considered too small, no staff meetings, film grading or training table necessary.
Also, on the list: no clipboards or whistles, no blocking sleds or blocking dummies.
"I'd get some kids," he said, "when they first came in, ask me, 'How do I prove I can play? Who do I hit or kill?' That's not the way to make a tackle. First, you've got to line up in the right spot. You've got to go to the right spot. You've got to figure out where the ball is. You've got to not get blocked. You've got to pressure the ball.
"You do all that, eventually you'll make the tackle. Besides, if you're in the hospital, you won't make the tackle. And I hate visiting hospitals. If we tackle in practice, who do we hurt? Our own quarterback and running back. They're human. They've got knees and mothers."
When the NFL, at long last, began two years ago to acknowledge the risk of brain damage inherent in the sport, I called Gagliardi. NFL coaches -- he chose not to accept an assistant's job by then-Minnesota Vikings head coach Bud Grant decades ago -- "certainly don't need my advice," he said.
"I'm not looking for converts. Certain things -- religion, politics -- you'll never change. But I think we lead the world in fewest injuries. It isn't rocket science to me. I'll never forget the first time we won the national championship and, at a clinic afterwards, a fellow says to me, 'Don't you think, if you'd have hit more, you'd have done better.'
" 'Well,' I said, 'I don't know. We played 12 games and won them all. I don't know how we could've won 13.' "
Could it be that Gagliardi's way just made too much sense?