From Alabama Coach Nick Saban’s dour demeanor despite his team’s dominance to Ohio State Coach Urban Meyer’s propensity to “mis-speak” when confronted, successful college football coaches can be a very unpleasant group.
And then there’s John Gagliardi, who died this past weekend at 91. Gagliardi — not Saban, not Meyer, not even Bear Bryant, Joe Paterno or Eddie Robinson — was college football’s winningest coach by a wide margin. In 64 years as a coach — the final 60 at St. John’s in Minnesota, Gagliardi won 489 games. He also won four national championships and had two losing seasons, the last one in 1967.
In today’s football world, most coaches believe that “Coach” is their first name. Gagliardi was always “John” to his players and everyone else in his world. His coaching philosophy was built around the word “no.” He actually published a short book called, “Winning with no,” which listed 100 “no’s,” upon which his coaching philosophy was built.
●No mission statement.
●No tackling in practice.
●No practice longer than 90 minutes.
●No blocking sleds.
●No use of the words, “hit” or “kill.”
Gagliardi had no rules — except the Golden Rule. His teams often had close to 200 players on the roster because he wouldn’t cut anyone. When his freshmen first reported to practice, Gagliardi would gather them, take a dime and hold it up in front of the sun and tell them, “The dime is football, the sun is your life.”
Tell that to most football coaches.
He was perhaps best described in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune’s obituary Sunday by one of his former quarterbacks, Tom Linnemann: “He was a player’s coach before the term was invented,” Linnemann said.
In the many interviews Gagliardi did throughout his career, he always said he came to his unorthodox philosophy in large part because he never really aspired to be a coach. Even so, he was apparently born to do it.
When Gagliardi was a senior at Trinidad (Colo.) High School, the team’s coach was drafted and sent to fight in World War II. Just when it looked as if the team might be disbanded, his teammates came to him with the idea that he coach.
Gagliardi agreed. His first move was to rid the team of the “no water breaks during practice” rule. He was ahead of his time before anyone knew he was ahead of his time.
He ended up coaching at Trinidad for four years, taking night classes at a junior college until he was offered the job at St. Mary’s High School. In return for coaching, the school paid for Gagliardi’s tuition at Colorado College.
After he graduated, he was hired at Carroll College, in Helena, Mont., at age 22. He stayed for four years before a friend in Montana who had attended St. John’s urged him to interview for the job there.
“I really wasn’t interested,” Gagliardi told the Star-Tribune. “But the money was double, and I was single. So I figured, why not?”
That was in 1953. He didn’t retire until 2012, at age 86. He had five undefeated teams, the last in 2003, the season he turned 77, when St. John’s went 14-0 and won the Division III national title.
Because he never cut players, Gagliardi coached about 3,000 players in his career, and many, if not most, would say that any success they had in life was due in part to him. Of course many players will say that about screaming, dictatorial coaches. A common line is “He made me into a man.”
Here’s the difference though: While many athletes will tell you they were glad they played for a coach, it’s often accompanied by “But I certainly didn’t feel that way while I was going through it.”
St. John’s players clearly never felt as if they were “going through,” anything. Gagliardi had the rare ability to field consistently winning teams without making each season a miserable experience.
Some — many, even— will say that Gagliardi’s approach worked at the D-III level but would never work in the big time. Perhaps, but the key to being a great coach is getting your players to believe in what you are teaching them.
Bob Knight often told his players this: “If you do exactly what I tell you to do, you cannot lose.” Which meant, of course, when they lost it was their fault for not doing exactly what they were told to do. He told them that too.
Gagliardi’s players bought into what he was teaching them. There’s no way to know if his “Winning with no,” approach would work in Division I because no coach would dare try such a thing.
Football is a dime and the sun is life? Perish the thought.
Through the years, I have been fortunate to know many of the best coaches, past and present, in college football and basketball.
I never met Gagliardi, though I followed his teams from afar, especially late in his career as he piled up accomplishments and wins well into his 80s. I wish I had the chance to know him because I suspect, like his players, I would have learned a lot from him.
There’s no doubt he was a great coach. And there’s no doubt he was a uniquely special person.