Imagine a college football coach that didn’t have his players tackling during practices, who didn’t blow whistles, and didn’t believe in wind sprints. The seniors on his team all shared the role of captain – which probably made for some nice resumes come job search time.
An Unconventional Approach to Coaching Football
His unconventional approach may not have caught too many eyes except for the fact that his teams won. And won. And won.
By the time that John Gagliardi, coach of St. John’s University in central Minnesota, retired in 2013, he piled up four national D3 titles while accumulating 489 wins with a 77.5 winning percentage. He coached for six decades with a style that’s seldom seen on the gridiron — but, probably should be.
Gagliardi continues to teach at the University where his personal touch and great sense of humor make him a student favorite. Football fans will remember him as the winningest coach in college football. Current youth football coaches and, really, any sports fans will undoubtedly enjoy this read. The wit and genius of Gagliardi is on full display.
With permission of author Boz Bostrom, who played for Gagliardi, here’s an excerpt of book A Legacy Unrivaled The Story of John Gagliardi. You can purchase it at the book’s website.
A Legacy Unrivaled The Story of John Gagliardi
John is fond of saying that he is not a fan of rules. “We only
have one rule,” he says, “and that is the golden rule.” He
has a lot of records that may never be surpassed in college
football, but what also may never be surpassed is the way he
treated his players. It stemmed from his first day of practice
as a head coach back in 1943. He was thirsty, so he got a drink,
and he let other players do the same. He didn’t make players
do things that were not directly relevant to what happened
during a football game, and he especially avoided things that
players disliked. Physical contact was light during practice,
which likely saved many young men from the head trauma and
concussions that have threatened the future of football.
John also strictly prohibited hazing of freshmen. Rather, after the first practice of each year, he brought the freshmen
in front of the rest of the team and made them introduce themselves, sharing their name and hometown. He wanted the other players to get to know them. He told the upperclassmen that if he walked through the cafeteria and saw them all sitting together and not with the freshmen, he would be angry.
In training camp, the week before school started, he would conclude practice by separating the players by academic major
so that the upperclassmen could give the younger players tips on succeeding in their course of study. At the end of each season,
he asked the starters to thank the scout team players for the work they did during the year.
John Skubitz never started a game during the four years he
played for John in the early 1990s. But he saw how John treated
people. “As a 210-pound freshman offensive lineman, no one
appreciated John’s ‘no’s’ more than me. There’s no way I would
have played for all four years if All-American defensive tackle
Steve O’Toole would have been allowed to hit me in practice
every day, like in the typical football meat-grinder practices.
“The thing about playing for John was, while we had stars,
everyone that put on the uniform was an important member
of the team and played a role in the program’s success. I love
how the initiation was the upperclassmen having to learn the
freshmen’s names. There were no classes in Saint John’s football,
just one team.”
Brian Jennissen was an All-Conference quarterback in high
school, but when he graduated from Saint John’s, he had played
in only three collegiate games and never made the travel roster.
“Despite the disappointment, I never felt compelled to quit
or give up. I do not regret that decision. John made me feel like
a valuable part of the team. I played hard in practice, and I took
pride in helping the starting defense improve. One day near
the end of my final semester at Saint John’s, I visited John in his
office for an hour and a half. I was still amazed at his eagerness
to sit with me and just talk. At one point, he said, ‘You know, I
wish we could play everyone in the games. I know you worked
hard for us for four years and didn’t get to play much. That’s
the way it is sometimes, I guess. But it’s guys like you that make
our program great. Guys that persevere and work hard are guys
that help our team win.’
“Hearing John say those words is something I’ll never forget.
He really does respect each contribution, no matter how small.
He also cares about his players after they graduate and keeps
up with their many accomplishments. He is very proud of how
his players thrive after their time at Saint John’s; he doesn’t just
mold young men into football players, he gives them the tools
they need to be successful in the game of life.”
Ryan Keating was the starting quarterback on the 2003
team, the last of John’s four national championship teams.
Ryan had begun his college career on a basketball scholarship
at the University of Minnesota. “But I just wasn’t having any
fun,” Ryan said. “So I transferred to Saint John’s. I wanted to
enjoy my college years before having to go to work for the
rest of my life. John got a lot of student-athletes who played
on scholarships at higher levels to transfer to Saint John’s because
of the environment he created and the way he treated
people. I remember early in my senior year, I threw an interception.
When I got to the sideline, John kind of scolded me.
I told him that it wasn’t like I tried to throw the interception.
He respected that, and stayed positive toward me for the rest
of the year.”
Tom Irving graduated from Saint John’s in 1960. His junior
and senior seasons were plagued by injuries, and he felt like
he was a big disappointment to John. Yet, several months after
he graduated, Tom opened his mail to find a letter from John.
The letter read, “Dear Tom, after having you at that fullback
spot for four years it is tough for us to get our sights back on ordinary
backs. We will really have to struggle, I’m afraid. I would
like you to know that I really appreciated your terrific play on
all that you contributed to some fine years. It was a pleasure
having you with us. You know of the warm personal feeling
that I have for you as well as the great respect for your football
ability. I know that you will continue your good work in
law school. Best of luck. I hope to see you sometime. Sincerely
Tom’s eyes got moist when he reread the letter, more than
forty years later. He sent a note to John to congratulate him
on setting the record for most all-time wins and said, “The
tears weren’t just for being a small part of a very big legend.
They came also for realizing what that legend really is. It’s not
the trophies, championships, or records. The legend is buried
deep inside you—it’s your incredible dedication to making
people feel good about themselves and to want to be better
and achieve more both on the field and off.”
Key to Winning #9: Most of John’s players loved him, and as a
result he got a lot out of them. They loved him because of the way
he treated them. He treated them like he would have wanted to be
Read more of Boz Bostrom’s book at LegacyUnrivaled.com