Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The annual St. John's/John Gagliardi propaganda post

In about three weeks the St. John's University - Minnesota version - football team starts its season. Each Saturday during the football season, I sit in front of our computer, listening to the online radio broadcast. With the obvious exception of Lakers games and the occasional Twins debacle, it's the only time I spend really getting worked up over a sports team.

St. John's is one of the most successful Division III programs in history, but certainly not the most successful. Mount Union, for instance, has won an astounding 10 national titles since 1993. Yet there's no doubt the Johnnies receive the most publicity of any Division III program. In fact, the team probably gets more publicity and recognition than any other small-college program, regardless of sport. Stories about the team appear in the Washington Post, New York Times, LA Times, ESPN.com, and on the Today show and NFL Films. The St. Cloud Times provides the type of coverage some Division I schools don't get, while the St. Paul Pioneer Press and Minneapolis Star-Tribune have all done countless features on the program. Sports Illustrated writer Austin Murphy wrote a book about the team - The Sweet Season - and has written several other stories about the program for the magazine.

The reason for all that publicity? John Gagliardi.

When the Johnnies open the season at home against Northwestern on September 4, the 83-year-old Gagliardi will stand on the sidelines, probably in a baseball cap and white shirt. The 2010 season will be Gagliardi's 62nd season as a college head coach, his 58th at St. John's. His coaching career started in Montana in 1949. One of my favorite Gagliardi tidbits is that he was never an assistant coach, at any level. He took over as coach of his high school team when the previous coach went off to war. Gagliardi was 16. After that, he took over at Carroll. But in all those years, he's never had to answer to a superior. He could make up his rules as he went along.

He has a career record of 471-126-11 and he has the most victories in college football history. When a guy started coaching only four years after World War II ended, the career numbers eventually stop making any sense. But if Gagliardi lost 344 consecutive games, he'd still have a winning record.

Gagliardi's famous for his record number of victories and his coaching methods.

It's all about the word no. No tackling in practice. No whistles at practice. No wind sprints or laps. No one calls Gagliardi Coach, they simply call him John. No blocking sleds or tackling dummies. No calisthenics. No goals, just expectations. No hazing. No long practices - they usually last 90 minutes, but are often even shorter. He's the most famous advocate of the word no since Nancy Reagan.

The most famous of Gagliardi's no's is probably the no tackling one. Anyone who ever played football has been crushed during a practice, whether at the highest levels or as a 98-pound seventh-grader who somehow gets locked into a tackling drill with the 185-pound linebacker who was held back a grade and sports a full beard. It's a big part of what makes football practices miserable. But if you've listened to coaches for the past century, it's also what makes football players tough. Makes them men. Beat the hell out of each other in practice and it will carry over into the game. Or something. Except the Johnnies don't tackle in practice.

The rationale is simple, which is perhaps the problem for other people. We've been inundated with the idea that football is the closest thing we have to war outside of Afghanistan. It's supposed to be so incredibly complex that only coaches who spend 18 hours a day in the office and can't name the President of the United States can understand the intricacies.

The Johnnies don't tackle because, in Gagliardi's words, they "work on getting to the ball carrier so that we can make the tackle." Another reason? It cuts down on injuries. It all seems simple, right?

The St. John's coaches assume that by the time a guy gets to them, he knows how to tackle. It's a matter of putting them in the right position to make the play. And every year, St. John's has one of the best - if not the best - defenses in Division III. They don't always lead the country in fewest points or yards allowed, but their dominance has come against the best teams, on the biggest stage. Since 1995, Mount Union - those 10-time NCAA champs - has been held to 10 or fewer points in two games. Both came against St. John's. Mount Union defeated St. John's 10-7 in the 2000 title game. And in 2003, St. John's snapped Mount Union's record 55-game winning streak with a 24-6 victory, the first and only time since 1989 the Purple Raiders scored fewer than 10 points in a game.

Just think how good the Johnnies' defense would be if they tackled in practice.

Former all-pro linebacker Chris Spielman served as the ESPN analyst for that 2003 title game. As a player, Spielman was the ultimate tough guy, both at Ohio State and in the pros. Throughout the game, he kept talking about how he couldn't have played in a system that didn't allow tackling in practice. He said he needed that to be a great player. But he didn't. He had been taught that he needed it, but it wasn't a requirement. He expressed skepticism early in the game about St. John's and Gagliardi's methods. As the game wore on and the Johnnies' defense continued to torment Mount Union while almost never missing a tackle, he finally started to see that their ways do work.

I graduated from St. John's in 1997 but didn't play football. However, I did take Gagliardi's Theory of Football class, one of the most entertaining courses I had in college. Gagliardi spent much of the time doing magic tricks and setting up some of his players with the females in the class, but there was also some occasional football talk. Gagliardi's easygoing and friendly. He's famous for his jokes, though at functions he often breaks out the old reliable ones: He never thinks about retiring but he does think about suicide after every loss. He's only going to coach for one or two more...decades. Hearing him speak at a conference is like going to see The Rolling Stones. Yeah, it's nice to occasionally hear the new stuff, but you're there to hear "Satisfaction" and "Sympathy for the Devil."

On a couple of occasions I bumped into him at the campus post office. One time, when he found out I was from Janesville, we spent about 20 minutes talking about one of his old players who was from my hometown, along with several others who hailed from nearby towns. We talked more about the towns themselves than football.

Gagliardi has proven that his style works perfectly at the Division III level. There's always been discussion about whether Gagliardi's methods would work at a higher level. Could a big college use his ideas and succeed? Could an NFL coach win without running tackling drills in practice? Many people say no. Gagliardi himself doesn't care. One of his most-used quotes is they're not trying to get converts.

But I actually think his style might work even better at a higher level. It seems like the more talented the players, the better the system would work. St. John's gets high-level Division III players, so they don't have to spend time on ridiculous drills. Things like the bear crawl. They run plays in practice. Over and over. They teach the defenders how to get into position. At a higher level, where the athletes are superior, they'd obviously already know how to tackle. So what good does it do to beat each other up in practice all week?

As the NFL season progresses, you often read about coaches cutting back the tackling in practice as they try to preserve the players. It apparently doesn't occur to any of them to do that for the entire season. If NFL coaches are so concerned about being physical - and announcers share this concern, to the point that the word "outphysical" has actually become an accepted term - why don't they insist on tackling throughout the season? Why let up at all? Or do they just feel the need to be physical a few times a week early in the year, because that's the way Halas did it and, god damn it, that's the way we're going to do it? That's part of Gagliardi's methods. Why do you have to do what's always been done?

Offensively, St. John's runs a small number of plays. They practice the ones they are good at over and over. Over the last 20 years, St. John's has possessed an explosive offense, though the offense has struggled a bit the last couple of seasons. But in 1993, for example, St. John's averaged 61 points per game.

"When it comes down to it, we're trying to be good at a certain number of plays, and we're not afraid to run the same play over and over and over again. You've got to be careful trying to run 60 different plays in a game and being pretty good at most of them, as opposed to being great at this core group of plays."

That quote didn't come from Gagliardi. Peyton Manning said it in an interview with Dan Patrick last year, but he might have stolen it from one of Gagliardi's interviews. I don't understand why other "systems" work, but Gagliardi's wouldn't, when his makes more sense than just about any of them. Why can screamers and coaches who have their players drill each other in practice succeed but someone who operates in an opposite manner wouldn't have a chance?

Former Alabama coach Mike DuBose had a successful four-year stint at Millsaps in Division III. He was a former SEC coach of the year. But Millsaps wasn't St. John's when it comes to D3 success. His style worked at a lower level and he had previously shown it works at the highest level in all of college ball. Again, why wouldn't Gagliardi's methods - which have helped the Johnnies dominate at the D3 level since the time when John F. Kennedy was a senator - work? Countless coaches have moved up from the lower-levels and been successful in numerous sports - Bo Ryan at Wisconsin being one. I don't know if a 45-year-old Gagliardi would have found success at Nebraska, but it's impossible to say he wouldn't have had a chance. It's a brutal game, but it doesn't have to be taught in a brutal manner.

Ultimately that speculation doesn't matter. Gagliardi's career is about what he's done, not about what might have been. I still want a movie made about his career someday. Maybe combining The Sweet Season with the 2003 championship year - it's Hollywood, they can mix and match seasons.

There is always talk about who might someday replace Gagliardi. Mike Grant's name is always thrown out as a possibility. Mike - son of Bud - played for Gagliardi and was on the 1976 team. Grant is the most successful big-school high school coach in Minnesota. He's used many of Gagliardi's methods to turn Eden Prairie into a dynasty. He'd seem like a natural fit. Except he's getting, well, a bit old. He's in his fifties and by the time Gagliardi's done, might be close to 60. Who knows if he'd have any desire to take over. John's son Jim, the longtime offensive coordinator, is another possible candidate, as are veteran defensive coaches Jerry Haugen and Gary Fasching.

Whoever they hire will probably be successful. St. John's has many built-in advantages - built up over 58 years - that should help the new coach continue the winning ways. But it won't be the same as it's been with Gagliardi. It's not just about the winning, it's about how he's won. There's no replacing the coach who preaches the value of no. Thankfully - and remarkably - the school, players and fans won't have to worry about that for another one or two...decades.

Gagliardi links:
St. Cloud Times story on start of 2010 season
ESPN Page 2 story from 2003
2009 New York Times story
1998 LA Times story on Gagliardi
Austin Murphy article on "The Natural Bowl"
Sports Illustrated story after Gagliardi's 400th victory
Sports Illustrated story after Gagliardi broke Eddie Robinson's record
1992 Sports Illustrated feature - Gagliardi appeared on the cover of the issue
Athletic Business article


Gina Benson said...

Love your Blog about my Dad! Very nice. Especially about the Janesville story. I lived in Waseca 2 years and taught in Morristown.

I will copy your article for my 6 kids. It is wonderful

Gina Benson

Shawn Fury said...

Thanks for writing, Gina. Glad you liked it. When we spoke at the post office we actually talked about Waseca quite a bit, specifically about the Eustices, the late sheriff's family. And Dave Arnold was the Janesville player we talked about, a really good receiver, back when St. John's was mainly a running team. It was a fun conversation, even if I probably ended up being late for class!

Mike said...

I remember when John almost hit me with the white Corsica when I was walking up from Seidenbusch. He rolled down the window and told me it was too cold to walk to the Quad. We got talking and I was late for class too! Can't wait for the UST-SJU game this year, I wonder what the d3 attendance record is for a single game?

Unknown said...

Great work Shawn - I really enjoyed it. I'm a 77 grad and had the great good fortune to play for John.
I've heard all the stories, and I use many of them, and the lessons learned, in my day to day business and personal life.
I'm in the Bay area now, and haven't been living close to Minnesota since the early 90's - so I rarely get back to St. John's. I'm lucky that John's brother Gene is in my neighborhood so he keeps me up to date on what happening with John and St. John's football. He doesn't have to do it - but I think that being a service to others is in the Gagliardi DNA.
Thanks again pal, it nailed it.

Shawn Fury said...

I think the Bethel-St. John's game from 2003 might have been the unofficial record for attendance. Something over 13,000. It was either that or a Macalester-Augsburg game from 1994.

Thanks for the note Chris. I have only been to a handful of games since graduating and none since 2005. Still hope to get back sometime while John is on the sidelines.

Jim said...

Enjoyed article very much. Most of what I have read about John Gagliardi
is about what he does NOT do in his practices. Is there anything written about what he DOES do in his practices that makes his teams so successfull?

Shawn Fury said...

Thanks for the comment, Jim.

They run plays. Over and over and over. I asked former QB Tom Linnemann and he affirmed that, saying they keep searching for "the perfect play." And defensively in practice, it's about analyzing what the other team is going to do and knowing what position to be in (so the scout teams are important).

Here's another quote from Linnemann from an old ESPN story:

"We would run plays over and over in practice; and that worked because, oddly, we ran those plays in the games.

"If Goodyear dropped a supply of tires on the field, they would beat us. But that never happened when I was there."