Meet John Gagliardi, The 89-Year-Old Football Coach Who Banned Tackling
John Gagliardi built an unconventional Division III powerhouse at Minnesota's St. John's. Finally, some of his revolutionary ideas seem to be trickling up.
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Four years after John Gagliardi retired as the coach with the most victories in college football history and seven months before he turns 90 years old, he is still easy to find on the campus of St. John's University in central Minnesota. During the spring semester, Gagliardi teaches Leadership Lessons With John Gagliardi and holds court in front of dozens of students. I took the class myself, back when it was named Theory of Coaching Football, as a St. John's student in 1997, and I'm sure the curriculum hasn't changed. Students will hear Gagliardi tell tales of great players. They also might watch Gagliardi perform some magical sleight of hand with quarters. He could reprise his role as classroom matchmaker, suggesting that offensive linemen, in particular, make good husbands because of their unselfishness and listening skills.
The musings, jokes, and wisdom come from a man who was born in 1926 to Italian immigrants and became an American original. Gagliardi is "a classic 20th century innovator," says Tom Linnemann, a three-year starter at quarterback who led St. John's to a national runner-up finish in 2000. But Gagliardi's potential influence in the 21st century makes him one of the most intriguing people in football, even 63 years after he first strolled along the St. John's sideline. Gagliardi's unconventional coaching methods—which famously included no tackling in practice—should only grow in popularity as football confronts the dangers players face. They already are.
Earlier this year, Ivy League coaches voted to eliminate full-contact hitting in regular season practices, a move the New York Times's Ken Belson called "the most aggressive measure yet to combat growing concerns about brain trauma and other injuries in the sport." Dr. Robert Cantu of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at the Boston University School of Medicine, told Belson restrictions on contact limit "subconcussive hits, but also concussions. It's not rocket science."
And yet somehow, for many years, only one coach realized that, or cared about it. "A lot of the things we did, I thought they were just common sense," Gagliardi says. "I was just trying to survive. I wasn't looking to make any converts."
The "converts" bit is a common Gagliardi quote. He insists he didn't care if others agreed with his tactics, but in retrospect it's puzzling that no coaches followed suit, if not out of any deeper concern than keeping their own players healthy. "The most logical explanation is he was terrified of having players get hurt," Linnemann says of Gagliardi's no-tackling edict. "And having to face their parents, and then having to face teams on Saturdays without his best players."
Or, to use another famous Gagliardi line, most teams protect their quarterbacks in practice, but "other players have mothers, too." Looking back on his 64 years as a college head coach, Gagliardi says, "When I think about all the injuries I saved, I feel very good about that. I always felt bad about the high price players have to pay to play the game."
If player safety doesn't convince coaches to use Gagliardi's methods, perhaps the bottom line will. One reason Gagliardi might not have been eager to court converts? He knew others, among them rivals, would realize that his ideas helped his team win. And they won a lot—Gagliardi finished with a record of 489-138-11 and four national championships. The no-tackling rule was just one part of his system, a philosophy eventually called "Winning With No's."
Those other ideas are why no one will ever risk going Full Gagliardi. Take the Ivy League. Dartmouth shared the 2015 title, five years after coach Buddy Teevens eliminated season-long full-contact practices. But as the Times noted, even the Big Green "hit pads and tackling dummies, including a specially designed 'mobile virtual player' that moves across the field the way a player would." Those things weren't found at St. John's. "Winning With No's" included no tackling dummies, apparatus or, we can presume, robots. ("You don't see blocking sleds or tires on the field during a game," Gagliardi explains.) Other tenets? No whistles. Players called him John, not coach. The team treated calisthenics as a joke. No practices lasted longer than 90 minutes, and there were no wind sprints or laps. Not exactly Nick Saban stuff.
In the future many coaches might adapt Gagliardi's no-tackling beliefs. Improbable as it seems, someone could break his record for career victories, too. But there will never be another Gagliardi, if only because the world is now so different from the one in which he started coaching. Gagliardi became a head coach for the first time at age 16, when he took over his Colorado high school team after the regular coach left for World War II. After college, Gagliardi coached four years at Montana's Carroll College and then went to St. John's. He never left.
A head coach from ages 22 to 86, Gagliardi never served as an assistant, and so never followed someone else's orders. Early in Gagliardi's St. John's tenure, an assistant thought the team needed more hitting, but Gagliardi didn't listen to him, either. Numerous statistics show how the St. John's defense excelled even while ignoring tackling in practice, but perhaps this one's best: Between 1995 and 2015, Mount Union, the 12-time Division III national champion, was held to 10 or fewer points in just three games. Two of those came against the Johnnies. Gagliardi makes constructing a dominant defense sound much easier than it is. "The problem on defense is, if you can't get near the ball carrier—if you get blocked or fooled or lined up in the wrong spot—how are you going to make the tackle?" he says. "So we were concentrating on defeating the blocking scheme."
Defensive players quickly adjusted. Ryan Weinandt, an undersized All-American as a 240-pound defensive lineman for the 2003 national champs, says practice "was still very high-speed, high-tempo. You had to get to where you needed to be and get there fast. Then you just stop at the last part."
Weinandt says players appreciated knowing they would never get beat up in practice. "Coaches broke it down very, very simply. They'd say, 'The offensive lineman is only going to do four or five things. ... Here's how you defeat each of those.'" It sounds elementary, especially coming from Gagliardi—in 2003 he told ESPN.com's Jim Caple, "The military has been plucking kids off farms for years and teaching them to drive tanks and fly planes, so teaching them to play football shouldn't be that hard"—but if it was easy Gagliardi wouldn't have been a lonely voice in the Minnesota woods.
Offensively, St. John's ran play after play in practice, creating teams that marched up and down the field for one decade after another. Even without tackling, Linnemann believes, "You had to do more to separate yourself. ... You had to do it in other ways—be quicker, take better angles, make better reads. It's the groundwork for playing smarter."
Gagliardi focused on the small things, but in the bigger picture, aside from his unorthodox techniques, the trust he displayed in players became his most revolutionary tactic. For example, Gagliardi's quarterbacks called their own plays. "Total control over the offense? As a college player?" Linnemann says. "Like John Freaking Elway? For a competitor that's the best recruiting tool in the world... John coached for so many years and had seen every situation that I would face on the field countless times, but he believed that my lens between the hashes was the right one to choose the plays." A coach who relinquishes a measure of control displays more confidence than one who lords over every aspect and every decision. "If somebody trusts you," Linnemann says, "you want to show that you deserved it. And if you don't trust players, if you treat them like children, what's their incentive? If your expectations are high, people try to meet them. Minimal expectations, people try to meet those. And John had really high expectations."
As Gagliardi says, he didn't have goals, just expectations. And what does he expect Ivy League coaches to learn from their modified experiment with Gagliardi-ball? "They'll find out, just like we did, it actually makes everything better." Before heading off to the first session of his 2016 Leadership class, Gagliardi said he'd talk about the Ivy change with his students. Football is a game with deeply ingrained—if not deeply understood—habits, and fantastically change-averse on the whole. But there are plenty of lessons for the future of football in the 89-year-old Gagliardi's past. It would be nice to think that the game is ready to listen.