Roy Exum: The Coach Who Said ‘No’

Monday, October 15, 2018 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

I couldn’t tell you the first time I met John Gagliardi … 30 years ago? 40? … and I never saw him nearly enough. He was a Division III football coach at some monastery of a place in Minnesota and that’s a long way from the Southeastern Conference. Our orbits rarely overlapped but somewhere down the line we were at the same table for dinner. Once that happened, it seemed like the legendary coach at St. John’s and I had been friends forever and couldn’t wait to share stories with each other.

John Gagliardi died at age 92 on Sunday a week ago. But his spirit will live forever, as evidenced on Saturday when St. John played St. Thomas in a storied rivalry. Almost 17,000 were on hand for the Tommies-Johnnies game (the town’s population is 3,300) and Tom Linneman, a former Johnnies quarterback, told a reporter. “John had the ability to connect with so many people to make them feel like they were the guy, they were his favorite player.

“So today, you look around and you see hundreds of guys who were John’s favorite player, and they feel that way. To come out here for Tommie-Johnnie, the biggest game of the year, it’s really special.”

How special? This weekend St. Johns fell behind early before quarterback Jackson Erdmann and wide receiver Will Gillach teamed up to lead the greatest game the Johnnies maybe ever played. Both players set single-game school records as they were unstoppable. Erdmann’s 470 passing yards and Gillach’s 256 receiving yards were both the most ever in a game by a Johnnie.

It’s true … Gagliardi could make you feel like you were the most wonderful person ever. He had a special aura that made us instant friends. We would bump into each other at Hall of Fame banquets or NCAA seminars and he was the biggest character you ever saw. He was also the winningest college football coach in the history of the game.

He looked like a pudgy version of Woody Hayes but he was the most innovative genius you ever met. He actually coached with the word “no” as his bedrock.

There was no tackling at practice, no blocking sleds, no whistles, works like ‘hit’ and ‘kill’ were forbidden. No one ever called John “coach,” only “John.” No calisthenics, and, hey, drink as much water as you want. He never required a player to lift weights. He refused to ever cut a player – more often than not he had almost 150 guys suited up for games and no practice ever lasted over 90 minutes.

In short, he did everything wrong in college football manifesto and ended up with more wins that any soul who ever walked a sideline.

Every autumn John would take his freshmen to the middle of the field and hold up a dime in a futile attempt to block the sun. “This dime is a football … and that sun is your life. Never confuse what is most important.”

Some still think Bear Bryant won more games than any other coach – 323 wins, 89 losses – but Eddie Robinson, the great wizard at Grambling, had 408 wins, 165 losses. When the sex scandal buckled Penn State to its knees, 111 of Joe Paterno’s wins were vacated but several years ago calmer heads rightfully restored them, returning Paterno to the most, 409 wins, 136 losses. Florida State’s Bobby Bowden had 377 wins, 129 losses.

And then there is John Gagliardi. In 60 seasons coaching the Saint John's Johnnies, Gagliardi won a school and conference record 27 Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) titles and four national championships: in 1963 (at the Camellia Bowl), 1965, 1976, and 2003. His record at Saint John's was 465-132-10, bringing his career college football mark to 489-138-11.

St. John’s is located in Collegeville, Minn., right in the middle of the state, and it is run by the huge Saint John's Abbey, a Benedictine monastery. It is considered one of the best liberal arts colleges in the country and today a crowd bigger than Saturday’s standing-room-only will gather to put down the winningest college football coach in the history of the game.

The fact he wouldn’t let his players tackle in practice kept injuries at a minimum and made playing for the Johnnies more fun than any college teenager could imagine.

Tom Linnemann, who started at quarterback for St. Johns 1996-2000, wrote a dazzling tribute to Gagliardi on The Athletic website last week and remembered what it was like when his coach told him he would start his first game.

* * *

“Ten quarterbacks played that day for the Johnnies, a day that shaped my life unlike any other because John gave me (the first) a shot.

“John — and it’s just “John,” not Coach Gagliardi, not Coach — taught me a lesson that day. Work hard, relentlessly prepare and put yourself in the position to get a chance — and when you get that chance — deliver. Cowboy. Don’t punt. There is no redo. You get one shot.

“What direction would my life have taken had I gone three-and-out? Where would I be now if I hadn’t had the opportunity to start 30 games, play in a national championship game, form lifelong bonds with my teammates? Would I have learned the lessons from John that I use on a daily basis? Would I be in the position in my career without the relationship that comes with being his quarterback? No chance. I don’t even want to know. I don’t want to imagine what is behind door No. 2.

“Ultimately, he offered trust and autonomy in exchange for accountability and wins. That’s the lesson,” the stellar quarterback remembered.

“It’s a deal you can’t imagine any coach in any era of the game would offer, but that’s exactly what John did. You score touchdowns, you get the ball and the fringe benefit of play-calling, something you’d imagine only guys like Elway and Montana would get. It directly correlates to the rest of your life.

“You nail an interview, you get the job. You have a presentation in front of clients and you close the deal, you get promoted to VP. When you become a valued expert in the political sphere, like former Johnnie football player Denis McDonough, you get a chance to be President Obama’s Chief of Staff.

“And when your moment comes, you say, ‘Let’s roll’ and become an American hero saving lives like Tom Burnett, a former quarterback for John, did on United Airlines Flight 93 on 9/11.”

* * *

The impact John Gagliardi had on thousands is absolutely incredible. I was among the lucky. God speed, my friend.

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