By Conrad Wilson
John Gagliardi has coached football at St. John’s University in Minnesota for 64 seasons. And for almost as many, he’s been ahead of his time.
Decades ago he began incorporating a different approach to practice: limited contact. It’s a method that flies in the face of conventional football culture. But, as concerns about injuries and concussions in contact sports grow, Gagliardi’s approach is getting some attention. After all, he’s the most winning coach in all of college football.
It’s a sunny August morning and practice is underway in Collegeville, Minn., as nearly 200 players outfitted in red and white jerseys run plays.
St. John’s running back Stephen Johnson turns and catches a short pass and turns to run the ball up field, but a linebacker is right there for what looks to be a punishing tackle.
The defender wraps his arms around Johnson, but the tackle never comes. No hit. No pop. No one thrown to the ground. The play just slows to a walk and ends.
Gagliardi watches as this scene plays out again and again. For the most part the 85 year old approves.
“I don’t like to see all those guys on the sidelines that are banged up a little bit. That’s the only down thing.”
That attitude has been a cornerstone of Gagliardi’s coaching philosophy for decades.
“We make contact, but it’s almost like touch football.”
It’s a different approach, but it works. With 30 conference championships, four national titles and a record 485 wins. Gagliardi came to Division III St. John’s in 1953 from Carroll College in Helena, Montana. At 26 years old, he already had several conference titles and a decade of coaching experience under his belt.“When I first got here we had a guy, an assistant coach who thought we should, as he call it, ‘hit more.’ And in spring football we’d try it, And it seemed like every time we did somebody would get hurt more than we’d like.”
Gagliardi agonized during games in which key injured players could’ve made the difference. He says by the late 1950s, the team had moved completely away from tackles and full contact practices — a far cry from hard hitting drills still common elsewhere today.
“Now you gotta understand, I’m going against all the philosophy of that time [in] football. They thought I was nuts! The only thing that saved me is that we we’re winning,” Gagliardi said. “Otherwise, you’re so different than anybody that you couldn’t explain it unless you won.”
Decades later, Gagliardi’s approach has influenced some of Minnesota’s football greats.
Mike Grant is head football coach in Eden Prairie, a suburb of Minneapolis. He’s also the son of Hall of Fame Vikings head coach, Bud Grant. With a coaching philosophy similar to Gagliardi, Grant has won seven high school state football championships since he took over in 1992.
Grant says the contact-driven practices that typically come with the old-school, military coaching style are inefficient.
“You aren’t a better team because of it. You get people hurt in it so that your best players aren’t playing in the game, which is kind of a fundamental thing. You want your best players to play, but not all coaches think that,” Grant said. “There’s a lot of coaches philosophy that on Friday or Saturday, the survivors play in the game. John and I think our best players gotta play because you win with the best players.”
Grant was a St. John’s tight end and kicker in the 1970s. He came back as a member of the coaching staff in the late ’80s.
He says part of the high school game is learning, so his coaching staff teaches tackling. But they use foam pads and don’t run full hitting drills.“I’m not sure that hitting teaches it better because when you’re hitting, kids aren’t necessarily focusing and doing things the right way,” Grant said. “We also are really concerned to not have kids have long-lasting physical problems.”
Chief among those concerns are head injuries.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over the last decade, sports related concussions and traumatic brain injuries among adolescents increased 60 percent.
Kevin Guskiewicz studies sport-related brain injuries at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.
He says it’s critical for athletes to think about life after sports, and about avoiding CTE, a disease that causes depression and symptoms similar to early-onset Alzheimer’s. According Guskiewicz, Gagliardi’s approach to limiting contact during practice is “genius.”
“The argument is that if you’re not working on these techniques and skills in practice, but asking the athlete to do it on Saturday in a game, then they are potentially predisposed to injury. And I think he’s sort of shot that theory down.”
Football players new to Gagliardi’s team say practices are different than what they’ve been used to.
“Different from high school if that’s what you mean. It’s a lot shorter. No contact. It’s a lot safer. There’s not as many trauma injuries during practice,” said Erik Roti, a freshman at St. John’s. Roti was recruited to play running back. He’s sitting out practice because an old stress fracture started acting up.
Roti says he hit during high school practices, but at St. John’s hits and tackles are a rare sight.
“I remember one day a couple of guys got tackled cause [they were] getting a little frustrated, so they started hitting a little harder,” Roti said. ”John kind of looked at us like, ‘I don’t know why you guys feel the need to tackle each other. You’re all on the same team. You’re running plays how you’re supposed to. Let up. You can still practice well and let up when you’re about to hit.’”
Back in his office, Gagliardi says there will always be skeptics, those who say the survivors are the ones who get to play on game day, but he brushes them aside.
“We can’t worry about them.”
It’s impossible to know how many injuries Gagliardi’s approach has prevented, but it’s easy to notice his team’s titles, and his status as college football’s all-time winningest coach.