A League of Fans Special Feature
John Gagliardi is the head football coach at NCAA Division III St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota. He’s the winningest coach in college football history, with a 484-133-11 all-time record, including 30 conference titles and four national championships. He’s the first active head coach to be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
Nevertheless, Gagliardi is known as much for his unconventional coaching methods as he is his remarkable coaching record. He successfully creates an environment that balances high expectations and fun. His only team rule is the Golden Rule.
Gagliardi’s coaching methods have been summarized in a series of “NO’s” that have been titled, “Winning With No.” His “NO’s” include:
- No tackling in practice — players wear shorts or sweats.
- No long practices – an hour and a half or less.
- No compulsory weightlifting program.
- No wind sprints or laps.
- No blocking sleds or dummies.
- No worrying about being different or unique.
- No players cut (each year over 150 players turn out to be part of Gagliardi’s program).
- No special dormitory or training table – team eats with other students.
- No dress code.
- No whistles.
- No yelling or screaming at players.
- No resemblance to a boot camp.
- No surviving without plenty of humor.
Gagliardi’s St. John’s program is the subject of the book, “The Sweet Season,” by Sports Illustrated’s Austin Murphy.
Gagliardi was interviewed by Ken Reed, League of Fans’ Sports Policy Director.
Ken Reed: How did you get into coaching John?
John Gagliardi: It was by accident. I had no intention of becoming a coach. I was playing football at Trinidad Catholic High School in Colorado in 1943. World War II was going on and our coach got drafted and went into the service. Without a coach, the school was going to drop football. All the players wanted to keep playing. I was the captain so we talked the school into letting me be a player-coach. We ended up winning the championship that year.
KR: How did your unconventional coaching methods evolve?
JG: Mostly it’s because of the way I started out with that Trinidad team. During that first season, as a player-coach, I approached coaching from a player’s perspective, kind of as an intramural player might. If we didn’t like something our previous coach did we simply didn’t do it anymore. For example, at that time, coaches didn’t allow you to have water during practices. When I took over, we drank as much water as we wanted. We eliminated most of the calisthenics. We just did what worked for us. When I got my first full-time coaching position at Carroll College (Montana), I looked at the things conventional coaches did and if I thought we didn’t need to do something I got rid of it. I’ve never been an assistant coach. I’ve always just done what I like and it seems to work.
KR: Your teams don’t tackle or do traditional scrimmaging in practices. Does this result in fewer injuries than other teams experience?
JG: We think that’s true. We think we lead the world in fewest injuries. We’ve eliminated all-out tackle in practice. So, we’ve eliminated almost all practice injuries.
First, we eliminated tackling in practice. Then we were the first ones to wear shorts for practice. After awhile of not hitting during practices, we started wondering why we kept wearing full uniforms in practice. Then one day a couple players asked if they could wear shorts for practice. We decided to give it a try and we haven’t looked back.
KR: You’re famous for giving your players a lot of autonomy. For example, you give your quarterbacks the final call on what plays your offense will run. Have you ever wanted to take control and call all the plays like most traditional coaches?
JG: No, not really. The players play the game. We send in some plays but we let the quarterback have the privilege of changing the play if they think they have a better one.
KR: Your teams have short practices (an hour and a half or less). What is your thinking on that?
JG: We only practice what we do in games. We try to eliminate the unnecessary. We think there are a lot of unnecessary drills and things in the typical football practice. If you eliminate those things and focus on what’s important – like running plays correctly — practices can be pretty short.
KR: You’ve coached a long time, do you still enjoy it?
JG: Yes, I do. I’ll probably only coach for one or two more … decades that is! (Laughter). There are a few things I don’t really enjoy. Recruiting bothers me some times. I like meeting young men and their families but in the offseason we end up spending more time with potential recruits than we do with the kids already in our program, the kids already on campus. Some times I envy high school coaches who basically have their rosters handed to them and can focus on coaching. But I still enjoy coaching. My philosophy is to enjoy it while you can. You never know what tomorrow might bring.
KR: What changes have you noticed in the world of football through the years?
JG: Well, for one thing, there are fewer authoritarian coaches around. But I think that’s true of society in general. There are fewer authoritarian bosses and parents than when I grew up. Back then, everyone thought being the drill sergeant coach was the way to go. I never thought it was. I never responded to being hollered at. The players like the way we’ve done it through the years and I think the parents have liked it too.
I think the biggest change in the last 20 years is that everyone seems to be making football a year-round sport. And it’s not just football, it’s all sports. I think a lot of these coaches today have gone berserk. Kids are getting pressured to play just one sport. With club sports and travel teams it’s become an arms race.
The best players we’ve had over the years have all played two or three sports. Today, coaches limit how many sports their players can play. We hope our players play other sports besides football but it’s getting harder and harder to do because the seasons overlap more and more.
KR: What advice do you have for young coaches out there?
JG: I think the key is the Golden Rule. Treat kids the way you’d like to be treated. Coach them how you would like to be coached. We want guys to observe the Golden Rule. That will take care of most everything. That’s our only rule. Find kids that don’t need any other rules besides the Golden Rule. Those who need other rules won’t keep them.
Also, it’s important to focus on today, to focus on the next game. You can’t change anything that happened yesterday. All you can do is prepare the best you can for the next game. That applies to life too.
KR: Did you parent the way you coach?
JG: Yes, definitely. I focused on the Golden Rule with our four kids. I never laid a hand on them. I never really told them what time they needed to be home. I basically trusted our kids to do the right thing. It seems to have worked out. Our four children have all turned out great.
KR: You’ll have to do a book on parenting next.
JG: (Laughter) I don’t think so …
KR: Thanks for your time John.
Q’s & A’s with Leading Sports Reformers: Joseph Siprut
11 Apr 2013
Q’s & A’s with Leading Sports Reformers: Fred Bowen
20 Feb 2013
Q & A with Legendary Sportswriter Frank Deford
27 Jan 2013
Q’s & A’s with Leading Sports Reformers: Brenda VanLengen
28 Dec 2012
Q’s & A’s with Leading Sports Reformers: Diana Cutaia
1 Nov 2012
Q’s & A’s with Leading Sports Reformers: Patrick Hruby
28 Sep 2012
Q’s & A’s with Leading Sports Reformers: Allen Sack
8 Aug 2012
Q’s & A’s with Leading Sports Reformers: Donna Lopiano
5 Jun 2012
Q’s & A’s with Jim Thompson
14 May 2012
Q’s & A’s with Leading Sports Activists: Dave Zirin
18 Apr 2012
Q’s & A’s with Leading Sports Activists: William Dowling
27 Mar 2012
Q’s & A’s with Notable Sports Figures: Taylor Branch
9 Mar 2012
Q’s & A’s with Notable Sports Figures – Joe Nocera
27 Feb 2012
Q’s & A’s with Notable Sports Figures – Chris Nowinski
13 Feb 2012
Q’s & A’s with Notable Sports Figures: Joe Ehrmann
3 Feb 2012
Q & A With John Gagliardi
24 Jan 2012
Q & A With Robert Lipsyte
10 Jan 2012
Q & A With Jay Coakley
27 Dec 2011
Q & A With John Gerdy
9 Dec 2011
- Q’s & A’s with Leading Sports Reformers: Joseph Siprut
Special FeaturesFrom League of Fans
League of Fans is a sports reform project founded by Ralph Nader to encourage social & civic responsibility in sports industry & culture. See League of Fans Core Principles
April 6, 2013League of Fans Calls for More Humanistic Coaching Programs. Click here to see the release.
League of Fans Announces 2012 “Sport At Its Best” Awards
December 20, 2011 Click here to read the news release and report on Ralph Nader's Call for Budding Sports Reformers
December 7, 2011 Click here to read the news release and report on Ralph Nader's Claim that Sports Media Are Dropping the Ball on Social, Cultural, and Economic Issues in Sports
November 22, 2011 Click here to read the news release and report on the campaign to Make the NCAA Live Up to Its Stated Purpose
October 26, 2011 Click here to read the news release and report on the campaign to create a National Sports Commission
October 11, 2011 Click here to read the news release and report on the campaign to Ensure Equal Opportunity in Sports for all Americans
September 21, 2011 Click here to read the news release and report on putting the "Youth" back into "Youth Sports"
September 8, 2011 Click here to read the news release and report on the campaign to abolish the BCS and Establish a College Football Playoff
August 25, 2011
Read the news release and report on Mandatory Implementation of King-Devick Concussion Test in High School and Youth Sports
August 11, 2011
Click here to read the report and news release and about the campaign to promote sports and physical education for all students
Read the news release and report on Campaign to Promote Humanistic Coaching Education Programs
July 13, 2011
Read the news release and report on the Push For Community Ownership in Professional Sports
June 24, 2011
Read the news release and report and Sports Manifesto on Re-Launch of League of Fans
March 24, 2011
NCAA's Reaction to League of Fans' Proposal
March 29, 2011
League of Fans' Response to NCAA
March 25, 2011
League of Fans Proposes Eliminating Athletic Scholarships to Help Restore Integrity on College Campuses
League of Fans is a project of the Center for Study of Responsive Law.