JOHN GAGLIARDI may be the only football coach in America who comes with Ralph Nader's endorsement, which doesn't mean Gagliardi's team is equipped with air bags. It's simply that Mr. Nader, who has visited the Saint John's University campus in Collegeville, Minn., admires what he calls the ``completely contrarian tutelage'' Gagliardi imparts to his Johnnies, one of the best small-college football teams anywhere.
The team plays in pristine Minnesota, about 70 miles northwest of Minneapolis, but has earned a national reputation for excellence. Saint John's has made it to the semifinals of the National Collegiate Athletic Association's Division III playoffs two of the last three years and was national champion in 1963, '65, and '76. This year's team is 2-0 heading into tomorrow's game against Augsburg College in Minneapolis.
This record, if accomplished using conventional football wisdom, would be one thing, but Gagliardi (guh-LAR-dee) practically throws away the book. In fact, he says Saint John's doesn't have a playbook, only a single page listing assignments.
``The guys learn everything on the field,'' he says in a telephone interview. ``To me, a lot of this [printed] stuff is like giving a kid a description of how to ride a bike. You can write it up, but the kid doesn't understand it. He's just got to get on the bike and try it a lot of times.''
Gagliardi doesn't say ``no'' just to playbooks, but to a whole host of other standard procedures in football. Gagliardi has been following his own coaching instincts since 1943, when he became senior captain and player-coach at Trinidad Catholic High School in Trinidad, Colo. The school was going to eliminate football after the regular coach was drafted into the military and no replacement could be found. Gagliardi persuaded the administration to let him take the reins.
``I ran things from a player's standpoint, never ever dreaming that all these years later I'd still be coaching,'' he says. The previous coach, a drill-sergeant type, drove his players into the ground.
``We threw out a lot of things,'' Gagliardi says, including the previous coach's virtual ban on water breaks. Most calisthenics were dropped, thirsty players were allowed drinks, and tackling was limited during practice. ``After all, I was a ball carrier,'' he explains.
A laid-back success
Trinidad lost more than it won under Gagliardi's strict predecessor, but enjoyed a turnaround under its new laid-back mentor, winning a conference title his first season at the helm. Three more championships followed in the next five years as Gagliardi coached Trinidad, then St. Mary's High in Colorado Springs, while he attended Colorado College. After graduating, he faced a tough decision: Join the family auto-body-shop business or pursue a coaching career.
His heart and aptitude lay with the latter. He got his first college coaching position at Carroll College in Helena, Mont. There, too, he transformed the program before moving on to Saint John's, where in 1953 he took over from pro-football Hall of Fame running back John Blood, who claimed ``nobody could ever win at Saint John's.''
That forecast looks comical in retrospect. Last year, Gagliardi became only the fifth coach in college football history to win 300 games, joining Pop Warner, Bear Bryant, Amos Alonzo Stagg, and Eddie Robinson in this exclusive fraternity.
Mike Grant is a high school coach in Eden Prairie, Minn. His father, Bud, coached the Minnesota Vikings to four Super Bowls. Mike played under Gagliardi in the late 1970s and calls him ``a brilliant football mind. Because of his unique style, I don't think people give him enough credit for knowing the game. He's probably the smartest coach I've ever been around.''
Gagliardi is a great believer in repetition and Spartan practices, with no blocking sleds or dummies. ``We're trying to create situations that happen in the game,'' he explains, ``and you don't see blocking sleds on the field on game day.''
Defensively, the team devotes a lot of attention to ``the things that precede the opportunity to make a tackle - lining up in the right position, recognizing what the offense is trying to do, defeating the blocking scheme, and pursuing the play properly.''
Despite a no-tackling rule, practices are hardly tame. Gagliardi broke his leg in practice several weeks ago when a player landed on it. For his own safety, the coach has moved from the sideline to the press box during games.
Jim Lehman, an Alexandria, Minn., insurance agent who played quarterback and halfback at Saint John's in the mid-1950s, calls Gagliardi ``an unbelievable motivator and a tremendous friend with everybody.''
Over the years, Gagliardi says he's received lots of offers from other schools, ``but most of them have been lateral [moves]. If I'd had an offer from Notre Dame I probably would have gone,'' he chuckles.
He was tempted a few years ago to take a job at the University of San Diego. He realized, however, that he was impervious to Minnesota winters, which are a snap now that he's not coaching outdoor hockey anymore.