John Gagliardi was a man of few hobbies. He would get through a football season, continue to agonize over any losses that may have occurred for his St. John’s team, and then start contemplating strategic changes that were possible for the next season.
“There was always a lot going on in that football mind of his,’’ said Tom Linnemann, a former Johnnies quarterback. “Any game he watched, he studied. One reason for John’s success that gets overlooked is he was an innovator.’’
For instance: The triple option had been around a decade in the mid-1970s. Gagliardi was blessed with a very mobile quarterback in Jeff Norman.
“Why not give Norman a fourth option?’’ Gagliardi asked himself, and then he set about trying to find one to coordinate into the offense.
And this was his research and development:
John rounded up the four kids — boys Johnny and Jim, girls Gina and Nancy — in the yard of their home on the St. John’s campus, put them in an alignment and watched them run an option play.
“Jimmy was just a little kid,’’ said Peg Gagliardi, John’s wife. “John would watch them try this play a few times and say, ‘All right, go back to what you were doing,’ and then come in the house and work on it for a while.
“This went on for weeks. Good thing we had four kids or he would have tried to get me out there.’’
The result of this was the quadruple option that St. John’s ran for several years. Norman, running back Tim Schmitz and other standouts led the Johnnies to the 1976 Division III national championship, with a 31-28 victory over Towson [Md.] State.
Recently, Linnemann and I were in the living room of the Gagliardi home on a lake near Cold Spring. Gina and Jim were also there with their parents, and there were a lot of laughs as Peg and the two kids talked about the early summer spent developing the quadruple option.
The St. John’s season that starts next Saturday vs. St. Scholastica will be only the fifth since Gagliardi stopped coaching the Johnnies. That’s remarkable when you consider John will turn 91 on Nov. 1.
John has had some health scares over the past couple of years, but he was doing well (as was Peg) on this summer visit. He even grabbed the pen and paper I was using and started diagraming the elements of the quadruple option.
The secret was the player in the slot opposite of where the play usually would run. There was the fullback dive, the running back off tackle, Norman around end, or the pitch to the slot man as he sped trailing the play.
Of course, Norman could duck in where he liked, and there were other variations, but the fourth option from the slot was what confused defenses.
“I remember Jim Christopherson, a great coach at Concordia, telling me, ‘We had the quarterback covered, we had the fullback covered, we had the running back covered, but that fourth guy, he killed us,’ ‘’ Gagliardi said.
John was a 16-year-old senior at St. Mary’s High School in Trinidad, Colo., when the football coach left for the service in 1943. In order to keep football going, John became the coach, as well as the tailback.
“We used to run a mile a couple of times a week and not drink water,’’ Gagliardi said. “Meanwhile, I was getting killed in games because we weren’t blocking anyone. So, we drank water in practice, forgot the mile run and worked with the linemen on, ‘Who do you block?’ ‘’
This was early logic that served John well, through three more years as the St. Mary’s coach while also attending college, four years (starting at age 22) at Carroll College in Montana, and then 60 seasons at St. John’s.
He arrived in Collegeville for the 1953 season. “We had a coach helping me who loved the ‘Bull in the Ring’ drill; a player standing in the middle and other guys coming at him from all angles,’’ Gagliardi said. “One of our best players got hit in the back and we had to carry him off the field.
“I said, ‘When do you do this in football?’ That was the end of Bull in the Ring at St. John’s.’’
Football logic = 489 college victories (No. 1 all-time), four national titles (two NAIA, two NCAA Division III) and thousands of Johnnies that smile, shake hands and salute him as “John.’’
“We don’t call him ‘Coach,’ ‘’ Linnemann said. “That was one of his rules. No ‘Coach.’ He’s ‘John,’ and we love him.
“And Peg, too.’’